Chartiers Valley grad Mitch Zajicek takes to role as coach with Grove City football
As a player, Mitch Zajicek was unable to help the Grove City football team end its agonizing losing streak that stretched over three-plus seasons.
But when the Wolverines finally stopped that skid at 33 with a win over Saint Vincent on Sept. 23, the Chartiers Valley grad had a hand in it - just in a different capacity.
Last season was Zajicek’s first on coach Andrew DiDonato’s staff. He was a member of the strength and conditioning corps and served as running backs coach.
Coaching running backs might seem to be an unusual task for a former offensive lineman, but, DiDonato said, Zajicek was a perfect fit. And the proof was in the results: Then-sophomore tailback Wesley Schools became GCC’s first 1,000-yard rusher in six seasons, and the Wolverines went from 10th in the 11-team Presidents’ Athletic Conference in rushing (97.5 yards per game) in 2016 to fifth (167.6) in ’17.
“He knows what’s happening in front of the running backs,” DiDonato said. “It was the continuity between the running backs and the line, being on the same page about what’s going on up front.”
Zajicek said being in DiDonato’s system in his final year as a player helped him make the transition. He knew the offense, and he knew what the linemen and running backs were supposed to be doing.
He deflected any praise for Schools’ success, however, toward the young running back.
“I really take no credit for it,” he said. “I’m not out there running the ball. He just has a natural ability that you can’t coach. I’m just there to facilitate him.”
As much as Zajicek helped to improve Grove City’s running game, DiDonato said his biggest contribution might have been with the team’s physicality.
Zajicek is a certified strength and conditioning specialist, and he buttressed his training by doing an internship with the football program at the University at Buffalo.
Something Zajicek brought to the table at GCC was position-specific weight programs. Skill players engaged in more workouts that aided their explosiveness, and linemen concentrated on training that improved their strength and leverage.
DiDonato said he could see the physical gap between GCC and some of the PAC’s upper-echelon teams narrow last season.
“We still have some work to do,” Zajicek said, “but the main thing I saw in how physical we were is we just ran the ball better.
“If a team can run the ball, that’s when you can physically impose your will on someone else. Our O-line just took off and started pushing guys around much better.”
Grove City is intent on not being pushed around by its PAC foes anymore. After a 4-6 (4-4) showing in 2017, the Wolverines want to take the next step.
As far as the losing streak, Zajicek said he has turned the page.
“It felt amazing (to break the streak),” he said. “It felt as if the losing streak never happened. As a player, yeah, it stunk. But I got to help the other guys out as a coach and felt even more fulfilled than trying to keep the team together as a player.”