After five seasons as an assistant coach at Berea Community, Tony Degregorio was named the program’s interim head coach in May.
It was a special moment for a guy who grew up in the football tradition-rich hotbed of southwestern Pennsylvania.
“I was blessed to be in that position,” said Degregorio, who played football at Eastern Kentucky University (1994-1998).
Degregorio’s position changed rather quickly, though.
Earlier this month, the interim tag was removed from his title.
It was an easy decision for everyone involved.
“The school administration saw that I was a good fit and that I was already in the system,” Degregorio said. “The kids were already comfortable with me. So, we moved forward.”
And it’s been an easy transition to a new coaching staff.
The Pirates took historic steps forward the past two seasons under the leadership of Aaron Stepp, who came back to take over the program after 17 years.
Berea snapped a 43-game losing streak and last season posted the program’s first winning record (7-4) since 2012.
The challenge now for Degregorio and the Pirates is to continue to build off that momentum and keep moving forward.
“That (success) is a really good benchmark for this year’s team and the goal they have is to equal or better it,” Degregorio said.
That won’t be easy.
The Pirates graduated 12 seniors — about 1/3 of their roster — who made up most of the team’s starting line-up on both sides of the ball.
“They were all major cogs in the machine,” Degregorio said of the seniors.
This year’s team will look much different than a season ago.
The Pirates have only seven seniors on the roster and will look to a group of younger, talented, but unproven players to step into bigger roles.
That transition begins at quarterback.
Jayson Coburn is set to open the season as Berea’s starter under center after the graduation of Jaylen Whittaker. The junior transferred from Madison Southern prior to last season and was able to get some experience last year, including playing in the fourth quarter of a district match-up with Frankfort.
“He understands the game,” Degregorio said of Coburn. “He throws the ball really, really well. He’s more of a pro-style quarterback. He can read a defense.”
Berea also graduated its top four receivers — Timmy Thompson, Jarred Whitaker, Cody Moore and Will Brennan.
Clayton Martinez has stepped up as a leader for a good core of young wideouts.
“He’s put in a lot of work in the offseason,” Degregorio said of the junior.
The coaching staff also expects sophomore Yamil Cruz, freshman Caleb Moore and 6-foot-4 Jaiden Smith to catch passes in the team’s spread offensive attack, along with senior tight end Dillan Chromer.
The Pirates need new leaders at some positions, but also have proven veterans back at some other spots.
Jaiden Cunningham has been playing at the varsity level since 2018. He was Berea’s leading rusher last season and is one of the top running backs at a Class A school in the state.
The 5-foot-10, 230-pound junior can squat 650 pounds and bench press 335 pounds.
“He is one of the hardest working kids I have ever been around,” Degregorio said of Cunningham. “He does not take a day off. He never gives and up and he is always looking to get better.”
The Pirates also have experience back up front.
Seniors Rey Alejandro and Tanner Hayden, along with junior Conner Gilbert return as starters on the offensive line.
They will be joined by senior center Devin Biggs, junior Joe Collins and Corbin Thacker, a junior transfer from Montgomery County.
Alejandro and Biggs are also set to start on the defensive line as well.
Cunningham is an explosive threat on defense also for the Pirates. At defensive line or linebacker, he is force to be dealt with on every play.
“We are very talented at linebacker right now,” Degregorio said. “Jayden Cunningham, if you are not double-teaming him, he will beat you every single time.”
The linebacking core also includes Hayden, Cromer and sophomores Ashton Music and Koty Roberts.
“We can be very versatile,” Degregorio said of the Berea defense.
Martinez (defensive back) and Cruz (safety) will start in the secondary. Moore is also set to jump into the line-up at defensive back, despite being just a freshman.
“He’s been very impressive,” Degregorio said of Moore, who is the brother of Cody Moore.
The turnaround of the Berea football program in the past couple of seasons has certainly been impressive.
There are still goals left, though.
The Pirates started off 6-0 in 2019, before losing four of their past five games.
They went 0-4 in district play and have not won a district game since 2014.
Breaking that streak won’t be easy either.
“We are in a tough district,” Degregorio said. “Two of those teams could be ranked in the Top 10 in Class A. That doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for error.”