A quality coaching staff is one of the most overlooked aspects of a winning high school football program. Yet, for as often as they go unnoticed or unappreciated, you’ll never hear a complaint from any of them, for most have had their fair share of recognition on the playing field itself. Among the various aspects of assembling a good staff of coaches is the degree of familiarity each member has with one another. And in the case of Mark Grounds’ Jacksonville staff, there is no lack of connections. So who are these coaches and where do they come from? Let’s find out.
Mark Grounds: The Eureka, Missouri native is entering the 14th year of his stardom as Jacksonville’s head football coach. After four years of football for the Wildcats of Eureka High School, Grounds set off to play defensive line for the Blueboys of Illinois College. From there – having known from a very young age that he wanted to be a coach – Grounds went to Division III North Park University in Chicago, where he worked as a position coach with the defensive line. Before the Fall season of 2001, Grounds was hired as the 20th head football coach in Jacksonville High School history, and he hasn’t looked back since.
Ryan Van Aken: Aside from coaching, Mr. Van Aken also teaches social studies and physical education at JHS. After four years of football at JHS, Van Aken received an offer to play tackle at Western Illinois University in the late 90’s. When several knee injuries sidelined the 6’6 dutchman, he decided to take his talents to Illinois College (this will be a reoccurring theme). Over the past 5 years, Van Aken has been the head offensive line coach for the Crimsons, a department which has produced several Division I and NAIA ballplayers. He still holds the record for the heaviest player in JHS history to score a touchdown.
Tim Thrasher: Coach Thrasher occupies several coaching positions for JHS as one of the school’s track and field coaches, a running back coach, and recently, he oversees the Crimsons’ wrestling team. In the mid-to-late 90’s, Thrasher played football and graduated from Central A&M High School in Moweaque, Illinois. From there, he went on to play at (guess where) Illinois College, where he spent time as Ryan Van Aken’s roommate. The two still share suffocating bursts of laughter brought on by stories from their time at IC.
Brent Heaton: As one of several players who have come back to work under their former high school coach, Brent Heaton spends most of his time with the Crimson wide receivers. First as a Crimson and then as a (yep, you guessed it) Blueboy, Coach “Heater” featured as a quick-footed wideout, and was a freshman on JHS’s first ever playoff team in 1998. Heaton teaches at south Jacksonville.
Rich Sanchez: “Sanch” joined the team in 2012 as the Crimsons’ quarterback coach. During his high school career, Sanchez played quarterback for Lanphier High School in Springfield. From there, Sanchez played a year of football and WIU, followed by two years of baseball at Lincoln Land Community College. He has also worked as an assistant at Pleasant Plains High School for 9 years, and spends his offseasons umpiring high school and youth baseball games.
Seth Hill: Coach Hill works as the offensive coordinator of the JHS freshman and assistant line coach with Coach Van Aken. Hill graduated from JHS in 2005, where he was a lineman on the ’04 semifinal team, and the center of the ’05 Crimsons who upset Metamora in the first round. When it came to college, Hill turned to the dark side, playing four years at Monmouth College, IC’s biggest rival. His coaching style could be characterized as old-school and intense.
Yours Truly (Blake Schnitker): After two and a half years as JHS’s starting quarterback from 2006 to 2008, I went with the unpopular choice of Illinois State University for my college education. Based on the relationships I developed with the staff during my time in high school, I decided to come back as a volunteer coach, helping with the freshman offense and quarterbacks.
Dan Scott: As the tight end and outside linebacker for the semifinal team of 2004, Dan Scott was a key piece on the most successful football team in JHS history. Although he could have gone on to play college-ball, Scott decided to attend Illinois College as a student in the fall of 2005. Knowing his aspirations to coach one day, his former high school coach brought him back to the program as a defensive coach in 2008. Scott now enters his second year as the Crimsons’ D-coordinator, and also teaches at Triopia.
Joe Gaines: Adding to the increasing youth of JHS’s coaching staff is Joe Gaines. Gaines assists Dan Scott on the defensive side of the ball, working primarily with defensive backs. At IC, Gaines played defensive back in football and earned his major in Education. He now holds a position as a teacher in the Math Department at JHS. During the offseasons, Coach Gaines spends time at youth camps and other events organized by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
Jake Mills: Along with his role as my best friend since grade school, Jake Mills has coached Crimson linebackers and freshman defenses since 2011. During his senior year at JHS, Mills was named to the Class 5A All-State team as the Crimsons’ middle linebacker. After high school, Mills spent a year playing football at McKendree University in Lebanon, Illinois, before returning home to play for IC. He now owns and operates West Side Auto-Parts with his cousin Joey and brother Andrew.
Bud Smith: As the oldest member on the staff, Coach Bud brings the old-school tenacity to the Crimsons’ defensive front. In high school, Smith played for Triopia before going onto play at Illinois College, where he also ended up coaching. An ardent fan of history, Smith spent several decades as a social studies teacher at Franklin High School.
Jerry Jasinski: Coach “Jazz” has quite the track record when it comes to football. A native of the Chicagoland area, Jasinski would go on to play for the University of Kansas, where he got the chance to play in the Orange Bowl. As an assistant in the Chicago suburbs, Coach Jasinski was also part of a high school state championship team. He left the high school ranks for the chance to be a coach at Illinois College, where he developed a relationship with Mark Grounds. Jasinski, along with Coach Smith, are the primary defensive line coaches for the Crimsons.
For those counting at home, that’s six current coaches who have come back to build on the program they once played for. With the exception of Coach Hill and myself, all of the current JHS coaches have either played or coached at one time or another for Illinois College. Mark Grounds’ philosophy has always centered around the idea of building strong relationships with his players and coaches, and the formula has resulted in sustained success that carries over several decades.