The Case for Castner as GMC Coach of the Year

Andrew Little | The Chronicle

What qualities embody a great coach?

A great coach gets the best out of their players. A great coach is a motivator. A great coach understands that building a culture is just as important as building a roster. Mason football head coach Brian Castner epitomized that criteria this season. 

No one in southwest Ohio, not just the Greater Miami Conference, maximized his team’s success as much as Castner did. Castner might not be the obvious pick for GMC coach of the year, but he is certainly worthy of the accolade.

The Mason Comet football program has a reputation for putting out good, never great teams. Year in and year out, they are predicted to finish behind the supposed top tier of the GMC. Recently that has consisted of the Colerain Cardinals, Lakota West Firebirds, Princeton Vikings, and Fairfield Indians. 

Colerain has reigned over the GMC for the entire millennium with a 20-consecutive conference championship streak that ended in 2020. That mantle passed to Lakota West, who has won the past three titles. Because of this, few outside the Dwire Field locker room expected Mason to be much more than a middle-of-the-pack team in 2022.

And yet, by the second weekend of November, only four teams (Moeller, Lakota West, Elder, and Mason) were left in the Ohio division one region four bracket. One of these teams should stick out to you, the Comets. Mason is not a team that perennially churns out major division one recruits like many neighboring programs that either are private schools or have open enrollment. In fact, this was the first time in program history that the Comets won multiple playoff games. 

Their season concluded in the regional semi-finals with a 24-16 loss to the Moeller Crusaders, one of the favorites to take home the OHSAA State Championship in a few weeks. I would say that qualifies as a season worth celebrating.

Heading into the year, Castner knew that the Comets had the talent to break barriers. He and his coaching staff placed nearly all of the top athletes on the defensive side of the ball, crafting one of the top statistical defenses in the state of Ohio. It is almost certainly the best unit of Castner’s Mason tenure. He trusted his returning quarterback, Larson Brown, and his experienced coaching staff to execute an offense that would keep the Comets competitive against any opponent.

This strategy proved successful, as Mason had a historic regular season. They finished as GMC runners-up with a record of 8-2 (8-1 in the conference). Their only blemishes were a close 9-7 defeat in week one to Gahanna Lincoln, the best team in Columbus, and a loss to undefeated GMC champion Lakota West. The Comets beat Colerain 32-6, the first win over the Cardinals in school history. 

They capped off their regular season with two in-conference upset wins. First, they knocked off Fairfield 30-7, a week after the Indians narrowly lost to Lakota West in overtime. In week 10, they traveled to Princeton and took down the Vikings, who most would consider a better team on paper, to clinch second place in the GMC. 

This end-of-season surge debunked the argument that the Comets only beat teams with losing records. They cannot control how the rest of the GMC performs. Besides, every other team in the conference faces the same schedule. 

The Comets entered the playoffs as the fifth seed in region four. It is always difficult to beat a team twice in football, and round one presented a rematch with the Cardinals. Mason held them off in a 14-7 win. 

Their next game against the fourth-seeded Springboro Panthers proved to be Castner’s most extraordinary coaching performance of the season. After four consecutive victories, his team had to return to their underdog mentality. 

The Comet defense struggled early, and the Panthers entered halftime with a 12-7 lead. Castner rallied his team in the locker room, and the defense returned an interception for a touchdown on the first play of the second half. Late in the fourth quarter, the Comets trailed 14-26 and had just five minutes to score twice. Both sides of the ball executed to perfection, and Mason pulled off the remarkable comeback for a historic playoff win. Castner’s team never quit on him, no matter the odds.

Coaching is more than just Xs and Os or rousing halftime speeches. The success of the 2022 Mason football team largely rests on the culture Castner carefully cultivated. Many Mason athletic programs have reputations as among the best in the state, including cross country, tennis, golf, swimming, girls’ basketball, and baseball. It is a testament to leadership that the football team at the largest school in the state has embraced an underdog mentality. 

Castner created a team identity, the defense, and built into the confidence of his players all off-season. He preached a team-first mentality and got the players to buy in. Castner is also a massive proponent of success off of the field. His primary focus as head coach is to mold young men of character. He does this through community service and outreach with the team, emphasizing academics, addressing player mental health, and developing mentorship programs with Mason youth teams. 

No coach in the area does more to honor their alumni’s legacy. This year the Comets wore a 1962 emblem on their helmets instead of a traditional logo. That culture, above anything done on the gridiron this year, separated Mason Football Team 61 from any team that came before them.

It is easy to say that the GMC Coach of the Year Award should go to the coach of the best team, as it has every year since 2014. But is that really the standard for the best coaching job? That is not to discredit Tom Bolden, who has had an incredible coaching career at Colerain and Lakota West. However, his teams are projected to be the best based on their talent. There is more to accolades than wins.

Maybe it is easier to give it to the coach of the team that showed the most improvement from the year before. Oak Hills went from winless in 2021 to a 5-6 record and a fifth-place finish in the GMC this season. That is certainly impressive, but the win-loss column is not the only way to measure the team that grew the most or outperformed expectations.

Brian Castner and his players elevated the Mason football program to new heights. They made their deepest playoff run ever. They beat out teams with better athletes. 

Football rewards teams that are greater than just the sum of their parts, and the Mason Comets absolutely fit that description. Much of that success has to be credited to Castner.