DANVILLE — Bob Lehman isn’t afraid to take on a challenge.
He is a retired lieutenant colonel in the United States Army whose 28 years of service included a two-year deployment to Kuwait.
However, there is a unique component to Lehmann’s latest work. One who can intimidate others in his place.
“It will be interesting to see how well the principles and philosophies that I have adopted … can translate to the 8-man game,” Lehmann said.
Lehmann is Schlarman’s newest football coach, returning the Hilltoppers back to the ranks of the Illinois 8 Players Association after sitting out the 2021 fall campaign. The program is scheduled to begin 2022 on Aug. 26 with a game against Blue Ridge in Farmer City.
“It was great. The support from the administration has been fantastic,” Lehmann said. “The attitude of the boys throughout summer training was outstanding. Through all the heat and everything over the last few weeks, attendance has been pretty steady.”
Lehmann is a football head coach for the first time since the mid-1990s.
The 64-year-old social studies teacher at Westville High preceded Guy Goodlove as the Tigers’ football coach, leading their 1993 and 1994 campaigns. Lehmann then served as an assistant coach under Goodlove between 1996 and 1999, and Lehmann also coached of wrestling at Westville and coached girls’ track and field at one time or another.
Most recently, Lehmann spent the past four school years as Schlarman’s assistant junior varsity boys basketball coach. His son, Mark, played for the 2021-22 Hilltoppers team that won the IESA Class 1A eighth grade state championship.
“The opportunity (to coach high school football) came up and I discussed it with my family,” Bob Lehman said. “It was something that came at the right time and we decided to pursue it.”
Schlarman officials announced in 2019 that the school was leaving its 11-man football co-op with Hoopeston Area and Armstrong-Potomac after six seasons to pursue its own 8-man group.
The 2019 Hilltoppers quickly impressed under then-coach Matt Blurton, finishing with a 7-4 record. But the team struggled under then-coach Spencer Tolson during the shortened spring 2021 season and went 0-5. Low athlete turnout for the 2021 fall campaign prompted Schlarman officials to cancel the Hilltoppers’ entire game schedule.
Tolson actually remains on Lehmann’s staff as an assistant.
“We’re looking at it as, I don’t want to say a rebuild, but just taking the program to a different level,” Lehman said. “(Tolson is) active on the staff. He couldn’t have been more supportive and helpful in trying to get me used to the 8-man game and working with the kids in the weight room.”
Lehman said summer practices average attendance for athletes in the mid-teens. It’s less of an issue in the 8-man game than the 11-man game, and Lehmann said he and his team are “encouraged by what we’re seeing” regardless.
Among the players Lehmann highlighted in Schlarman’s run-up to August were senior Chris Brown, junior Owen Jones, Dylan Hemker and Damien Linares, sophomore Jerry Reed and freshmen Lincoln Cravens, Jerrius Atkinson and Liam Billings.
Brown, Jones, Hemker and Linares were on the Hilltoppers’ spring 2021 soccer roster, and Brown also played as a freshman in 2019. Reid was a key contributor to Schlarman’s boys basketball as a freshman last school year.
Cravens, Atkinson and Billings were part of the aforementioned eighth grade boys basketball team. Atkinson followed that basketball season by winning the IESA Class 1A boys state track and field championships in the 110-meter hurdles, 100-meter dash and 400-meter dash earlier this year.
“We have a lot of speed and we’re trying to find ways we can maximize that aspect of the players,” Lehmann said. “For now, we just want to aim to be competitive and that’s where the wins and losses will come from.”
Lehmann, a Western Illinois graduate who went on to teach at Westville High for 30 years, said “good things happen for the right reason when you’re in the right place at the right time.”
He mentioned becoming Schlarman’s football coach when he made that statement. But maybe that can also apply to the Hilltoppers’ on-field product this fall.
“We emphasize the discipline of showing up every day and coming to work and being prepared,” Lehman said. “Gelling and coming together as a team and depending on your teammates to do their job and them depending on you to do yours. We want to be fundamentally healthy. We want to be aggressive in our game in all three phases of the game.
“If we get these things right and prepare the players then hopefully positive results will come.”