LUCASVILLE — Mason Zaler admitted the past two years —off the football field anyway —were some trying times.
However, he said his official signing on Wednesday has already brought him happiness he has been wanting — and anticipates the next four years continuing to do so.
That’s because Zaler, a standout two-way lineman for the Valley Indians, officially announced his intention to play college football for Fairmont State University —an NCAA Division II program located in Fairmont, W. Va.
Zaler — at his signing ceremony inside the Valley High School gymnasium — was flanked by his parents, Matt and Claudia Zaler; Valley High School head football coach and athletic director Darren Crabtree; several of his Indian teammates; and other family members and friends.
Zaler’s signing was one of four involving Scioto County football players on Wednesday —as part of the annual National Signing Day across the country.
Zaler, recruited to the Falcons as a defensive lineman —mainly at tackle but also an end —spoke candidly of what his signing meant to his well-being.
He has endured the passing of two grandparents in the past two years, and so with the ink drying on his official national Letter-of-Intent —perhaps some shed tears will dry up as well.
“This is one of the best things to ever happen in my life,” said Zaler. “I’ve had a lot of disappointments and loss in the past couple of years. Something like this has almost brought me out of a depression kind-of-thing. I lost my grandfather when I was a sophomore and then I lost my grandmother when I was a junior. It’s really brought a lot more happiness.”
And being happy with his college choice, aside from playing football, that meant choosing an institution where education was of the utmost importance.
The six-foot, six-inch, 255-pounder picked Fairmont State over offers he received from Wittenberg University, Thomas More College and Lake Erie College, because “as a person, at Fairmont State, I feel better.”
“I had to look at this from where if I wasn’t going to go play football, I would have to stay there all four years and get a degree. I felt Fairmont State was the best fit for me. They have a winning program, they have a great coaching staff and great facilities. I feel like I can be the best player I can be there,” said Zaler.
The Falcons are coached by Jason Woodman, a native of Fairmont, who is entering his eighth season in 2020.
The program is a member of the Mountain East Conference, having won multiple conference championships in the past — and coming off a 5-5 season in 2019, but having won its final four games.
“They bring in some of the best players throughout the nation to come play for a Division II school, and they can all play at Division I (Football Bowl Subdivision),” said Zaler.
The MEC consists of primarily schools from West Virginia, although Urbana University is a member — as fellow two-way Scioto County lineman Joe Igaz of Portsmouth West announced on Wednesday his intention to play there (see related story), along with former Sciotoville East standout Grant Gifford.
The Falcons’ five losses were by a combined 33 points, including a 41-34 defeat to Frostburg State in double overtime.
The Falcons surrendered some points on the defensive of the ball, but not yards against the run, according to Zaler.
He said he should fit in well with the Falcons’ four-man front, featuring two ends and two tackles.
Sometimes, he said, they shift to a “50” —or five-man —front.
“They like to get a lot of pressure with the defensive line. They like to play nickel with their linebackers, but bring a lot of pressure,” said Zaler. “And they want to stop the run. They held teams to an average of 77 rushing yards per game last year. They like to stop the run and hit the quarterback.”
Zaler was an offensive tackle on that side, but said he prefers to play defense, as he was selected as an all-Southeast District Division VI first-team lineman his senior season.
He made 60 total tackles, including 26 solo, along with a fumble recovery and three sacks.
“Mason provided a ton of leadership on both sides of the ball this year. He had a tremendous year, and really came on the second half of the season as a defensive lineman. He made a number of big plays for us. It was nice to see him grow from where he was as a freshman to his ability and strength and different things this past year,” said Crabtree. “It gave him the opportunity where he has the ability to go play at the next level.”
Zaler was a four-year player for the Indians, and a two-year starter.
“I just like playing defense better. I always like to hit people and play physical. I just love playing physical” he said.
But being more physical at the collegiate level requires more strength, as Zaler said he plans to put on at least 15 to 20 pounds prior to leaving for Fairmont —and improve his overall upper-body.
Zaler said he and his family have hired a personal trainer, “so we can train all throughout the spring and summer before we go up for team camp”.
“Definitely upper-body strength I need to work on. My bench press isn’t the greatest. Maybe a little bit of foot speed, quickness and agility, stuff like that,” he said. “My goal when I go up there is to be about 270 or 275 (pounds). Put on about 15 or 20 pounds of muscle.”
Crabtree commented on Zaler’s strengths that will aid him in making the jump to the much-faster college game.
“Mason has great lateral movement and reads things very well. He has an aggressive personality where he makes a lot of plays just running to the football. He will have his work cut out for him coming from a small school like Valley to go to a Division II school, but the opportunity presented itself, and he knows what it takes to get himself ready to go at the next level,” said the coach. “I think he will be able to do that.”
Fairmont State is also Crabtree’s alma mater, as he believes Zaler “will represent Valley very well there”.
Zaler discussed the family-like atmosphere the Indian program provided him.
“To play for Coach Crabtree was really special. When my dad was a sophomore in high school, it was Coach Crabtree’s first year. (Valley assistant) Coach (Jason) Fell’s son, Connor, is in my graduating class. We’ve been best friends since first or second grade. All of the assistant coaches just accepted me in and made me the best player I could be,” he said. “It felt like family.”
Zaler said he plans to major in nursing, and —in his opinion — his signing provides some daylight at the end of a personal dark tunnel.
“There have been some tough times recently, but I am really excited about this,” he said.