Ada High football standout Walt LaBove is excited about continuing his career on the turf of East Central University’s Norris Field, where he’s spent his varsity playing days as a Cougar.

ECU head football coach Al Johnson is equally enthusiastic about having LaBove as a Tiger for the next four years.

LaBove was one of three local players to ink with East Central Wednesday on National Signing Day. The other two are Allen High School brothers Trapper Simpson and Hunter Simpson.

“East Central gave me a really good opportunity — an opportunity to play running back and linebacker, something that I’m really interested in,” LaBove said about his decision to sign with ECU.

LaBove told The Ada News he enjoyed the recruiting process with the East Central.

“It was great. All the coaching staff was really cool and comforting. It will be nice to be home,” LaBove said.

The Ada senior said he also considered Southern Nazarene and Northwestern before officially becoming a Tiger.

Ada head coach Chris Berus said he was also glad to see one of his prize players sticking around town.

“It’s very exciting. I think Walt has a chance to become a really, really good player for those guys,” Berus said. “I really like what coach Johnson and his staff are doing there at East Central. I really believe in how they’re trying to build their program, and I’m excited they feel that Walt can add to the value of what’s going on there. I’m looking forward to seeing him go compete.”

LaBove led Ada’s running back corps with 404 yards and two touchdowns during his senior year, but he has always been one of Ada’s top stars on the defensive side of the ball. During his solid career, he finished with 167 tackles, four sacks and 12 tackles for loss. He also had three fumble recoveries and two interceptions.

“He was part of that turnaround we had his junior season (he helped Ada make a run to the Class 4A state championship game) and rolling into his senior season, we put a bigger load on his shoulders. He’s a fighter who’s blessed with some really good ability. I think the sky’s the limit for this young man,” Berus said.

Johnson, who on many occasions got to see  what LaBove could do on the field firsthand on Friday nights inside Koi Ishto Stadium, was excited when he committed to East Central.

“I’m very excited to get Walt and bring him into our family at East Central, and I’m very happy he chose to stay home and become a Tiger. We’re excited to have his talents and the person Walt is on our roster,” Johnson said.

Johnson, who will begin his second year as the Tigers’ head coach this fall, said LaBove is the prototypical type of player he and his coaching staff looked for during the long recruiting trail that resulted in over 70 players signing on the dotted line with ECU.

“Anybody that knows coach Berus knows that he runs a tight ship and makes sure they work hard and have good character. All the things that we’re trying to build here at East Central are no different than what he’s coming from. It’s just one mile down the road,” he said.

Johnson said he not only got to see LaBove and his Cougar teammates on game days but also had the opportunity to catch some spring and fall AHS practice sessions at Norris Field. However, it wasn’t just to recruit. He’s a big fan of Berus and the Cougar football camp.

“You really get a good sense of who they are,” Johnson said. “I was lucky enough to be here and watch Ada play numerous times last season. I went to a lot of Ada games to support Ada.”

Johnson said another big reason he pursued LaBove was his competitiveness.

“When you watch Walt play, you can tell that he loves football. You can tell that he is committed to being his best,” he said. “And he’s tough. You cannot have enough toughness on your team.”

 Simpson brothers headed to ECU from Allen

Johnson feels like he got a great package deal from Allen High School when brothers Hunter Simpson and Trapper Simpson decided to join his ECU family.

“I’m sure excited to sign both of those guys and keep them close to home. We’ll get the chance to see overall what they can grow into at the college level here at East Central,” he said.

Johnson said he enjoyed getting to know Allen head coach Stephen Caldwell last season and watching from afar the Mustangs’ transition from 8-man to 11-man football.

“I’ve been lucky enough to get to know coach Caldwell down at Allen and the program that he’s running. I appreciate coach Berus and coach Caldwell for the programs they run and their friendship,” Johnson said. “We want to help them in any way possible, and they help us in our program. They bring our communities together and make it feel like home.”

Caldwell said he’s looking forward to seeing his two Mustang players in Tiger uniforms.

“Hunter and Trapper are great kids, and we are very proud of them. We look forward to watching them grow as players as well as young men for the next four years,” Caldwell said. “We appreciate coach Johnson for opening his doors to our program and giving our kids a chance to continue their education and playing careers in our own backyard.”

Johnson said Hunter Simpson will likely start out playing tight end for the Tigers.

“Hunter is a little bit longer, taller and more of a tight end type. He’s a heckuva basketball player and just an overall great athlete,” he said. “We see him in a tight end role ... and it’s a role we need and we use quite often.”

“Trapper is a shorter, squattier guy that is also very athletic and is strong and tough as nails,” Johnson said. “We’ll see him as maybe a fullback ... an adjuster-type guy.”

 Yes, ECU really is bringing in 70-plus new players

Johnson and his assistant may have set a record as far as the largest group of signees in school history.

To say the least, it’s been a whirlwind that started a year ago.

“This class is extremely large, and with that comes an extremely large amount of work. Our coaches have done an incredible job,” he said. “364 days ago, we sat in our staff room and talked about how important this class would be to the future of our program. Every day they’ve worked tirelessly, and I want to thank them for that hard work.”

Jeff Cali has been covering sports in the Ada area since the mid-90s. He graduated from Byng High School and earned a bachelor’s degree from East Central University.