‘High football IQ’ Rivera-Ocasio is playing key role for Lowellville | News, Sports, Jobs

‘High football IQ’ Rivera-Ocasio is playing key role for Lowellville | News, Sports, Jobs

Staff file photo / Greg Macafee
Lowellville’s Santino Rivera-Ocasio looks for room to run against Western Reserve during the regular season. The Rockets face Danville in the regional semifinals on Friday.

LOWELLVILLE — The Lowellville football program has had great offenses in recent seasons, but 2023 has been a new breed.

Since their Sept. 15 loss to MVAC rival Western Reserve, the Rockets have outscored opponents 236-69. They were able to avenge that loss in the second round of the Division VII, Region 25 bracket with a 32-7 win on the road against the Blue Devils. As they look on to the regional semifinal matchup with (12-0) Danville they will turn to their electrifying running back Santino Rivera-Ocasio.

The senior finished the second round win with 252 rushing yards and four touchdowns. After a disappointing second round exit in 2022 at the hands of Lucas, the Rockets have been on a mission. With the loss of historic players like quarterback Vinny Ballone, Rivera-Ocasio has stepped up to be the vocal point for this program in 2023.

“I’m honored to say I learned from the best. Coach (Andrew) Mamula has taught me everything I need to know defensively and Vinny Ballone offensively showed me so much. They opened up my eyes to the game and I’m honored to have two great leaders,” Rivera-Ocasio said.

“One of the things that was a problem early in the year for us is we were just in bad calls,” Andrew Mamula added. “This past week against Western Reserve I trusted Tino to fix them. I said I’m gonna call this in, but if we see this you need to change it to this. I trust him to make that call and he put us in the right one every time, so that’s one of the reasons we had so much success defensively over this run because I put more faith in him.”

Rivera-Ocasio is a true student of the game. His respect for Hall of Fame players made him better as the season progressed. That is where Mamula draws all his versatility. Rivera-Ocasio was fascinated with watching Barry Sanders highlights on YouTube before practice his junior year. It’s one thing that he does frequently to keep his mind sharp.

“As weird as this sounds, every time I eat or do anything I always watch football. I really enjoy watching the game so just watching videos all the time I learn different high IQ plays and things to do. It really enlightens me on the game and opens up different things for me that I never thought of,” Rivera-Ocasio said.

“He is one of the few kids that has a really high football IQ nowadays,” Mamula said. “You don’t see it as much with the kids growing up that they watch football every Saturday and Sunday.”

Mamula has had Rivera-Ocasio his entire head coaching tenure at Paul Menichini Field. Coming off an impressive 8th grade season, young Rivera-Ocasio was looking to make an impact as a freshman.

During Mamulas’ first year as head coach in 2020, former linebacker Anthony Lucente went down with an injury. As Mamula searched for his next man up he chose to put in the inexperienced Rivera-Ocasio.

On back-to-back toss plays by the opposing offense, he showed his heart and proved he was the future of the Rockets’ defense.

“My brother was a senior at the time, and I wanted to play varsity with him because I knew I only had one year with him. My brother always kept pushing me to try and play varsity. Even though I was young, I still watched film, trying to prepare for the game in case somebody went down. I prepared very well so when that chance happened I took it and I went with it,” Rivera-Ocasio said.

“We’ve won a lot of games over the years and you can go back to every game we won and say Tino made a great play,” Mamula said. “It’s not always his athletic ability, it’s not his speed or strength, for whatever reason he’s just able to make that play, and it’s just that IQ.”

As Lowellville travels to Massillon Perry Friday to play an unbeaten Danville team, they will lean heavily on Rivera-Ocasio. The Rockets are seeking their first regional final appearance in program history, and the two-way player is looking to etch his mark in program history.

“We need a good start, and it’s been a big thing we have had going for us for these big wins,” he said. “I think our line is going to be very important so we can run the ball, because we know we are going to be able to pass. When we can do both we are pretty unstoppable. Not being one-dimensional makes us so much better.”

Kickoff Friday is set for 7 p.m. at Wakefield Stadium in Massillon.

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