Ready or not, area schools are back in session this week — which also means the Friday night lights return.
Generally speaking, there is no shortage of subplots and storylines among the 10 area high school football teams in the Reflector coverage area. There were three coaching changes alone as those respective programs go through a chance in leadership, but also offense and defense philosophies.
As the season begins on Friday and Saturday, let’s take a look at a key storyline for each area team:
The Norwalk program is one of the three with a new coach — yet a familiar face in area coaching circles in Todd Fox. A 1991 Willard graduate, Fox had a successful eight-year run at Tiffin Calvert prior to accepting the Norwalk position in February.
Greeting Fox and the Truckers is a schedule that, on paper, is one of the toughest I can recall for the program in at least a decade.
They will start by hosting Mansfield Senior at 7 p.m. on Friday. The Tygers were 8-3 and in the Division III playoffs last season — and bring back 17 starters on offense and defense for 2018.
Next is a trip to Wayne County to face Creston Norwayne in Week 2 (Aug. 31). The Bobcats have made seven playoff appearances in the last 10 years, including a Div. IV state championship in 2011. The ‘Cats were 10-2 last year, falling in the second round of the Div. VI playoffs.
The rest of the schedule features playoff teams from a year ago in Edison, Shelby, Clyde, Bellevue and Sandusky — not to mention a Port Clinton program that has steadily improved in recent years as well.
Fox told me his coaching philosophy centers around playing the best competition. Facing seven playoff teams from 2017, his first schedule at Norwalk certainly sets up that way.
2. St. Paul
The Flyers are coming off another historic season, as they were voted Associated Press poll champions and won an eighth regional championship in reaching the Div. VII state semifinals.
This year’s senior class was in the sixth grade the last time St. Paul lost a Firelands Conference game — early in 2012 at Western Reserve. That alone makes the Flyers the favorites again in the FC entering 2018. There has been no better example of success breeding success locally.
However, St. Paul — like any program — is faced with some key holes to graduation. But maybe more so than usual. There were names from the past several years who are gone that simply do not get replaced.
The Flyers’ ability to again replace those voids while maintaining their excellent track record will be something to watch play out in 2018.
It’s often too easy to take for granted that a team will just automatically win eight-plus games and make the playoffs. A new group is ready to embrace that lofty standard many assume for the Flyers this fall — something you have to respect.
There is a sense of an excitement revolving around the Crimson Flashes program that is more obvious this year than most.
Everyone likes new facilities or additions to said facilities — especially cosmetically. With Willard playing on a brand new artificial field turf surface, beginning this Friday vs. South Central, gone are the days of a torn up, sloppy field by midseason if weather hampers any games.
Add in the return of 6-foot-3 quarterback Cooper Parrott after two years at Western Reserve Academy, and the Flashes feel like they have momentum on the field two. Parrott started each of the past two seasons at Western Reserve, and the Flashes have back-to-back 2-8 finishes after winning just six games over the previous four years combined.
Now a solid Div. V or VI team with enrollment in recent years, playing in the River division of the Sandusky Bay Conference also doesn’t hurt. There is still a long way to go, but again, on paper, things appear to be on the upswing for the Flashes’ program.
4. Western Reserve
It wasn’t just any random coaching change in Collins. With Mike Stoll retiring following 2017, it was truly an end of an era for the Roughriders program.
Stoll took over at Western in 1998, and I can tell you, things were about as bad as they could be at that time. But he had the ‘Riders on the path to FC and playoff contention by 2002, and a strong run ensued for the next 10 years — including a pair of FC titles and playoff appearances.
But now calling the show at Western is a person no stranger to the FC in Ty Stevenson. The 1999 South Central graduate was an assistant coach at Norwalk and South Central prior spending the past 10 years at Colonel Crawford under Ryan Teglovic — another SC grad and former Trojans head coach.
I’ve known Stevenson for a long time. He knows how to coach through a challenge and has a strong track record running an offense. He knows this area, and what it will ultimately take to get the ‘Riders back to their winning ways.
The Eagles were 10-2 in 2016 — which included hosting the area’s first and only 9-0 vs. 9-0 matchup against St. Paul. They also won their first playoff game that season for the first time in 12 years.
Monroeville rode that momentum to a 5-1 start last season — but the final month wasn’t kind to the Eagles. They lost three of the final four games, and missed the playoffs.
And while Monroeville loses the production of Tche and Trey Leroux (transferred to Norwalk), it also has a solid base of skilled players such as Dominic Ruffing and Chayce Schaub — and some linemen — back on offense.
Scott Stecher has done a solid job of getting Monroeville back to FC and playoff contention, as the results show over the past three years. Though the schedule is a bit more challenging at the front with a trip to Tiffin Calvert this Saturday, how the Eagles do down the stretch will be fun to watch.
6. New London
After a tumultuous on and off the field year in 2017, there is really nowhere the Wildcats can go but up.
The third of area coaching changes, longtime Sandusky assistant coach Kemmes Keys is the new man in charge at New London. After spending 10 years writing full-time for the Sandusky Register, Keys is also someone I know quite well.
He’s a passionate about sports and coaching — something he will need in the early going at New London. There are already key additions within the halls at New London with some basketball players out for the team.
There are only 33 varsity players to begin 2018, so depth will always be an issue. I’m not sure one can judge the Wildcats on win total alone in 2018 — but is there an improvement from a year ago?
As long as Keys can develop participation and culture within the school, I’d lean more toward ‘yes’ in answering that, but obviously we’ll see. As he noted to me, New London is always solid in cross country, track, basketball and baseball — so it’s not for a lack of talent in the high school building.
7. South Central
The Trojans were 4-6 in Corey Fickiesen’s first season in 2017. In hindsight, with a schedule that included Seneca East, St. Paul, Crestview and Monroeville — that’s a pretty decent starting point.
As always, the toughest hurdle at South Central is getting that first ‘breakthrough’ moment in October or November. The Trojans have never won the FC or played in Week 11.
Can the Trojans close that gap and progress further under Fickiesen in 2018? He’s going to have a 33-man roster, similar to New London, but that isn’t out of the norm at such a small school.
Within that roster though are solid athletes among Tycen Cooper, Timmy Jayes, Evan Legg, Cristiano Murphy and David Lamoreaux. From an offensive perspective, they will be playing behind three, three-year starters on the interior line.
But the schedule involves playing up two divisions at Willard on Friday, and has St. Paul and Crestview toward the end (Weeks 8 and 9), with Monroeville and Mapleton early. Seeing if the Trojans can compete against the upper echelon teams will be an area of focus in Greenwich.
It’s pretty obvious what the focus in Milan will be this fall.
From 2015-17, the Chargers were blessed with some of the best athletes to ever walk the halls in the 50 years there has been an Edison High School.
As a result, the Chargers were able to win SBC titles and playoff games for the first time in program history while winning 32-of-39 games in those three seasons.
In 2018, it’s a smaller senior class of eight players. Now in his 18th season, Jim Hall admits there may not be a lot of ‘home run’ big plays that leads to touchdown.
But last Friday, I saw a pair of longer TD runs in a scrimmage vs. St. Paul that can only be an encouraging sign. With a team that is no longer a stranger to November with nine extra weeks of practice — and the unique triple option offense — the Chargers certainly have the capabilities.
How this new group of players maintains the newfound expectation of the past three seasons will be the biggest storyline for Edison. It may be more of a ‘lengthy drive’ type offense this season — but that, along with solid defense, is still a recipe for success for the Chargers in the SBC Bay division.
From Jalen Santoro, Alec Foos and Treston Francis — the Redmen have had no shortage of quarterbacks who are lethal running the ball out of shotgun in the spread offense since 2012.
After a somewhat underrated regular season that had narrow losses to a pair of 10-0 teams (Clear Fork and Sandusky), Bellevue went to Clyde in Week 10 needing a win to reach the Div. IV playoffs.
The Redmen topped their rivals going away, 33-14, which set the stage for three extra weeks of football in Bellevue. The Redmen beat Clear Fork in a rematch at Mansfield, then fell to Shelby in a regional championship game as one of the final eight teams in Div. IV.
But just five starters combined return on offense and defense in 2018. Similar to St. Paul, the Redmen have averaged eight wins per season in Ed Nasonti’s 27 years as the head coach of his alma mater.
It’s easy as an outsider to just assume that will continue, but nothing is that easy. Bellevue again has as challenging of a schedule as anyone, and 17 new starters on both sides of the ball.
It’s a new group with a big challenge. The first month is likely to provide several answers in Bellevue.
With Stoll’s retirement, Mark Genders has quietly become the second-longest tenured coach in the FC behind John Livengood at St. Paul.
Now in his 11th season, Genders took the Big Red to their only Week 11 game in 2014. Plymouth was 4-6 a year ago, which included a 3-4 mark in FC play.
Genders will have a 43-man roster in 2018. That includes an offensive line that’s smallest player weighs 195-to-315 pounds while running the unique double-wing offense.
Last season, Plymouth went 2-2 over the final month — but that included competitive setbacks to stalwarts Monroeville (40-36) and Crestview (28-14).
But the Big Red aren’t replacing just anyone from last year’s senior class. Seth Bailey was the program’s all-time leading rusher and tackler on both sides of the ball — a void that simply doesn’t get instantly filled at a Div. VII school.
With Monroeville and Crestview again closing the 2018 schedule, a solid start in running the double-wing offense minus Bailey will play a role in how big those last two weeks become for the Big Red.