Story by Jim Horvath
Photos by Larry Bennet
For the past four seasons, the Avon varsity football team has dominated the West Shore Conference. In each of those four seasons, the Eagles have not only qualified for the state playoffs, but excelled, coming within a game of winning a state championship in 2011.
We now turn to 2014, which happens to be the final season for the WSC. After putting together a four-year conference game winning streak and taking four straight WSC championships, Avon's goals remain the same:
Win a fifth-straight WSC championship.
Qualify for a fifth-straight playoff appearance.
Win a state championship.
Leading the Eagles on their quest will be Mike Edler, who begins his eighth season as the program's head coach. He's gone 70-15 at Avon, and his Eagles have lost just five games in the past three seasons. After back-to-back Division II regional runner-up finishes, many think Avon will win another WSC title ands make another deep playoff run.
The Eagles lost 14 starters from last year's 12-1 squad, but return several key players such as running back Gerett Choat, tight end Chris Maxwell and quarterback Jake Sopko. Defensively, leading tackler Cory Ohradzansky returns from a season-ending injury, along with All-District safety Zack Torbert and defensive end Jacob Kules.
But if it's what's up front that counts, there may be a bit of concern as the Eagles prepare to open their season at Avon Lake Friday night.
"Offensively, we've got about two and a half players back from last year," Elder said. "We've got Choat and Maxwell, and Sopko returns, though he didn't take all the snaps last year.
"Our offensive line is all new. We have five new faces, so that's really our biggest challenge right now. I feel like our skill players are the strength of this team. It's the offensive line that we're going to have to develop and continue to grow at.
"We've got a group of kids who are working their tails off, so I think we'll do that, he said.
Choat ran for 1,105 yards and 15 touchdowns last year and caught 29 passes for another 504 yards and three scores. Sopko completed 64 percent of his passes for 700 yards with nine touchdowns and just two interceptions. Maxwell, at 6-2 210, had 27 receptions for 326 yards and four TDs.
Avon also returns second team All-Ohio kicker Eric Sumislawski, who was a perfect 58 of 58 in extra points and 10-11 in field goal attempts. Torbert will join the offense as a wide receiver, and 5-8, 205 senior running back Isiah Pinto will start opposite Choat in the backfield.
But the offensive line will be a new crew.
Avon's depth chart lists senior Pat Baeder (6-0, 200) at center, with the guards being senior Ben Price and junior Joey Valenti. At tackle. Avon lists senior Nick Harrison and sophomore Sam Gerak.
The fresh faces will be evident on the defense as well, according to Elder.
"On the defensive side of the ball, it's all new faces on the line and at linebacker," he said. "The good news is we have Corey back. He was a starting inside linebacker as a sophomore, but last year we lost him in week three to a knee injury.
"He was our leading tackler as a sophomore and was our leading tackler up until he got hurt, so he's a big addition," he said.
Going into the Avon Lake game, Elder listed senior Bryson Golini (14 tackles in 2014) as the starting nose tackle, with juniors Vince Gargaro and Andrew Roesch at the ends. Senior Tanner Doenges (11 tackles) will join Ohradzansky at inside linebacker, with the outsides being junior Austin Lewis and senior Jon Maxwell.
In the backfield, it will be sophomore Alec Damasceiwicz and senior Tristan Rooney at cornerback, with juniors Nick Toth and Michael Nose at the safeties.
With so many new faces, Elder knows his team needs to pick up game experience as fast as possible.
"Our biggest challenge is to get experience and get better," Elder said. "On a Friday night when you've never played before, the game goes so fast. Sometimes, you forget what you've been doing in practice.
"Until you get game experience, you have no game experience. I know that might sound like a weird thing to say, but we need game experience. That's the biggest thing we need right now.
"We have the talent, we just need the experience to go along with it," he said.
Elder also noted, however, that his inexperienced Eagles are learning while still dishing out the hits against tough preseason competition.
"The thing I'm most impressed with is that we've had two great scrimmages in terms of good opponents," he said.
"We went over to Massillon, and then we played Elyria. Both of them are playoff teams with very good programs. I thought our kids in both scrimmages were extremely physical. The mistakes we're making due to the lack of game experience are mental, and will get fixed.
"But you can't really fix a lack of physicalness. That's the strength of our team, and that's what we want to be known for. Our motto is hit, hustle, know your assignment and care about your teammates. To play for us, you've got to be a hitter.
"You have to be physical, and there's no way to win a football game without that," he added.
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