AMHERST — One and nine season’s don’t normally happen to a football program as storied as Amherst’s.
Yet that’s exactly what happened last season to the Comets, who had a rookie coach in Chad DiFranco and a bunch of underclassmen forced into action due to injuries and player defections.
It’s something DiFranco and this year’s players don’t ever want to go through again.
“They’ve got to understand that, except for the Elyria, North Olmsted and Avon Lake games, we were in all of our games,” DiFranco said. “The rest of those games, we were within a couple of plays from turning those losses into wins.
“They’ve got to pay the extra price to be a little faster, a little stronger and carry out their assignments better. They have to do their one-eleventh, and if they all do that, we can start turning things around here and turning those losses into wins.”
One bright spot about last season was all the playing time the underclassmen received. Going into this year, Amherst has 26 lettermen, all of whom gained key varsity experience last year.
“Obviously, in a perfect world, you want to have your seniors the majority of the time, but we ran into a situation where we didn’t have a lot of numbers in our senior class,” DiFranco said.
“A lot of the younger kids had to step up and play. Going into this year, with that experience, that has been a big help.
“We’ve been together now through the offseason, and they’re the ones I count on to lead our offseason weight lifting. They have a lot of time and energy invested into it, and that means Amherst football is important to them. That’s what you need to be successful.”
Senior quarterback Eric Lamb was one of those players who benefited from taking some lumps last season. Lamb started six games and played in seven after senior starter Brennan Hosier was injured.
“What I took away from last year was a lot of experience,” Lamb said. “It stinks that Brennan got hurt, but I was able to get that experience last year so I could lead the team to more wins, which I think we will (get).
“Right when I went in against Westlake, I knew I had to be a leader on the field. A whole year of that experience will help me tremendously for the coming year. If Hosier didn’t get hurt, I would have been a starter this year without any experience. Having six or seven games under my belt will help me with my confidence.”
Lamb will be joined by fellow seniors Jordan Irvin (tailback), Tom Gula (wide receiver), Kyle Kelley (tight end) and Gino Cioffi, Matt Hess, Stephan Moody and Michael Figueroa (linemen) in their spread offense.
Cioffi, at 6-foot-4, 290 pounder, and Hess (6-2, 285) give Amherst two big bookends which should help give Lamb time to throw and Irvin some running lanes.
“It’s time for Gino to dominate games,” DiFranco said. “He’s got the physical tools, but he’s got to get that mental edge to take over ballgames. That’s something we’ve been working on with him and our other linemen.”
Gula, who was Amherst’s leading receiver last season with 31 catches for 450 yards and four touchdowns after getting pressed into duty, developed a good chemistry with Lamb.
“We have a ton of varsity-level letterwinners coming back,” Lamb said. “Tom Gula is my No. 1 guy, and Jordan Irvin is a great teammate and a great friend. Our senior class has been together since CYO in fifth and sixth grade. We hang out with each other all the time. They’re like my brothers.
“We’ve got a lot of talent coming back. Most of the kids on this team started as sophomores and juniors, and are back as juniors and seniors. We’ve gotten bigger, stronger and faster.”
DiFranco thinks Kelley’s versatility could be key to the offense’s success.
“Kyle started all 10 games for us last year, and he’s kind of like a hybrid,” he said. “He’s 205 pounds, but he runs fairly well. In our spread offense, we’ll spread him out, but we’ll also line him up in the box. He’s big enough, strong enough and fast enough that he can do both of those (blocking and receiving) without subbing him out.”
Senior linebackers Guy Schuler and Derek Eibon are back as the team’s top tacklers and the leaders of the 4-3 defense. Fellow seniors Mark Mishak and Jake Bruder will make up half of the front four, while seniors Mike Sliman and Brian Young return to lead the secondary.
“When they get out there on Friday nights, it’s about making plays on the field when it counts, and these guys all have to step up and make plays in order for us to succeed,” DiFranco said.
DiFranco believes he’s grown as a head coach.
“Obviously, I learned a lot my first year,” he said. “One of things I feel differently about is that I know there are things I want done from an X’s and O’s standpoint, and I have a much better grasp on the things I want our players to do.
“I want us to be fundamentally sound, fly to the football, those types of things. Coaches have their own personalities, and I’m more comfortable and confident in the way I want things run than I was last year.”
Lamb is a big believer in DiFranco and the coaching staff.
“It was tough last year, but Coach DiFranco was always the first one to say, ‘We’re a family, we’ll get through this together,’” Lamb said. “He’s been the best coach I’ve ever had. I love the guy.
“He’s such a family-oriented guy. He loves family and loves football. I’m excited for him to coach us this year. I wouldn’t want anyone else to coach me my senior other than Coach DiFranco, and I’m excited to reward him for his belief in us.”
Amherst will open with Elyria and former coach Kevin Fell for the second straight year, followed by Midview and Clearview to round out the non-conference portion of the schedule.
“I’ll put our schedule up against anybody’s around,” DiFranco said. “Elyria, Midview and Clearview are three local teams who are pretty good, and we’ll have to go through that into the SWC. You’ll see the SWC is a QB-laden conference. Brecksville has one of the best quarterbacks in Northeast Ohio in Tom Tupa. Westlake has a good quarterback and North Olmsted has a really good athletic quarterback. I feel we have a really good quarterback as well.
“The offensive and defense lines will be big in the SWC. Another thing I learned is that everyone is extremely well-coached. Teams are always prepared to stop the other teams. It makes it fun on Friday nights to try to outduel those great coaches and players. Hopefully, our coaching staff and our players are up to the challenge.”
- CONFERENCE: Southwestern Conference
- 2011 RECORD: 1-9, 0-7
- COACH: Chad DiFranco, 2nd year (1-9)
- RETURNING LETTERMEN: 26
- RETURNING STARTERS: 14 (8 offense, 6 defense)
- FAST FACT: Amherst’s 1-9 season was only its second losing season since 2004 (4-6 in 2007).
- Aug. 24 at Elyria (7)
- Aug. 31 Midview (7)
- Sept. 7 Clearview (7)
- Sept. 14 Westlake (7)*
- Sept. 21 at Berea (7)*
- Sept. 28 Midpark (7)*
- Oct. 5 Brecksville (7)*
- Oct. 12 at Olmsted Falls (7)*
- Oct. 19 North Olmsted (7)*
- Oct. 26 at Avon Lake (7)*
* SWC game
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Contact Dan Gilles at 329-7135 or email@example.com.