AVON — As if advancing to the Division II state championship game last season wasn’t tough enough, the Avon Eagles now face perhaps a bigger challenge: replacing 13 starters off that team, including their quarterback, top two receivers and entire linebacking corps.
But to hear coach Mike Elder say it, there won’t be wholesale changes for the Eagles. Just a few minor tweaks.
First, those that are gone: Justin O’Rourke, who threw for 3,168 yards and 40 touchdowns, 32 of which were caught by graduated receivers Matt Eckhardt and Jacob Mullins. Also gone are the Eagles’ top six tacklers, and eight of their top 10, including linebackers Cory Furnas, Matt Tomlin, Mark Holkenborg and Ryan Rogers.
But the Eagles boast mass on both lines and experience in both the offensive and defensive backfields, areas they’ll try to exploit.
“Hopefully, the guys coming back in those areas where we’re more experienced can help us while we’re developing the young guys,” Elder said. “We lost a lot of great seniors, but as a coach, it’s exciting to watch the new kids come in. You say, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I’ll ever replace him,’ and there always are guys who step in.”
Headlining the returners are Ross Douglas, who changed his oral commitment from Penn State to Michigan over the summer as the dust settled around the Nittany Lions’ child abuse scandal.
Douglas, a third-team All-Ohio selection, ran for 1,019 yards and 14 touchdowns, and as Elder told him at a recent practice, “This is your team.”
Douglas also is widely considered one of the top defensive backs in the state, and along with Ralph Smith, who picked off four passes for the Eagles last season, will help stabilize that area. Smith is also a Division I recruit, having given an oral commitment to Ball State last week. Both will play defensive back in college.
Smith, too, will be Avon’s top target at receiver, as he caught 23 passes and two touchdowns last season in earning All-West Shore Conference and All-Lorain County nods. Senior Mark Kvach, the team’s second-leading rusher last year, also returns. The offensive line will be anchored by seniors Tim Von Salter, an All-WSC pick from a year ago, and Alex Cranmer, who stepped in during the playoffs when Avon had injury issues along the line and performed well.
Defensively, seniors Alex Kelly and Jeremiah Burriss return on a formidable line, and Elder said he expects Canton McKinley transfer Cory Ohradzansky to see time as a sophomore.
For Douglas, the loss in last year’s title game and all the questions surrounding the team present an exciting challenge.
“(The returners) are trying to instill in everyone that a conference championship or the playoffs aren’t guaranteed,” Douglas said. “We’ve been to the playoffs two years in a row, but now our record is 0-0. That’s something we have to make everyone aware of. In football, anything can happen, and you have to be prepared for anything.”
Despite the losses and inexperience at key positions, Elder said that the team’s playoff run helped not only in raising the program’s profile but also giving the Eagles’ young players — those who will step in and fill the void — another five weeks of practice and education in Avon’s system.
That’s especially true at quarterback, where senior David Zeh, who backed up O’Rourke last season, and junior Tommy Glenn were competing in camp. Zeh said the extra time last season and even in 2010 when Cody Schroeder got the bulk of the time behind center, were invaluable.
“Watching Justin and Cody, I saw that the whole offense responds to the quarterback,” said Zeh, one of six Avon captains. “If he’s lackadaisical, the whole offense responds to that. Cody came in with a different tempo, and the whole offense would reflect that. With Justin, nothing showed. He was cool no matter what.”
The Eagles won’t change their multiple formation on offense, in which they ran and passed the ball about equally last year. The only change might be a more run-heavy distribution on offense, especially early.
“We like our scheme and think it fits our personnel no matter what the personnel is,” Elder said. “Now, what you do and the plays you call might be different. We’re going to figure out what we’re good at and perfect that.”
Elder said he expects Midview and the rest of the WSC to present another challenge. The Eagles beat Midview 14-10 in a weather-induced slopfest at Midview in what amounted to the conference title game, last year.
- CONFERENCE: West Shore
- 2011 RECORD: 13-2, 7-0
- COACH: Mike Elder, 6th year
- RETURNING LETTERMEN: 18
- RETURNING STARTERS: 9
- FAST FACT: The Eagles have won 25 of their last 28 games, with losses coming to Sandusky in the first round of the playoffs in 2010, perennial state contender Mentor Lake Catholic in Week 10 last season and Trotwood-Madison in last year’s Division II state title game. The Eagles have won 16 straight West Shore Conference games, dating to Oct. 16, 2009, when they lost to Midview, 33-14.
- Aug. 24: at Avon Lake
- Aug. 31: Wellington (7:30)
- Sept. 7: at Lorain
- Sept. 14: Lakewood*
- Sept. 21: Bay*
- Sept. 28: at Elyria Catholic*
- Oct. 5: at Midview*
- Oct. 12: Vermilion*
- Oct. 19: at Rocky River*
- Oct. 26: North Ridgeville*
All games at 7 p.m. unless noted.
*West Shore Conference game
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Contact Joel Hammond at 329-7135 or email@example.com.