ELYRIA — When junior quarterback Jeremy Holley shattered his left fibula late in the first half at Bay a year ago, Elyria Catholic’s hopes for a big season appeared to be smashed.
The Panthers were 3-1 after edging Bay, then lost two straight without Holley, who was expected to lead them to the postseason. Elyria Catholic rallied to finish 6-4 — winning three of its last four games, two by shutout — to nearly qualify for the playoffs anyhow.
The late-season run coupled with Holley’s healthy return from the devastating injury have the Panthers extremely optimistic as they approach a grueling schedule designed to prepare them for a deep playoff run should they take care of business.
“We have a great group of seniors,” said coach Mike Polevacik, who’s in his third year. “They’ve been on the field the last few years and have worked real hard to get us in contention for the playoffs this year.”
“We understand that when we lost a game last year, it cost us points and a chance at the playoffs,” said senior lineman Dakota Tallman, nicknamed “The Gorilla” by his teammates. “Our goal this year is to go all the way — 15 weeks. We understand that means 100 percent all the time.”
Tallman is one of the highest-rated linemen in the country, according to Rivals.com. He’s a three-year starter and has offers from five Mid-American Conference schools to continue his football career next year.
“Jeremy is back and we have more returning players and more returning experience,” Tallman said. “With the schedule we have, we control our own destiny. If we make the playoffs, no other D-V school has faced the competition we have.”
EC is in Division V under the new expanded playoff format, but the Panthers’ schedule includes just two D-V schools. The rest are in higher divisions, including two D-I schools and four D-II.
“It’ll be a challenge,” Polevacik said. “We’re concerned with our depth. We have 35 players, 10th through 12th grade.
“We’re concerned with our offensive and defensive lines, but we’re seeing some great battles already in camp and we know we’ve got some unproven talent to determine.”
Holley, who threw for 1,900 yards and 21 touchdowns as a sophomore and 1,000 yards and 10 TDs in just four starts last year, faced a tough rehabilitation. It cost him the entire basketball season, and he can’t wait to get going again.
“I felt like I wasn’t part of the team,” Holley said, referring to his rigorous rehab schedule. “It was like I was an outcast.
“I was out of the loop, but starting in February and March, I got back in the weight room with my teammates and felt like we had the makings of a heckuva team. We have a whole lot of guys back.”
Polevacik believes the offense is the strength.
“Our quarterback, two of our four receivers, our tailback and two of our five offensive linemen are back,” he said. “Justin Rankin was first-team All-Ohio and had 1,200 total yards. Conner Riddell is a four-year player at wide receiver. He played in two playoff games as a freshman and was our team MVP last year. He filled in for Holley at quarterback.
“Dakota is a three-year starter and Holley is big and athletic — 6-foot-5, 215 pounds.”
EC’s defense should also be strong.
The Panthers return four linebackers who lettered, although two were at safety a year ago. Will Washington and Jerot Schill will line up inside with Luke Michalski and Lucas Ball on the outside.
“We have pretty high expectations,” Washington said. “We know the schedule will be a challenge and we have to stay healthy. We’re working hard with high intensity and getting strong mentally. We’ve been through it all.”
Contact Tim Gebhardt at 329-7135 or at email@example.com.
CONFERENCE: West Shore Conference
2012 RECORD: 6-4 overall, 4-3
COACH: Mike Polevacik, 3rd year (11-9)
RETURNING LETTERMEN: 20
RETURNING STARTERS: 14
FAST FACT: EC has made 14 playoff appearances, ranking behind only Avon Lake (17) and Clearview (15) in Lorain County annals. The Panthers have claimed three state titles — in 1976, ’83 and ’84.
Aug. 30 Huron
Sept. 6 Elyria
Sept. 12 Beachwood
Sept. 20 at Bay*
Sept. 27 at Amherst
Oct. 4 at Avon*
Oct. 11 at Lakewood*
Oct. 18 Midview*
Oct. 25 North Ridgeville*
Nov. 1 Rocky River*
All games at 7 p.m.
* West Shore Conference game