Avon winning the West Shore Conference and making a playoff run seemingly have joined death and taxes as life’s only certainties.
But on their way out of the WSC — the Eagles will move to the Southwestern Conference next season, along with Lakewood, Midview and North Ridgeville— can any league rival provide an unwelcome parting gift? Or is Avon on its way to a fifth straight conference crown and a fourth straight berth in the regional final?
As has become custom in coach Mike Elder’s seven years at the helm, Avon is aiming high — and expecting its opponents’ best shots.
Elder often says the best part of being successful is program depth: Seniors replace seniors. That limited window for players to make an impact keeps players grounded, as evidenced by the Eagles having won 29 WSC games in a row.
“Our success puts a huge target on us, but we don’t shy away from that. We welcome the challenge,” Elder said. “For us — your past has no bearing on your future. If you start celebrating the past, you get in trouble.
“Seniors get on the field who haven’t been on the field — they’re hungry because they want theirs. Every year the kids change, and they’re just as hungry, because they don’t want to let people down.”
While seniors in key positions have been the rule at Avon, there are exceptions — and two will play key roles this season.
Jake Sopko split time with graduated senior Tommy Glenn last year, and had his best performance in the Eagles’ thrilling regional final loss to Medina Highland. Sopko went 11-for-20 with 224 yards and two touchdowns in putting Avon ahead in the third quarter of an eventual late loss. He threw nine touchdowns on the season in 77 attempts.
Sopko is the unquestioned starter now, and said he’s better having had the time on the field in 2013.
“There was a lot that I took away from my experience last year,” Sopko said. “I learned how (Glenn) took charge of the huddle, and I gained confidence from the times that I was able to get into the game.”
Gerett Choat, meanwhile, had a breakout season as a sophomore, rushing for 1,105 yards and 15 touchdowns, and catching another three scores out of the backfield.
Sopko and Choat, along with Chris Maxwell — a three-year starter at tight end — are the team’s lone starters returning on offense. Zack Torbert, an all-county safety, will become the team’s primary wideout, replacing Braeden Friss and Rhys Ratino, who combined for 23 touchdowns. Elder calls that group one of the best skill position groups he’s coached, which is quite a compliment with the talent Avon has had the past seven seasons.
Greg Harrison and Patrick Baeder will anchor another new offensive line, Baeder being the only returnee who played meaningful time last year.
“We’ve lost a lot of great players, but the guys who have waited fill in well,” Sopko said. “Our coaches prepare them and the whole team well and we’re always confident in those new players.”
Cory Ohradzansky — the Eagles’ leading tackler in 2012 as a sophomore and through three games last year as a junior — is back from a torn ACL and will anchor the defense, while senior Jacob Kules will lead a similarly rebuilt defensive line along with Bryson Golini and Tanner Doenges. Juniors Michael Nose and Darrin Davis will get the first crack at replacing Torbert and others in the secondary.
Elder said he had concerns before last season, given that the Eagles had only two offensive starters returning. Things, of course, turned out OK, and his concerns over the get-to-know-you period have waned.
“A lot of kids have been waiting their turn and haven’t gotten their opportunity,” Elder said. “When they do, they usually hit the ground running. This year’s no exception. We have a lot of seniors playing for the first time.”
Those new faces on defense may be most important, as Elder predicts the WSC will be a close race throughout the season: North Ridgeville (Demario McCall) and Elyria Catholic (Justin Rankin) each feature dynamic running backs, while Rocky River quarterback Matt Lowry led the Pirates to the most points in
school history last year.
“It’s going to be a fun league,” Elder said.
Contact Joel Hammond at 329-7135 or email@example.com.
CONFERENCE: West Shore
2013 RECORD: 12-1 (6-0)
COACH: Mike Elder, 8th year (70-15 at Avon, 120-38 in 12-year career)
RETURNING LETTERMEN: 14
RETURNING STARTERS: 8 (three offense, five defense)
PLAYOFF APPEARANCES: 7
LAST TIME IN PLAYOFFS: 2013, lost in Division II, Region 4 final to Medina Highland
NUMBERS GAME: It’s been 1,758 days since the Eagles have lost a conference game — 33-14 to Midview on Oct. 16, 2009. Since then, they’ve won 29 in a row and will look to make it 35 straight before leaving the league for the SWC in 2015.. The Eagles have made four straight playoff appearances, and are 8-4 in those games, losing in the last two regional finals after losing in the state final in 2011.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Elder calls senior linebacker Cory Ohradzansky one of the most athletic defensive players he’s ever coached. Ohradzansky was the Eagles’ leading tackler as a sophomore — “he made every play,” Elder says — but tore his ACL in a Week 3 win over Twinsburg and missed the remainder of the season. He’s back and regaining confidence in his knee and should be a key contributor this season.
Aug. 29 at Avon Lake
Sept. 5 vs. East Tech
Sept. 12 vs. Twinsburg
Sept. 19 vs. Lakewood
Sept. 26 at Midview
Oct. 3 at Elyria Catholic
Oct. 10 at North Ridgeville
Oct. 17 at Rocky River
Oct. 24 vs. Olmsted Falls
Oct. 31 vs. Bay