COLUMBIA STATION — Good football programs have winning seasons. Great football programs have winning traditions.
After three playoff appearances in the last four seasons, Columbia is on its way to becoming a great program. Although the Raiders graduated much of last season’s prolific offense, senior two-way tackle Brandon Heidecker doesn’t think the team will miss a beat.
“We had big shoes to fill but the transition has gone real smooth,” said Heidecker, who became the first Columbia player to commit to a Division I school earlier this year when he verbally committed to the University of Toledo. “In my opinion everybody in our program wants to leave a good impression on the younger classes. Show them how hard you’ve worked so they can get to the spot where you’re at. That’s one of the reasons we’re able to pick up where we left off the year before.”
The offensive and defensive lines anchored by the 6-foot-6, 305-pound Heidecker will be areas of strength for the Raiders.
“This offensive line coming back is one of the better one’s we’ve had,” Columbia coach Jason Ward said. “We’ve got the components to really pound the football. One of our biggest strengths is in the trenches this year. Both sides of the line of scrimmage and our running backs are all sound.”
With senior Tristen Rindfleisch leading a trio of talented running back that includes Shane Garrow and junior Jimmy Jacobs, the Raiders running game appears to be in good hands. If there is a question mark in the Columbia offense it is under center where junior Jacob Viccarone and sophomore Cody Schwartz are competing for the starting job that for the past six seasons was held by either Jay Banyasz or his older brother John.
“We have a classic quarterback competition going on right now,” Ward said. “Jacob and Cody are both good athletes, they can both run and throw and we’re excited about what both of them bring to the team. We’re going to go through the first two scrimmages before we make a decision. Everybody wants to know who’s gonna be that guy. We’re just not ready to make that decision yet.”
Viccarone showed his talents on the defensive side of the ball last season, intercepting a pair of passes and forcing a fumble to earn honorable mention all-conference honors.
No matter who’s calling the signals, Rindfleisch is confident in the offense.
“We’ve got a lot of different faces, but the mentality is the same,” he said. “It’s 1-0 every week and busting our butts every day in practice. The new faces have brought a lot of great things to the table and we’re really excited to see what they can do.”
Rindfleisch said one of the main reasons the Raiders have been able to achieve continued success is the guidance of Ward, who is beginning his ninth year as head coach at Columbia.
“What this team has done over the past four years says a lot about Coach Ward, both as a person and as a coach,” Rindfleisch said. “The coaching staff we have is just incredible and the chemistry that they have with each other rubs off on the players. I really feel like this is the closest team we’ve had.”
During the past two playoff seasons, Ward always made a point of making sure his younger players got enough reps in practice and just enough of a taste of varsity action to prepare them when it’s time to step into a starting role.
“Even since we made the playoffs in 2010, this thing has been built for sustained success,” Ward said. “It’s always been important to mix guys in, get them important minutes so when it’s their time it’s not foreign to them.”
On the defensive side of the ball, Columbia returns five starters from a unit that held half of its regular-season opponents to 10 points or less last season. The Raiders also forced 24 turnovers in 11 games.
“Our defensive line has been strong in practice,” Heidecker said. “Everyone is working as a unit and not as individuals.
Everyone just has to do their share and move around the field and hit somebody.”
Columbia will play the same 10 regular-season opponents it faced — and defeated — in 2013. All will be looking for revenge, but Ward feels like the team will be ready when it opens the season at Independence on Aug. 29.
“There are going to be some growing pains, but I think we’ll be real close to having everybody clicking on all cylinders in the first game,” he said.
Contact Todd Shapiro at 329-7135 or email@example.com.
CONFERENCE: Patriot Athletic Conference, Stripes Division
2013 RECORD: 10-1 (7-0)
COACH: Jason Ward, 9th year (51-33)
RETURNING LETTERMEN: 23
RETURNING STARTERS: 11
PLAYOFF APPEARANCES: 5
LAST TIME IN PLAYOFFS: 2013
NUMBERS GAME: 40.4. The Raiders average scoring output per game in 2013
PLAYER TO WATCH: Senior running back/linebacker Tristen Rindfleisch. Rindfleisch scored seven touchdowns last season and was also third on the team in quarterback sacks.
Aug. 29 at Independence
Sept. 5 South Central
Sept. 12 at Northwestern, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 19 Firelands*
Sept. 26 Wellington*
Oct. 3 at Fairview*
Oct. 10 at Oberlin*
Oct. 17 Lutheran West*
Oct. 24 Brooklyn*
Oct. 31 at Clearview*
All games at 7 p.m. unless noted
* Patriot Athletic Conference game