ELYRIA — Brian Fox is turning to the past to guide the future of Elyria Catholic football.
The theme of Fox’s first season as Panthers coach is “Wake up the Echoes” because he wants his players to connect with the school’s past as a perennial playoff-bound program.
“We had meetings with every kid, and there were so many that talked about how tradition is so huge here,” Fox said of when he took over the program. “We made the theme of the year ‘Wake up the Echoes’ because it’s all about the connection to the past and understanding of these kids that the product they have put on the field here in recent years does not match the tradition of Elyria Catholic football.”
The Panthers, who have not qualified for the playoffs since 2010, slipped to 3-7 in last year’s injury-plagued season, leading to the departure of coach Dave Stupka, who was 15-15 in three seasons.
Fox wants the team to focus on the program’s history while trying to change its recent track record.
“The kids love the history,” he said. “We brought in (Elyria Catholic’s all-time leading rusher) Al McKinney and the kids were just captivated. Anyone we bring back I think the kids just understand the tradition. That’s what I kept hearing about more and more, that we’re better than this and we’re tired of it. We want it to be like it was in the ’80s and ’70s when EC football was unbelievable.”
Fox did not inherit an empty cupboard. The Panthers have 17 returning letterwinners, including starting quarterback Cameron Engrish and running back Leighton Banjoff, both seniors. And the offensive line is big and deep, led by all-state performer Griffin Davies and all-conference center Jack Decker.
“I watched a lot of film on him … he has a good arm,” Fox said of Engrish. “He is a very talented kid. I think the system itself (last year) didn’t lend itself to his style of quarterback. When I saw the passing numbers, then saw the product with him throwing the ball and the work he’s putting in, I was very impressed.
“I think Cameron has a very much higher ceiling than last year’s production would say. I’m very excited about him. He’s grown, he’s much bigger and stronger, and I think he’s someone that’s going to have the opportunity to surprise a lot of people.”
Engrish is looking forward to playing in Fox’ up-tempo offense.
“I really like what we’ve got going,” he said. “I think it’s a great balance between the run and the pass and I really think I’m going to get to showcase some things I didn’t get to show, maybe, last year.
“I’m really excited. For a young guy, (Fox) really is brilliant offensively.”
In the offensive backfield, Banjoff will have plenty of help.
“We’ve got a lot,” Fox said. “We’ve got Leighton Banjoff, who was all-conference last year. We’ve got Chris Jackson, who is 6-foot-1, 195, with speed. … We’ve got Malik Gaddy, who is a very good wrestler and an athletic, strong kid. Stephen Ferguson played a lot of defense for us last year.
“During team periods we had a lot of guys breaking off long runs left and right, and a lot of the time is was the guys who were second team or second group-type guys. We’re legitimately four or five deep at running back.”
EC has solid crop of receivers, too. Senior David Griffin missed eight games last season with a broken leg, but is healthy now. He will be joined by a young group with plenty of upside. Sophomore Jaret Frantz, a big target at 6-4, has plenty of athletic ability. Junior Jack Griffin stepped in for his older brother last season and made an impact. Branson Taylor, at 6-7, 270 pounds, is a basketball player already receiving Mid-American Conference interest for football.
“I’m not just looking for one guy, I just make my reads,” Engrish said. “I really trust nine, 10 guys … whoever is out there at wide receiver. Everyone is working so hard, even the young guys, and I trust every one of them.”
Joining Davies and Decker on the line are fellow returning starters Brian Beury and Ryan Roark.
“This season means everything,” Decker said. “Coming in here for my last year — new coach, new slate … it’s awesome. I’m sad to know it’s my last year but I’m going to put all my work in, work as hard as I can and get this team where it needs to be. … The playoffs. State champions. That’s where we want to be.”
Last season the Panthers allowed over 20 points per game. With seven returning starters and Griffin back from injury, Fox expects better things this season.
“Defensively we are extremely talented in a lot of our spots,” he said. “We’re trying to get more guys in the box. A lot of our conference will be very run-heavy teams. We’re changing the scheme around a little bit.
“Bringing someone back like Griffin Davies, who was honorable mention all-state last year, and with Jack Decker’s progression, we have talent. A lot of our safeties are physical players. What I’m very excited about is how physical our (defensive backs) can be.
“We could screw up everything with our defensive play calls and I still think we could be a very good defense.”
Elyria Catholic won its opener against Brookside last season, then lost four games in a row and never recovered. Fox is not worried about anything other than building a program the school and community can be proud of.
“I try not to think about end results and I’ve always been a process-oriented guy,” he said. “I can say the goal is to make the playoffs or this, that and the other … but the goal really is to be a part of the makeup of what it takes to be a great team.
“Becoming more disciplined. Hard work. All that good stuff. We’re going to focus on the small things and kind of let the scores of the games take care of themselves.”
ELYRIA CATHOLIC PANTHERS
Conference: Great Lakes Conference
2017 record: 3-7, 2-4
Returning letterwinners: 17
Returning starters: 7 on offense and 7 on defense
Playoff appearances: 14
Last playoff appearance: 2010 (lost to Orrville in second round)
Numbers game: 3 — Elyria Catholic is the only Lorain County football program with three state titles (1976, ’83 and ’84).
Player to watch: Branson Taylor, junior tight end. At 6-foot-7, 270 pounds, Taylor reshaped his body in the weight room during the offseason. Also a basketball player, he has sure hands and is quick as well as fast for his size. He will be a coverage nightmare.
Aug. 24 at Brookside
Aug. 31 Villa Angela-St. Joseph
Sept. 7 Cleveland Central Catholic
Sept. 14 at Mogadore
Sept. 21 Valley Forge*
Sept. 28 at Parma*
Oct. 5 Holy Name*
Oct. 12 at Bay*
Oct. 18 at Normandy*
Oct. 26 Rocky River*
* Great Lakes Conference
All games at 7 p.m.
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