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High school football: Barely missing playoffs last year hurt, but Firelands focused on here and now

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The difference between making the playoffs and sitting at home can sometimes be agonizingly thin.

For Firelands, it came down to five points.

The Falcons were an impressive 8-2 last season, finishing 3-2 in the Patriot Athletic Conference Stars Division. Their only losses came to traditional PAC Stars powers Buckeye (three points) and Black River (two points) in Weeks 8 and 9.

Despite losing only to playoff teams, and beating another — Edison in Week 1 — it wasn’t enough to earn the Falcons the eighth and final playoff spot in Division IV, Region 14.

Coach Ryan O’Rourke has already moved on.

“We want to be the best team we can and have super-high goals,” he said. “Losing two games by five points is really tough, but we’re not going to harp on those kind of things. We’re looking to the future already. It’s all about focusing on the new team. We’ve lost 16 seniors, that’s going to change our team a bit. We’re focusing on the guys who are here and how we’re going to adapt to the kids who are going to be playing.”

To reach those high goals, Firelands will have to replace an extremely talented senior class, including three key contributors on offense.

Nick Denney and Logan Strader combined for 2,200 total yards and 34 touchdowns, and quarterback Michael Bansek threw for 1,250 yards and 19 touchdowns.

One player who should see his role expand significantly is senior receiver Blake Ruffner. The 6-foot-2 slot receiver and linebacker accounted for 260 yards receiving, 240 yards rushing and six total touchdowns. O’Rourke said he will line up everywhere.

Surrounding Ruffner will be a cast of sophomores. Jacob Farley will take over at quarterback and O’Rourke said running back Donald Crawford brings great attitude. His elite speed is something that could add another dimension to the offense.

“It’s been a lot of work,” Crawford said of preparing for the season. “I like our coaching staff. They keep us on our toes and make sure that we’re ready for the season.”

In the trenches, junior Jacob Schmitz will anchor the line at left tackle while sophomore Caden Boetticher is a fresh face that could make a serious impact.

Boetticher is already 6-4 and 270 pounds at just 15 years old and O’Rourke said he’s showing signs he could be a special player. For instance, he’s already displaying the ability to jump the gap and take on a defender without allowing any penetration.

“He has exceptional size for his age,” O’Rourke said. “But what comes out at us coaches is that there are glimpses of things he shouldn’t be able to do right now. Now there will be some growing pains where he’ll struggle with things, but there are these glimpses of things that he shows that we really haven’t seen from a kid his age.”

Alex Angle is another two-way player who will contribute at receiver and in the secondary. Senior safety Matt Kovach had for 50 tackles and four interceptions last year and O’Rourke said he brings a strong football IQ to the field, something Kovach said is prevalent throughout the unit.

“We’ve got guys who are very ball smart,” Kovach said. “They know where guys should be. You could be as big as you want, fast as you want or strong as you want, if you’re not football smart, you have no chance at being on the field. We have a couple of those guys on defense who are very football smart.”

Firelands is no stranger to replacing a ton of talent — the last two seasons it’s had to replace seniors with eye-popping stats. But it’s managed to stay consistent, going 23-8 with at least seven wins each season during that span.

“We have to focus on what’s going on now, not the future or the past,” Ruffner said. “Our motto is to be 1-0 every day. We can’t worry about tomorrow or the next day, just what’s going on at this point in time.”

Contact Chris Sweeney at 440-329-7135 or ctsports@chroniclet.com and follow him @CSweeneyCT on Twitter.

FIRELANDS FALCONS

CONFERENCE: Patriot Athletic Conference, Stars Division

2017 RECORD: 8-2, 3-2

RETURNING LETTERMEN: 17

RETURNING STARTERS: 6 (two offense, four defense)

PLAYOFF APPEARANCES: 2

LAST TIME IN PLAYOFFS: 2015 (lost in first round to Peninsula Woodridge in Division IV)

NUMBERS GAME: 50 — players who came out for the team, 11 more than last season.

PLAYER TO WATCH: Caden Boetticher, a sophomore offensive tackle, is 6-foot-4 and 270 pounds and has the physical tools Division I scouts crave in a lineman. Coach Ryan O’Rourke said Boetticher is picking up the Falcons’ system quickly.

SCHEDULE

Aug. 24 Edison

Aug. 31 New London

Sept. 7 at Vermilion

Sept. 14 at Ashland

Sept. 21 Fairview

Sept. 28 at Brookside*

Oct. 5 Wellington*

Oct. 12 Buckeye*

Oct. 19 at Black River*

Oct. 26 at Keystone*

* PAC Stars Division games

All games at 7 p.m.

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