AMHERST — Last season Amherst took a step in the right direction.
This season, in his second year as Comets head coach, Mike Passerrello is looking for the next step.
In his first year after leaving Firelands for Amherst, Passerrello’s Comets won four of their first five games, but lost three of their next four.
They defeated Westlake in the season finale to give the program its first winning season since 2010, Kevin Fell’s last season in which the Comets finished 8-2.
This season, with one of the top running backs in the state, an experienced offensive line and a defense that should be vastly improved from the one that gave up 20.6 points per game last season, Amherst is dealing with something it hasn’t felt in a long time — expectations.
Senior tailback Khennedy Scagliozzo earned second-team all-state recognition last season after rushing for 1,744 yards and 21 touchdowns. Scagliozzo is getting interest from plenty of Division II and some of the smaller Division I college programs, but Passerrello said the numbers tell just a small part of what makes Scagliozzo special.
“Khennedy is a special talent, and the best thing about him is that he’s willing to work,” Passerrello said. “His teammates gravitate towards him because of his personality and his work ethic.”
Scagliozzo will be running behind an offensive line that paid its dues last season. Center Jaret Prete (6-foot-2, 215 pounds), tackle Russ Hellinger (5-11, 235) and tackle Jacob Frankowski (5-10, 200) all started while Kyle Ketts (6-4, 230) and Jake Lezon (6-3, 220) saw significant snaps.
All are seniors who should benefit from learning Passerrello’s system and schemes last season.
“The offensive line got quite a bit of experience last year,” Passerrello said. “Moving forward, that is definitely a place where we have been paying close attention to detail to technique. They had to learn a whole new scheme last year.
“We’re not heavy in numbers with the linemen, but they’re hard workers, they’re very coachable and they want to continue to get better.”
Senior Matt Fairchild started under center for most of the 2017 season. This year he is locked into a three-way battle with Brookside transfer Jonathan Hice and Elyria transfer Jimmy Schill for the starting nod.
“These three seniors are trying to win the quarterback job,” Passerrello said. “Whoever doesn’t start is going to help us in a different way. They’ll be on the field.”
Defensively, the Comets bring back six starters, including two of their top three tacklers from last season.
Senior linebacker Nathan Soto, who earned all-conference honors in 2017, had 91 tackles, five sacks and forced seven fumbles last season. Junior Aidan Johnson had 84 tackles with a sack.
When the Comets’ defense was good last year, it was really good. In Amherst’s six wins it gave up just 12 points per game, and that includes the 41 points it surrendered in a 51-41 win over Berea-Midpark.
When it struggled, however, the Comets were out of the game by the fourth quarter.
On defense this season, they hope to be physical.
“Coach Passerrello has instilled that we are going to be the most physical team on the field, week in, week out,” senior linebacker Christian Velez said. “That’s the biggest thing for us right now. Being in a conference like the Southwestern Conference, where we’re going to be getting hit and hitting, we’re all about that.
“This year we’re going to focus on finishing games and not letting those little games get away from us.”
Passerrello thinks the defense running the same system for the second straight year will help.
“We looked like a really, really good defense last year, but at times we struggled,” he said. “The big thing for us to get better on defense is for all guys to know where their help is. This is another year in this scheme and of knowing where we want to force the ball.
“We definitely have some good experience coming back on that side of the ball.”
Amherst’s numbers, unlike many area schools, are not in decline. The current varsity players have made a conscious commitment to the district’s youth program, something Scagliozzo thinks is an important part of the legacy his senior class will leave behind.
“It’s important for the older players to pass things on to the kids,” he said. “We need the younger kids to fall in love with the game of football. We don’t want to see lower and lower numbers. We want these kids to love the game so they keep playing all the way through high school.”
Aug. 24 at Clearview
Aug. 31 Lakewood*
Sept. 7 at North Ridgeville*
Sept. 14 Midview*
Sept. 21 Berea-Midpark*
Sept. 28 at Olmsted Falls*
Oct. 5 Avon Lake*
Oct. 12 at North Olmsted*
Oct. 19 Avon*
Oct. 26 at Westlake*
*denotes Southwestern Conference game
CONFERENCE: Southwestern Conference
2017 RECORD: 6-4, 5-3
RETURNING LETTERMEN: 18
RETURNING STARTERS: 13 (seven offensive, six defensive)
PLAYOFF APPEARANCES: 7
LAST TIME IN PLAYOFFS: 2008
NUMBERS GAME: 33 – That is what the Comets out-scored their opponents by in the third quarter last season, 75-42.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Aidan Johnson, junior linebacker
Johnson, who was sophomore starter last season, has been named one of the Comets’ team captains this year. “He’s a real hard-nosed player. A throwback,” said Amherst coach Mike Passerrello.