COLUMBIA STATION — When Columbia coach Jason Ward looks at his team on the practice field or in the weight room, what he sees is a vision of every coach’s dream.
The Raiders have a returning starter at nearly every position, and a squad that has a renewed hunger and work ethic in hopes of overcoming a disappointing 2017 season in which they went 5-5. They also have a starting tailback, Brandon Coleman, who returns from a devastating knee injury and is poised to make an assault on the record books, and the goal line, for his senior year.
“I’ll say I’m cautiously optimistic. On paper we look like a good team,” Ward said. “We had a lot of talent coming into last year, too, but every season takes on a life of its own. We’ve had 10-0 seasons where we didn’t expect to go 10-0 and 5-5 years where you expect to be a lot better.”
Columbia returns 10 starters on both sides of the ball. So not only are the Raiders a veteran team but many of them have experience playing multiple positions after the team had to move a lot of people around during an injury-plagued season last year.
“We have a lot of weapons this year,” senior quarterback Jared Bycznski said. “We used last season as a learning experience. We put a lot of dedication into the offseason. We didn’t have too good of a season last year, so we’re really motivated to get back to where we have been.”
Coleman was on pace for nearly 2,000 yards before suffering the season-ending injury in a Week 5 loss to Buckeye.
One thing Ward learned about his team in Coleman’s absence is that Bycznski is more than just a passing threat. He closed out the season with a pair of back-to-back 100-yard rushing games.
“Having Bycznski back with a year of experience is huge,” Ward said. “He has really made great strides.”
Coleman showed he was back last week in the second scrimmage against Elyria Catholic when he broke free for a 65-yard touchdown run.
With so many returning starters, Columbia didn’t have to spend as much time in the offseason putting in its basic playbook, so the Raiders spent even more time in the weight room, taking their workouts to a new level that included a focus on nutrition.
“We didn’t only focus on putting up reps in the weight room, we’ve also been focusing on eating right and putting on weight the right way,” Ward said. “It might be the same names on this year’s roster but we’re different. We’re a bigger, stronger team and that’s not just lip service.”
Two-way starter Danny Snakovsky, who led the Raiders with 108 tackles in 2017, said he already notices a difference in the strength and fitness level this year.
“All of the linemen are stronger than ever, we’re pushing guys off the line and driving them off the ball and doing all the things we need to do,” Snakovsky said.
With 16 seniors on this year’s roster, Snakovsky thinks there is a sense of urgency to get it right.
“Our seniors are really motivated and we have returning starters who are used of the atmosphere of being out there on Friday night,” he said. “We are ready to go. We know what we needs to be done to get back to being a great football team.”
On defense, the Raiders return three senior linebackers — Snakovsky, Cole Schwartz and Ben Alten — who each recorded more than 60 tackles and junior defensive tackle Carson Heidecker, the team leader with four sacks.
The defense also has a pair of three-year starters on the line in Logan Wos and Nick Milluzzi.
“These seniors know they have unfinished business. They have one chance left,” Ward said. “The key is if we can stay healthy and if we can, it should be a season to remember.”
The Raiders will be tested early when they host defending Division VI state finalist Kirkland in Week 2. Then they have a pair of midseason games at Buckeye and Clearview, which were both playoff teams in 2017. Those matchups should help determine if Columbia will be contenders.
“We have a different work ethic this year,” Bycznski said. “Last year we’d fall into slumps. This year I feel like we haven’t had a bad practice. We’re hungry and we’re ready.”
CONFERENCE: Patriot Athletic Conference, Stripes Division
2017 RECORD: 5-5 (2-3)
COACH: Jason Ward, 13th year (83-44)
RETURNING LETTERMEN: 27
RETURNING STARTERS: 20 (10 offense,10 defense)
PLAYOFF APPEARANCES: 8 (lost in regional quarterfinals in 2016)
NUMBERS GAME: Columbia five losses in 2017 were more than the Raiders had in the previous five regular seasons combined.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Senior quarterback Jared Bycznski. Bycznski struggled at times last season but over the second half of the season he showed can scramble out of the pocket makes plays with his feet. With a veteran receiving unit at his disposal look for him to do big things with his arm as well.
Aug. 24 at Independence
Aug. 31 Kirtland
Sept. 7 at Northwestern
Sept. 14 Keystone*
Sept. 21 at Buckeye*
Sept. 28 Lutheran West*
Oct. 5 at Clearview*
Oct. 12 at Brooklyn*
Oct. 19 Fairview*
Oct. 26 Oberlin*
All games at 7 p.m.
* Patriot Athletic Conference game