Black River’s senior class last year was exceptionally deep and talented. It won at least one playoff game each of the last two seasons, going all the way to the Division V regional final in 2017.
But while many teams would look to rebuild, the Pirates are looking to reload.
“We’re Black River football,” senior tight end/linebacker Brennan Scheck said. “Every year we come in thinking postseason no matter what. We’ve got guys coming back this year who are great players. I feel we can be just as good this year as we were last year.”
The Pirates will have their work cut out for them in the preseason — replacing seven starters on both sides of the ball, including three running backs in Riley Gibbs, Jacob Campbell and Travis Sexton who each topped 1,200 yards.
But Black River has churned out plenty of elite rushers over the past decade. Coach Al Young said seniors Alex Vormelker and Spencer Constable along with juniors Dylan Kmitt and Caleb Simonson will each be involved with the running game.
Quarterback Riley Bartolic also brings a rushing threat to the offense.
“It’s always important to have a quarterback that you have experience with,” Young said. “He played a lot of football games for us. He’s a tough kid, very smart kid and I think it’s going to be huge having him back at quarterback. And he’s a really good runner.”
To keep running effectively, Black River will need to reload on the offensive line. Center Mitchell Young, a senior, is the only returning starter. Tristan Lamp and Shacoy Steele are projected to fill the guard spots while David Krymowski and Travis Owen are the expected tackles.
It’s safe to say the linemen are excited about the prospects of playing for a run-oriented team.
“It gives the offensive line something to play for,” Mitchell Young said. “It’s not like we just have to shield off people so the quarterback can make throws. We play smash mouth football and that’s something the offensive line takes pride in. We get after people.”
Defensively, Black River will have holes to fill up front and in the secondary — with Mitchell Young also playing nose tackle and Simonson returning at corner. Al Young said J.T. Armstrong will be the strong safety with Mark Mason and Tommy Yourich fighting for the other corner spot and Kmitt and Ryan Schultz competing at free safety.
The Pirates will have to replace Sexton and Campbell at linebacker, but Al Young said that unit could be the strongest on the team with seniors Volmelker and Constable. Bartolic and Scheck will round out the 3-4 alignment.
“We want to be just as good as last year, if not better,” Constable said. “We’ve got big shoes to fill from our past running backs and line, but we have a good coaching staff that will prepare us for this year.”
Black River’s non-conference schedule will look very familiar — leading off with Western Reserve and Northwestern in Weeks 1 and 2 for the 14th straight year. This time they’ll be on the road. In crossover action, the Pirates get Fairview and Oberlin.
Of those teams, only Northwestern and Oberlin finished with five wins last season. Black River only gave up 23 points outside of its division last season, shutting out Fairview and Western Reserve. The Pirates have won five straight against Western Reserve and broke a five-game losing streak to Northwestern last season.
“I think we’ve got a chance at being pretty good,” Al Young said. “We’ve got a long way to go. I wouldn’t call us a really good football team right now, but I think down the road we’ve got a chance. We’ve got to get our kids experienced up. We’ve got holes to plug, but we’re excited to see if these kids can move up to the next level.”
CONFERENCE: Patriot Athletic Conference, Stars Division
2017 RECORD: 11-2 (4-1)
RETURNING LETTERMEN: 15
RETURNING STARTERS: 8 (four offense, four defense)
PLAYOFF APPEARANCES: 11
LAST TIME IN PLAYOFFS: 2017
NUMBERS GAME: 3,944 — The combined rushing totals of Riley Gibbs, Jacob Campbell and Travis Sexton, all seniors lost to graduation.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Dylan Kmitt and Caleb Simonson, junior running backs, the pair — along with linebackers Alex Vormelker and Spencer Constable — will have a chance to be the latest in a long tradition of running backs for the Pirates after the team lost three seniors who each rushed for more than 1,200 yards, all hitting the 1,000-yard mark in the regular season.
Aug. 24 ... at Western Reserve
Aug. 31 ... at Northwestern
Sept. 7 … Ontario
Sept. 14 … at Fairview
Sept. 21 … Oberlin
Sept. 28 … Keystone*
Oct. 5 … at Buckeye*
Oct. 12 … at Brookside*
Oct. 19… Firelands*
Oct. 28 … Wellington*
* PAC Stars Division games
All games at 7 p.m.