Junior quarterback Trent Toy can admit it now: He wasn’t having much fun early in the season.
“In the beginning of the year, besides dealing with the nerves and excitement, I was always playing afraid to make a mistake,” Toy said. “In the back of my mind, I kept thinking, ‘They’re going to pull me if I make too many mistakes.’ I was playing real timid. But my teammates and the coaching staff were really awesome about not saying anything negative and keeping my spirits up.
“They kept their faith in me and it made it real hard to not lose faith in myself. I just fought through it and here we are in the second round of the playoffs. It’s been great. I just had to go out and have fun. That’s what football is all about, really.”
As Toy was dealing with the growing pains that come with being a first-year varsity starting quarterback, the Shoremen stumbled out of the gate.
They lost their first two games of the season and dropped their Southwestern Conference opener to Olmsted Falls, putting them at 1-3.
“Quarterback, if anything, is a mental position,” Toy said. “That’s what I didn’t have at the beginning of the season — the right mind-set. I put a lot pressure on myself, and when we weren’t winning, I began to think it was all my fault. Here I am, the starting quarterback as a junior and all of these seniors are looking to me to be this big leader. But it’s not like that at all.
“They just want to be able to trust you so that, when the game’s on the line, they can come to you. My teammates have been great to me this year and their support has been fantastic.”
As Toy got more comfortable, the Shoremen began to pick up win after win after win. They reeled off six straight wins in fact, captured the SWC title outright and clinched a playoff berth. And, as they prepare for tonight’s Division II, Region 6 semifinal game vs. top-seeded Toledo St. Francis de Sales, both Toy and the Shoremen are playing their best football of the season.
“It was tough on Trent because he wasn’t improving as well as he was capable of doing,” Shoremen coach Dave Dlugosz said. “To his merit, he kept his nose to the grindstone and kept working hard and he finally saw his hard work paying off. I’m proud of how he’s developed and matured.”
Toy’s emergence has also coincided with the emergence of fellow junior Ron Willoughby, a starting wide receiver. Willoughby, at 6-foot-4, has 29 catches for 723 yards and nine touchdowns.
“Experience is the best teacher,” Dlugosz said. “They’re both juniors and first-year starters, but at this point, they both have a full season under their belts, so they’re playing like seniors.
“Teams are stacking the line of scrimmage to take our running game away, and they’re unaware of Ron and Trent. Ron is 6-4 with great size and speed (4.6 in the 40), and because he’s such an exceptional basketball player, he also has exceptional hands. For a 5-8, 5-9 high school cornerback, that makes it extremely difficult to cover someone like that.”
Toy said the early losing was starting to take its toll on him.
“That’s usually not how Avon Lake likes to do things, starting 1-3,” Toy said. “There were a lot of bad talkers going around talking about things, but we blocked it out and turned our season around. Once we saw we could really do this, things really picked up.”
Toy, who has thrown for 1,208 yards with 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions, has been red hot over his last four games. He’s thrown for 625 yards with nine touchdowns and just one interception during that span, all wins.
He traces his turnaround to a couple of good nights in bad weather, beginning with Week 6 against Berea.
“It was real rainy, and, in one of the last scores of the game, I hit Ronnie on an open post for a big touchdown,” Toy said. “The next game vs. Westlake, played in the same conditions, I ended up going 5-for-5 passing.
“Even though that’s not a lot of passes, I told myself that if I could do this in those conditions, I could do a lot more in better conditions. That’s probably when things started clicking for me.”
Toy gives a lot of credit to Willoughby and his offensive linemen.
“Everybody has really been stepping up,” he said. “Ronnie has turned into a great receiver, thanks to his being a great athlete with great size, speed and hands. We have great leaders on the line like Christian Pace and Dan Schneider who everyone looks up to and does a good job keeping everybody in check.”
Toy and Willoughby saved their best performances for last Friday’s 56-35 playoff-opening win at Maumee. Toy went 9-of-15 for 252 yards and four touchdowns, all to Willoughby, who ended up with five receptions for 177 yards.
The Toy-to-Willoughby TD connections went for 65, 38, 15 and 40 yards.
“After we lost to Olmsted Falls, it was like the start of the playoffs for us,” Toy said. “One loss and we probably wouldn’t have made it in to playoffs. Every game has been a must-win if we wanted to accomplish our goals, and we have.”
While senior tailback Mike Mansnerus has had a stellar season, gaining 1,682 yards and scoring 22 touchdowns, the emergence of the passing game has given Avon Lake a balanced offensive attack capable of doing big things.
It’s similar to Avon Lake’s offensive attack when it won the state championship in 2003, behind the running of Jon Schroeder and the receiving of Andrew Means and Trey Stross. Means played at Indiana and Stross is a senior starter for Iowa, which plays at Ohio State on Saturday.
“I think we play best when our offense is balanced,” Dlugosz said. “When you’re one-dimensional, it’s easier for other teams to defend you. Especially in our quarterback and our wide receivers, our confidence has grown with every win. We’re just trying to keep focused on playing one game at a time, one play at a time.”
Contact Dan Gilles at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.