Black River Pirates
COACH: Al Young, 23rd year
2010 RECORD: 6-4, 4-0
RETURNING LETTERMEN: 15
STRENGTHS: The lines, both offensive and defensive. Almost all starting linemen are back. The most visible of the group is senior defensive end John Guilford, a first-team Division IV All-Ohio selection in 2010. There's plenty of speed in the backfields, including Austin Phillips, a high school rarity as a fast fullback.
WEAKNESSES: As with so many smaller schools, depth is an issue. The Pirates have had a tendency in the past few seasons to be slow starters.
SCOUTING REPORT: A powerful offensive line can turn good running backs into great ones, and Black River hopes that's what will happen this season. With veterans Doug Church, Marshall Mayhugh, Evan Gibson and Terry Sas on the interior, the Pirates hope their speedy backfield produces points. Dakota Dodge, Jake Sexton (lost to injury in '10) and Austin Phillips will try to offset the loss of 1,000-yard rushers Matt Joppeck and Jake O'Connor. Black River has to be considered a contender for another conference championship. If the Pirates can put up some victories against non-conference foes, there's a good chance for a playoff berth.
COACH: Thom Lesiecki, first year
2010 RECORD: 3-7, 0-4
RETURNING LETTERMEN: 13
STRENGTHS: There will be a lot of experience on the field this year, and even more experience on the sidelines. The Cardinals have an athletic senior class and have been bolstered by talent from good athletes who have made their marks in other sports.
WEAKNESSES: Depth will be an issue. Plus, a lack of a successful football tradition must be put behind the team.
SCOUTING REPORT: Thom Lesiecki, former head coach at New London, takes over for Dick Kerschbaum just days before the season opener. Kerschbaum, who replaced the suddenly departed Keenan Leichty, had to suddenly step down himself for health reasons. But Lesiecki has experience. He was also head coach at Lorain Catholic and has been offensive coordinator at Western Reserve. Plus, Vern Long, whom Kerschbaum brought to his staff this year, has been coaching since the 1960s. The Cardinals (0-10 in 2008) made strides under Leichty and hope to conitinue that improvement. With the starting offensive backfield returning, there's a likelihood the Cards will have a record better than 3-7 in 2011.
COACH: Billy Burke, fifth year
2010 RECORD: 3-7, 2-2
RETURNING LETTERMEN: 13
STRENGTHS: The offensive and defensive lines are experienced. The running game should be effective.
WEAKNESSES: There is a lack of experience in other areas. The starting lineup isn't big, with two-way star Tyler Carrow the heaviest of the group at 215 pounds.
SCOUTING REPORT: Three starters return on the interior offensive line and on the line in the 3-4 defense. Both will be led by Carrow, Buckeye's biggest returning star. Billy Doerge, also the starting free safety, takes over at quarterback. He will be helped by bruising fullback Rick Monroe, but the tailback spot and all receiver positions will have new starters. With an improved PAC Stars Division and rugged non-conference rivals, the Bucks will be hard-pressed to post a winning record.
COACH: Mike Passarello, first year
2010 RECORD: 2-8, 1-6 (West Shore Conference)
RETURNING LETTERMEN: 22
STRENGTHS: Experience, with starters returning at 18 positions. Size along the lines is excellent.
WEAKNESSES: A new coach is trying to install a new system for competition in a new conference.
SCOUTING REPORT: The Falcons appear to be champing at the bit to begin play in the Patriot Athletic Conference, where school size is more in line with their school's enrollment. They have plenty of starters returning from last year's team, led by three All-Ohio picks - Kyle Smith (quarterback/safety), Joe Kudela (running back/linebacker) and Nick Deichler (running back/safety). The team is senior-dominated. It will be hard to predict where Firelands might finish in the Stars Division, having faced the new rivals so infrequently in the past, but on paper the Falcons appear to be a team that can't be overlooked.
COACH: Rob Clarico, eighth year
2010 RECORD: 4-6, 2-2
RETURNING LETTERMEN: 3
STRENGTHS: Speed and determination.
WEAKNESSES: Lack of experience and size.
SCOUTING REPORT: Keystone is a work in progress. The team has only six seniors and two of its returning starters are just sophomores. If the Wildcats can get it together quickly, they can win a few games. Marcus Gunter, a starter in the defensive backfield, is the new quarterback. He's athletic but, like almost all around him, untested. The one star on the Wildcats is Ryan Clement, a speedy senior running back who'll need to jump-start the offense.
COACH: Matt Stoll, 22nd year
2010 RECORD: 4-6, 2-2
RETURNING LETTERMEN: 9
STRENGTHS: Solid at key positions like quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, left tackle, middle linebacker and secondary.
WEAKNESSES: Despite a return to healthy numbers, the Dukes will have to play most starters both ways. Only six seniors on the roster.
SCOUTING REPORT: A core group of experienced players will lead Wellington this year. Clay Wright was a Division IV All-Ohio defensive pick in 2010. He will lead the defense from his middle linebacker position and be the go-to guy in the running game. Quarterback Dylan Weidrick became a starter in Game 4 and led the Dukes to a 4-3 record. Look for Wellington to return to its traditional wing-T offense, after a season of using the spread offense often.
The only safe bet in the Stars Division is that there are no safe bets.
"Our division is up for grabs," Wellington coach Matt Stoll said.
Black River, after losing its first four games, won its final six games - including all four against Stars opponents - to take the championship. This year, there are three teams that have a legitimate shot of keeping the Pirates from repeating.
"Black River won it last year and they have to be considered the favorite this year," Stoll said. "I'd say them and Firelands are the choices, but I hope we can be in the running."
With a solid group of returning starters, Wellington should battle for the title. The Dukes are led by Clay Wright, the team's leading rusher and scorer, its top defensive player and a third-team All-Ohio selection. Wellington has seven returning starters on offense - including a majority of the backfield and receivers - and six starters back on defense.
Black River's returnees are mostly on the lines. The backfields are mostly new, but coach Al Young likes the speed of the guys who'll replace departed super-runners Matt Joppeck and Jake O'Connor. The Pirates also boast a first-team Division IV All-Ohio selection in defensive end John Guilford.
"We expect a tough game with Wellington," Young said. "It's always a tough game against them. I don't know much about Firelands."
Firelands comes into its new conference loaded with experience. Granted, most of the experience was gained through injuries to starters, but with three All-Ohioans (Joe Kudela, Kyle Smith, Nick Deichler) and 22 lettermen around, the Falcons have to be viewed as a candidate for a title.
Buckeye has tradition on its side, and should never be written off. A 3-7 record last year was hardly an indication of what the Bucks are capable of doing. Buckeye has a lot of holes to fill, but if some projected starters complement the talented veterans, the Bucks could make noise.
Brookside lost coach Keenan Leichty abruptly. Athletic director Dick Kerschbaum has taken over and hopes to see continuation of the gradual improvement the Cardinals made since going winless in 2008.
"We're making up ground a bit," Kerschbaum said. "If we stay healthy, we have a chance to be very competitive in the division."
Keystone is the youngest and most inexperienced team by far in the PAC Stars. It will be interesting to see how quickly the Wildcats can gel, something they'll have to do if they plan to compete in the division this year.
"The good thing is our last five games are against division opponents," Keystone coach Rob Clarico said. "We hope to have everybody ready by then."
THE TOP PLAYERS
Tyler Carrow, Buckeye
An outstanding two-way lineman who had eight sacks in 2010
Ryan Clement, Keystone (above)
This swift senior scored three of his four touchdowns last season on punt and kick returns
Nick Deichler, Firelands
Ran for 869 yards (6.1 yards per carry) and scored eight TDs rushing and receiving
John Guilford, Black River
A special teams demon whose eight blocked punts/kicks last year helped him be named Division IV All-Ohio
Joe Kudela, Firelands
His play at linebacker earned him an All-Ohio nod, but he's also a dangerous receiver out of the backfield
Kyle Smith, Firelands
A versatile quarterback (also an outstanding safety) who passed for 1,106 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2010
Clay Wright, Wellington
Possibly the best two-way player in the division with 869 rushing/receiving yards, 11 TDs and 142 tackles
Sept. 30, Wellington at Firelands
This will be Firelands' first game as a member of the PAC Stars Division. The foe is an old rival from the defunct (since 2004) Lorain County Conference.
Oct. 7, Black River at Wellington
This backyard rivalry almost always produces great games. This year should be no exception, as the Pirates and Dukes are among the division favorites.
Oct. 28, Keystone at Black River
Black River swept the division in 2010, but got its stiffest challenge from Keystone in a 7-0 victory. This game on the final regular-season weekend could be decisive.
BY THE NUMBERS
Victories by Black River in the first three games of the season over the last six years.
Victories by Black River over the past six seasons, a 68 percent winning rate in Games 4-10.
Return yards on opening kickoff by Keystone's Ryan Clement (for a touchdown) in a 33-14 victory over Firelands, the only game between the Falcons and a PAC Stars Division team in 2010.
Black River 6-1 6-4
Brookside 1-6 3-7
Buckeye 3-4 3-7
Keystone 2-5 4-6
Wellington 4-3 4-6
Brooklyn 2-5 3-7
Clearview 5-2 7-3
Columbia 7-0 9-1
Lutheran West 5-2 5-5
Oberlin 0-7 0-10
Division V, Region 18
Hamler Patrick Henry 35, Columbia 12