Coach: Chad DiFranco, first year
2010 record: 8-2, 5-2
Returning lettermen: 15
Strengths: The battery. Veterans at quarterback, running back and along the offensive line should keep the Comets humming when they have the ball. Brennan Hosier returns at quarterback after a stellar junior season, and DiFranco says left tackle Gino Cioffi has a shot at playing at a Division I college. Jordan Irvin takes over for Jason Stump as the primary ball carrier, and Draake Thompson - who last year transferred from Lorain - gives the Comets a playmaker on the edge.
Weaknesses: The hump. DiFranco, an assistant in the program the last 12 years and defensive coordinator the last six, and players talked about the program's inability to win an SWC title since 2000, despite playoff appearances in the meantime. The Comets were 8-0 last season before two losses by a combined seven points, and haven't beaten Avon Lake in 11 years.
Scouting report: Did Hosier make the men or did the men make Hosier? Five senior wide receivers are gone, but former coach Kevin Fell said those players burst onto the scene with Hosier. He'll have to mesh quickly with another group. DiFranco said Matt Hess, Cody Sheets and Warren G. Harding transfer Tray Waite will anchor the defense, but the Comets may have to score plenty.
Avon Lake Shoremen
Coach: Dave Dlugosz, 19th year
2010 record: 8-3, 6-1
Returning lettermen: 14
Strengths: Tradition. Dlugosz said the Shoremen have a big group of seniors, but they're inexperienced seniors. "What happens is our younger guys get a real good imprint on how to succeed," Dlugosz said. "They understand how the program works and the work it takes." Avon Lake's backfield should again carry the squad; Dontez Smith will get the bulk of carries, but Mickey Steiner and Laurendai Ellis also will get their hands on the ball. Last year's fullback and backup quarterback Chris Jedlicka will take over behind center, relieving Trent Toy.
Weaknesses: Dlugosz said he did a poor job last year of getting new players in the proper positions, and that led to the team's slow start; it was humbled at home in Week 1 by Avon, a game in which the Shoremen were unveiling millions of dollars of improvements to their home stadium. He said this year the Shoremen staff must recognize players' best spots sooner.
Scouting report: The Shoremen lost five players who will suit up on Saturdays this fall, but doesn't it seem like they lose a ton each year? Dlugosz continues to preach a one-game-at-a-time mantra, which suits his players fine: They get an early rematch against Avon. You can bet the Shoremen players are looking forward to Week 8, as well: Brecksville dealt Avon Lake its only SWC loss a year ago, 21-14.
Coach: Matt Wilson, fifth year
2010 record: 0-10, 0-7
Returning lettermen: 11
Strengths: The Braves inherited Midpark transfer Brandon Haney, a junior who ran for 1,000 yards last year for the Meteors, and he figures to be a big part of the plan. Senior quarterback C.J. Snider, who attended Berea as a freshman, transferred back from Lakewood, where he spent the last two seasons. He'll compete with Brady Spigiel for the starting job. Spigiel took over last year after Bree Svigelj broke his clavicle on the first series of the Braves' season opener.
Weaknesses: Depth on the lines. The Braves have about 50 players in camp, and five to seven solid linemen. But that's not enough, Wilson said. "We'd like to limit the number of guys we play two ways, but it probably is not going to happen," Wilson said.
scouting report: Wilson jokingly thanked the SWC for a nice little favor - a meat-grinder stretch to open league play, with Brecksville at home and consecutive road games against Amherst, Avon Lake and Olmsted Falls. With the admitted lack of depth in the trenches, the Braves usually are beaten up after that stretch, and this year figures to be no different.
Coach: Jason Black, third year
2010 record: 7-4, 5-2
Returning lettermen: 15
Strengths: Returners at the skill positions, including quarterback Tom Tupa, whose dad, Tom, is a former Browns punter and currently Brecksville's offensive coordinator. Tupa is 25 pounds heavier, Black said, and a team captain. "An experienced quarterback is a great thing to have," Black said. "He relishes his role." Two juniors and a sophomore wideout will be his top targets.
Weaknesses: Size. Black said the Bees always are looking for linemen, a problem in a conference where Avon Lake and Amherst always seem to have them in abundance. "We don't breed the
6-foot-3, 240-pound kid," Black said. "We have scrappers. We have to use our strengths to our advantage."
Scouting report: The Bees made the Division I, Region 2 playoffs last year on the strength of a Week 8 victory over Avon Lake; the postseason berth is something their coach said helps in many ways. "It shows that hard work pays off, and keeps the guys coming into the weight room," Black said. Olmsted Falls coach Jim Ryan said the Bees should be a top contender in the league.
Coach: Dave Stupka, third season
2010 record: 2-8, 1-6
Returning lettermen: 20
Strengths: Experience. The Meteors return junior quarterback Doug Verbofsky, who started last year's final seven games, along with a deep receiving corps and four of five offensive line starters. Plus, Stupka said seven defensive starters return. "We have a lot of guys who have a lot of experience under their belts," he said.
Weaknesses: Stupka said he's been in this situation before, with a bunch of players back from the previous season, and it just hasn't meshed. "We have to learn how to win, which is not easy to do based on our competition," he said. The Meteors also surely will miss Haney, the running back who will play across town at Berea.
Scouting report: Stupka, despite all those returning starters, is tamping down expectations, likely to keep his players level-headed. "It's evident we're better at this point than we were last year," Stupka said. "But I just don't know how we stack up. We'll be the best team we can be." Midpark opens against Parma, then plays Valley Forge and Eastlake North before jumping into SWC play.
North Olmsted Eagles
Coach: Mike Ptacek, seventh year
2010 record: 4-6, 2-5
Returning lettermen: 18
Strengths: Skill positions. Three backs are back, including three-year varsity performer Marc Remy. Add in Shamir Tomlinson and Joe Lumpkin, and North Olmsted can exploit teams' defenses. Ptacek said the battle to replace tough quarterback Michael Shoemaker is ongoing, though opposing coaches are raving about sophomore quarterback Brad Novak, a lefty. Ptacek said he's still competing with senior Brendan Bussey.
Weaknesses: Ptacek said the Eagles are inexperienced on the offensive line, which could limit the advantage allowed by the team's skill positions. Plus, Ptacek said he's preaching toughness in camp; the Eagles in 2010 lost four games in which they led in the fourth quarter. "We want to get tougher," Ptacek said. "We've been trying to get that message through from Day One."
Scouting report: In informal surveys of the league's coaches, the Eagles repeatedly popped up as a team that could make some noise in league play. Remy has experience to spare, and should lead this group as it tries to scale the mountain of usual suspects.
Olmsted Falls Bulldogs
Coach: Jim Ryan, 23rd year
2010 record: 9-4, 6-1
Returning lettermen: 15
Strengths: Quarterback Brennan Laird. The 6-foot-3, 195-pounder is back for a third year behind center, though his sophomore year was cut short by an injury. He's one of seven returning starters from a Bulldog team that lost to eventual state champ Maple Heights in the Division II, Region 6 final last November.
Weaknesses: Uncertainty and depth. Jeremy Ortiz, who ran for more than 1,400 yards, and mainstays on a big offensive line are gone. The Bulldogs have just 13 seniors, and will rely on split end Drew Mekeeta, tight end Eric Meehan and wide receiver Nate Ferster to give Laird throwing targets.
Scouting report: It'll depend on how well Laird can lead the Bulldogs' new-look offense. Ryan said he and his staff try to adapt to their players, and this year's team will look more like the teams led by former All-SWC quarterback Tyler Sparks, rather than handing off to Ortiz three straight times.
Coach: Mark Campo, second year
2010 record: 6-4, 3-4
Returning lettermen: 15
Strengths: Speed, which Campo is trying to exploit as he installs a new no-huddle spread offense, which likely will surprise some Demon fans who saw a lot of running back Jonathan Brick last season. Campo said it's an effort to adapt to personnel; two quarterbacks - senior Phil Brusk and junior Sean Turk - are battling for the top job, while senior receivers Kyle Perkins and Anthony Zappone and junior Brian McKinsey will be their targets.
Weaknesses: The Demons lost 25 seniors, a chunk of whom played along each line, and Campo said "it all depends on our guys upfront." It's a young team, and Campo said it would rely on a handful of sophomores to play key roles.
Scouting report: Campo said the Demons, who were prolific at times running the ball with Brick, were beaten upfront by the likes of Avon Lake and Amherst. "We're trying to make the opponent defend the entire field," Campo said, alluding to teams stacking the box against his team last year.
THE TOP PLAYERS
Brennan Hosier, Amherst
Stepped in and led the Comets to an 8-0 start last year in his first year at quarterback. Threw for 2,851 yards and 20 touchdowns while completing 60 percent of his passes.
Tom Tupa, Brecksville
He has the pedigree. The junior quarterback gained 25 pounds and added to his arm strength, according to Bees coach Jason Black. Can he carry the Bees to the top of the SWC hive and past the first round of the playoffs, where they lost to Solon last year?
Dontez Smith, Avon Lake
A fullback, Chris Jedlicka, has replaced experienced quarterback Trent Toy, and wideout Ronnie Willoughby is off to enjoy a Buffalo winter. Shoremen coach Dave Dlugosz said he has depth at the running back position, but Smith, a senior, will carry the heaviest load.
Gino Cioffi, Amherst
New Comets coach Chad DiFranco says the junior left tackle has a chance to play major Division I college football, and he looked the part in early practices.
Brennan Laird, Olmsted Falls (at right)
The normally run-heavy Bulldogs will alter their style based on this year’s personnel. Jeremy Ortiz, a 1,400-yard rusher, and a gang of beefy linemen are gone, so Laird, a senior quarterback, will operate a more open offense this season. The 6-3, 195-pounder has shown flashes before, and this is his opportunity to shine.
Brad Novak, North Olmsted
The sophomore southpaw quarterback is getting rave reviews from SWC coaches who saw him play junior varsity last season, though Eagles coach Mike Ptacek said his quarterback competition still was open. The Eagles also are a trendy pick to make some noise, and Novak likely eventually will pair with North Olmsted’s deep backfield for a formidable offensive combination.
THE TOP GAMES
Sept. 30, Brecksville at North Olmsted
Two trendy sleeper teams face off in a game that should feature two of the conference’s best offenses. The Eagles and Bees have plenty of playmakers returning on the edges and in the backfield.
Oct. 14, Brecksville at Avon Lake
The Bees nearly derailed the Shoremen’s playoff hopes in Week 9 last season with a 21-14 home victory, and this likely will be a crucial game again, both in the SWC race and in the Division I playoff hunt. Avon Lake moved up to Division I, Region 2 in the offseason.
Oct. 28, Avon Lake at Amherst
This list wouldn’t be complete without it. The teams played another thriller last year, a Shoremen win that clinched a SWC co-championship and a playoff berth while knocking Amherst out. The Comets are hungry for their first conference title since 2000, and despite graduating plenty are confident this could be the year.
If coaches’ responses to a question gauging who surprises in the SWC might be are any indication, this could be the league’s wildest year yet.
Olmsted Falls coach Jim Ryan — whose club surprised some by sharing the league title with Avon Lake last year — said North Olmsted and Brecksville are teams to watch.
Midpark coach Dave Stupka said Berea — the Braves went 0-7 in the league last year, but return a ton of players who now have experience — is dangerous, and he’d heard that Westlake had a good summer.
The Demons, coach Mark Campo said, are opening up their offense to a no-huddle spread.
Heck, the Meteors, despite Stupka’s willingness to admit only that they are “just trying to be the best team we can be,” return 20 lettermen and figure to be in the mix if their young guys can learn on the job.
“The usual guys are still going to be there,” Stupka said, “but there are no soft spots on the schedule.”
Avon Lake and Amherst lost plenty from last year, but neither team’s coach is worried. Rather, they say it’s the mark of a good program. Campo agreed, as his team — which started 5-1 last year before fading — lost 25 seniors.
Brecksville figures to be a favorite, given its returning skill players on offense, including pedigreed quarterback Tom Tupa.
Bees coach Jason Black says he’s worried how his undersized lines will match up with the Shoremen and Comets, but with Tupa — who’s gained 25 pounds and the accompanying arm strength — behind center, the Bees figure to be in line for a conference crown and a second consecutive Division I, Region 1 playoff berth.
BY THE NUMBERS
Yards Brecksville is forced to replace with workhorse running back Matt Galland gone to the Air Force Academy. The Bees probably will turn to quarterback Tom Tupa and his wideouts to carry the load. Galland also scored 22 touchdowns, including three in an upset of Avon Lake.
Amherst’s scoring average last year. Much of the Comets’ returning strength is on the offensive line and at the offensive skill positions, so chances are the Comets might have to score in bunches again. Brennan Hosier’s 2,800 yards and 20 touchdowns helped the Comets to that gaudy number in 2010. Can he duplicate the feat with a new cast of characters?
Points Amherst needed — four against Olmsted Falls and five against Avon Lake — to add to its total of 329 and win the SWC and advance to the playoffs. The Comets sound like they haven’t forgotten those points either.
As in yards. As in why Jim Ryan is changing his offense, with Jeremy Ortiz, those rushing yards and a don’t-want-to-meet-these-guys-in-an-alley offensive line out the door.
Team Conf. Total
Avon Lake 6-1 8-3
Olmsted Falls 6-1 9-4
Amherst 5-2 8-2
Brecksville 5-2 7-4
Westlake 3-4 6-4
North Olmsted 2-5 4-6
Midpark 1-6 2-8
Berea 0-7 0-10
Division I, Region 1
Solon 31, Brecksville 7
Division II, Region 6
Maumee 20, Avon Lake 13
Olmsted Falls 41, Cleveland JFK 12
Olmsted Falls 56, Clyde 28
Maple Heights 48, Olmsted Falls 16