At times, it didn’t matter who was touching the football. They could run, they could cut, and they were gone.
In various ways, with an array of weapons, the Rocky River Pirates applied this formula on a weekly basis throughout 2006.
And the scary thing – what makes the Pirates so formidable again in 2007 — is the faces really haven’t changed all that much. Aside from a few select positions, Rocky River returns the bulk of its riches at the skill positions, making the West Shore Conference a two-tiered league: the Pirates and everybody else.
“I’ve always been a believer that if you want to be a champion, you have to beat the champion,” said North Ridgeville coach Jeff Riesen. “I think you have to look at the speed and athleticism that Rocky River brings back, with all that experience, and say that they’re the favorites.”
The Pirates return the foundation of what was one of the most explosive offenses in the league last season, led by senior quarterback Andy Breidigam, a powerful, explosive backfield tandem in senior tailback Jon Gipson and junior running back Zach Youseff, along with senior wide receiver Sean Belanger.
Perhaps the seminal moment of 2006 came in Rocky River’s Sept. 22 matchup with Midview. Gipson, the team’s leading rusher, was on the sidelines, unable to walk, and the Pirates threw Youseff, a green-eared sophomore, into the fire. He just happened to rip off 182 yards on 28 carries in a 17-7 Rocky River victory.
The win, coupled with a Pirates knocking off North Ridgeville four weeks later, all but wrapped up the conference crown, and gave Rocky River its first trip to the playoffs in school history.
That championship, however, came by razor-thin margins. The West Shore will be entering its third year of existence. And though the Pirates, who went 9-2 overall with a sterling 7-0 in the WSC, would appear to be the favorites, their margin of error is far from comfortable.
Midview returns seven starters off last year’s defense, which was arguably the league’s best, giving up a meager 8.7 points per game and not a single point over the final 20 quarters of the season.
North Ridgeville brings back three starters off last year’s outstanding offensive line, along with a two-year starter at quarterback in senior Eric Proszek. Perhaps more importantly, recent history is on the Rangers’ side. Over the last two seasons, North Ridgeville’s gone a combined 11-3 in West Shore Conference play.
“When this league started two years ago, I told everyone that I thought Midview and North Ridgeville were going to be the teams that were perennial contenders just because of their size,” said Rocky River coach Ron Lewis. “They’re the two biggest schools in the league, and they have veteran coaches (Riesen at North Ridgeville and Bill Albright at Midview) who have a history of building strong programs.”
The WSC is undergoing a significant transition, as half the teams will have new coaches: Avon (Mike Elder), Fairview (Brooks Baird), Firelands (Rock Farlow) and Bay (Mike Peragord).
“It’s amazing,” said Albright. “Half the league has turned over in one year. In fact, in our
10-game schedule, only three teams have the same coaches: Vermilion (Frank Horvath), North Ridgeville (Riesen) and Rocky River (Lewis). When you look at our other opponents — such as Elyria, Amherst, Buckeye and Firelands — it’s kind of scary.”
All of which creates a greater sense of the unknown.
Vermilion will be entering its third year under Horvath and stands to show significant improvement after bringing back 13 starters on both sides of the ball.
“A lot of it is just growing,” said Horvath. “They know what’s expected of them, and it’s another year in the system. It creates a greater sense of confidence.”
Avon graduated its most prolific runner in school history (Bobby LaRosa), yet brings back seven starters on offense. With all the turnover at Bay, Firelands, Avon and Fairview, there will be a new coaches crafting strange, unfamiliar styles.
“When you play teams like North Ridgeville and Midview, you know what you’re going to get,” said Horvath. “But this year, you don’t know what to expect from half the league.”
Football coaches teach their players to wear blinders — to stare only at what lies directly ahead. Ignore the teams on the periphery. And never, ever, overlook their next opponent.
But, if only for a moment, Riesen broke this rule. And part of the reason was the way the Rangers’ 2007 schedule is aligned.
North Ridgeville won’t be easing into its WSC schedule — it will arrive with all the subtlety of a smack to the face. In Week 4 — the team’s opener in the WSC — the Rangers face Rocky River on the road, which could well determine just who wins the league.
“I suppose that means we’d better have a good start,” joked Riesen. “But it wouldn’t matter really when we play them. Every week, you have a chance to lose a ballgame if you’re not totally prepared. Whoever wins this league will be the team that has the fewest letdowns and can get better every week."
WEST SHORE SCOUTING REPORT
Not many leagues have undergone quite as much turnover as the West Shore. Consider that half the teams will have new coaches (Avon, Fairview, Bay, Firelands). And one year after boasting perhaps the greatest collection of running backs in the state, only one school will return with its backfield intact (Rocky River).
In a year of rapid transition, new coaches, new quarterbacks, new backfields and when new offensive schemes seem to be the rage, Rocky River is the exception. The Pirates, who held off Midview and North Ridgeville in 2006 for their first-ever postseason appearance, bring back all-conference starters at quarterback (Andy Breidigam), tailback (Jon Gipson) and wide receiver (Sean Belanger), along with an outstanding contingent of linebackers.
Midview has perhaps the league’s best defense, bringing back seven starters off a unit that pitched five shutouts a year ago, led by linebacker Ross Moore, cornerback Adam Koubek, defensive end Drew Ebersole and tackle Robert Catalano.
North Ridgeville also stands among the elite in the WSC, having gone 11-3 the last two years in league play. The Rangers won’t have the luxury of a workhorse back that they’ve had in recent years, but will feature a more balanced offense, along with a physical, hard-hitting defense.
Vermilion believes it can crack the WSC’s top tier. The Sailors return much of their offensive line and interior defense from a year ago and expects big things from quarterback Ryan Hurd. The problem could be the schedule: the Sailors face a brutal
five-week opening stretch.
Then there are the unknowns.
No one is sure just what to expect of Avon, who brings in a highly regarded new coach in Mike Elder, along with spiking numbers of student participation. The Eagles stand to improve rapidly — they return a two-year starter at quarterback in Ryan O’Rourke, along with a bevy of weapons on the offense.
Bay has a new coach in Mike Peregord and returns one of the top linemen in the league in Robert Rossman. But with so much inexperience at key positions, the Rockets have a thin margin for error.
The same holds true for Fairview, who hired Brooks Baird to fix a sagging program. The Warriors bring back just three starters off last year’s team, which went 1-6 in league play. Baird envisions a highly-disciplined, physical football team, but that might take time.
Firelands ended last season with only 16 players on its roster. That number has swelled to 42, as the team hired a new coach in Rock Farlow. Still, the Falcons are a long-term project and will likely struggle.
Contact Pete Alpern at 329-7137 or email@example.com.