WEST SHORE PLAYERS TO WATCH
Andy Breidigam, senior, Rocky River
Breidigam was the top quarterback in the West Shore Conference last season, throwing for 1,554 yards and 16 touchdowns, earning first-team all-WSC honors. Breidigam’s greatest strength is his poise: finding the right read at the right time.
Eric Proszek, senior, North Ridgeville
As a junior, Proszek managed an offense heavily tilted toward the run. This year, the Rangers will expect to be more balanced, relying on the arm and accuracy of Proszek.
Ryan O’Rourke, junior, Avon
Not many players with two years of starting experience are still only halfway through their high school eligibility. But O’Rourke is unique in that he began his varsity initiation as a freshman. O’Rourke will begin his junior year with a new coach implementing a wide open offense.
Top running backs
Jon Gipson, senior, Rocky River
Gipson earned second-team all-WSC honors in a league loaded with running backs. This year, two of the best runners happen to sit in Rocky River’s backfield. Gipson rushed for 1,029 yards and 16 touchdowns in only nine games in 2006.
Zach Youseff, junior, Rocky River
Youseff’s numbers won’t show just how strong a back he really is because of the presence of Gipson. But make no mistake, Youseff can carry the load. When Gipson was injured during Rocky River’s biggest game of the year, against Midview, Youseff went off for 182 yards on 28 carries.
Michael Virgin, junior, Vermilion
As a sophomore, Virgin’s time on the field was limited thanks to the presence of workhorse backs J.P. Krill and John Broz. But all evidence suggests Virgin could be one of the top backs in the league. Vermilion used the 6-foot, 180-pounder as both as a back and receiver.
Top wide receivers
Sean Belanger, senior, Rocky River
At first look, Belanger’s stats aren’t so staggering. He caught 12 passes in 2006 for 216 yards and three scores. But there might not be a tougher wide receiver in the West Shore Conference. At 6-2 and 210 pounds, he’s bigger than many of the league’s linebackers and doesn’t go down easily. And with that size, Belanger is deadly in the red zone.
Sean Harnish, senior, North Ridgeville
One of the reasons the Rangers will be shifting from an offense that ran the ball almost exclusively is the presence of their wide receiver corps. Harnish, a 6-1, 170-pound two-year starter, will be the top deep threat for quarterback Eric Proszek.
Nick Smith, senior, Midview
Smith is one of a handful of potential breakout receivers for the Middies, who will be moving from their traditional Wing T offense to more of an open look. Smith is extremely quick in the open field, capable of turning short receptions into long gains.
Top offensive linemen
Robert Rossman, senior, Bay
Perhaps the top returning offensive linemen in the league, Rossman was outstanding a year ago during a season in which the Rockets went 2-5 in West Shore Conference play. Rossman has size, at 5-11 and 225 pounds, but he’s highly athletic. He’ll anchor Bay’s line this year.
Travis Spees, senior, North Ridgeville
For a team that returns three starters off last year’s standout offensive line, none are as key as Spees, who was a monster at left guard. Spees has unusually good balance for a lineman and will be counted on to create holes for a ground game that’s seen significant turnover in the last year.
Robert Catalano, senior, Midview
Every year, the Middies boast among the most physical offensive lines in the league. It’s one of the biggest reasons their running games have been so prolific. Few are as physical as Catalano, who was an honorable mention all-conference selection.
Drew Ebersole, senior, Midview
Sure, Ebersole’s got the size (6-2, 205), but it’s his explosiveness off the line of scrimmage that makes him such a difficult force to slow down on the pass rush. With his length and speed, not many offensive linemen can stay in front.
Nick Stevenson, senior, Rocky River
Stevenson is the heart and soul of a Rocky River defense whose numbers (40 tackles, five for losses, one fumble recovery) don’t begin to illustrate his impact on the game. Because of Stevenson’s ability to swallow up space and draw multiple linemen, the Pirates’ linebackers have free reign to roam the field.
Dave Rankin, senior, Midview
Maybe the most intriguing defender in the league this season. Rankin was originally a middle linebacker until midway through last year, when the Midview coaching staff shifted him to defensive end. There he flourished, collecting five sacks, tying for the team league.
Matt Breidigam, senior, Rocky River
Any discussion about the top linebackers in the West Shore have to include Breidigam, who was a first-team all-conference selection in 2006. Has a knack for tracking down ball carriers in negative territory, where he collected 12 such tackles.
Jack LaForce, senior, Vermilion
An all-WSC player last season who will be counted on to anchor Vermilion’s defense in 2007. LaForce is so fast and so athletic that it is almost impossible to knock him off his feet. He had 71 tackles, 111/2 of which were for losses last season.
Mike Wilson, senior, North Ridgeville
Personifies what a defensive star should be: has a nose for key plays. In a year in which North Ridgeville will have only six starters back on defense, Wilson’s leadership on the field will be magnified.
Adam Koubek, senior, Midview
Led the county in interceptions last season with six, but his impact goes far beyond picks. He’s a lock-down defender and is known for bone-rattling hits.
Sean Belanger, senior, Rocky River
An even better defender than he is a wide receiver. Was a first-team all-conference selection in 2006, collecting 34 tackles, with one pick. One of the biggest reasons teams struggled against Rocky River last year was its pass defense. Belanger was a big reason why.
Shane Friend, junior, North Ridgeville
Started at free safety as a sophomore and struggled early in 2006. But after four weeks, Friend’s instincts for the game caught up to speed, and by the end of the year he was quarterbacking the defense. Possesses an uncanny intelligence for the position.
Ross Moore, senior, Midview
Moore has the perfect combination of speed and strength. His athletic agility makes him a threat whenever he is on the field. Led the Middies in tackles (88) and tackles for losses (10) in 2006.
Zach Youseff, jr., Rocky River
Can stop runs both inside and out with helmet-jarring collisions. But Youseff doesn’t just provide the pop. He’s a highly disciplined defender who earned all-WSC honors, collecting a staggering 118 tackles as a sophomore.
Jack LaForce, senior, Vermilion
Laid some bone-crushing hits in 2006. But more importantly, he’s one of the surest tacklers in the league. Rarely lets a jersey escape his grasp.
Huron at Vermilion, Aug. 24
Nothing quite starts the football season like an old-fashioned backyard brawl. Huron and Vermilion, both former members of the Lakeland Conference, will engage in one more chapter in the Battle of the Ore. In the last two years, Huron’s won decisively with victories of 41-7 (2005) and 17-0 (2006).
North Ridgeville at Rocky River, Sept. 14
Not exactly a slow initiation into the conference schedule, huh? The Rangers and Pirates will dive straight into a postseason atmosphere in a game that could well decide the West Shore champion barely a month into the season.
Midview at North Ridgeville, Oct. 26
The Rangers saw a highly successful 2006 season melt before their eyes in the final game of the year, as the Middies exploded for 27 unanswered points by halftime. Midview and North Ridgeville will both be in the hunt for a conference crown. This game could decide the winner.
WSC TEAM CAPSULES
Rocky River Pirates
Coach: Ron Lewis (6th year)
Returning starters: 10
Top returnees: Andy Breidigam, sr., QB, 6-2, 180; Jon Gipson, sr., RB, 5-9, 185; Matt Breidigam, sr., LB, 5-10, 170; Zach Youseff, jr., LB/RB, 5-10, 190; Sean Belanger, sr., DB/WR, 6-2, 210; Kevin Orris, sr., OL, 6-2, 250; David Dunne, sr., LB/RB, 6-0, 190.
Keys to season: Coming off a WSC championship that included a 7-0 league record, the Pirates have all the weapons in place to repeat. This is a senior-dominated team, with 24 upperclassmen, which is a luxury few opponents can match.
“The kind of players we’re bringing back are very special,” said Lewis. “You don’t always get this kind of a talent base back for another year.”
Coach: Bill Albright (21st year)
Returning starters: 13
Top returnees: Ross Moore, sr., LB, 6-0, 240; Adam Koubek, sr., QB/DB, 5-11, 175; Drew Ebersole, sr., DL, 6-2, 205; Robert Catalano, sr., OL/DL, 5-11, 225; Nick Smith, sr., WR/DB, 5-10, 155; Dave Rankin, sr., DL/TE, 6-5, 220.
Keys to season: With the consistency of Midview’s football program over the years, it would be unwise to doubt the Middies’ ability to contend any year. That’s especially true in 2007, as they return seven starters from last season’s dominating defense.
The question is how well the offense can mature one year after graduating its outstanding backfield. The Middies will run a more open system, taking advantage of Koubek’s arm, legs and the overall athleticism at the skill positions.
North Ridgeville Rangers
Coach: Jeff Riesen (3rd year)
Returning starters: 11
Top returnees: Eric Proszek, sr., QB, 6-2, 185; Sean Harnish, sr., WR/S,
6-1, 170; Joe Klein, sr., RB/DT, 6-2, 215; Mike Wilson, sr., LB/G, 5-11, 200; Travis Spees, sr., G/DT, 6-2, 245; Shane Friend, jr., DB, 6-3, 190.
Keys to season: The Rangers will be entering their third year under Riesen and look as formidable as ever. They feature one of the league’s most physical offensive and defensive lines — a Riesen trademark.
But North Ridgeville will be inexperienced in some key spots and how far it contends will depend on how quickly new starters acclimate.
Coach: Frank Horvath (3rd year)
Returning starters: 13
Top returnees: Jack LaForce, sr., LB, 6-0, 210; Aaron Sooy, sr., DB, 5-11, 159; Logan Wright, jr., OL/DL, 6-3, 276; Dustin Hendricks, jr., OL/DL, 6-2, 207; Michael Virgin, jr., RB/DB, 6-0, 181.
Keys to season: After taking baby steps the last two years, Vermilion is looking to climb the conference ladder. The Sailors bring back the bulk of their offensive line, along with much of their defensive line and linebacking crew. Last year, Vermilion was undermined by a brutal first half schedule and spent the rest of the year climbing out of a 1-6 hole.
“We need a strong start,” said Horvath. “I think the biggest difference this year is our confidence. You can see it. Everyone expects to win.”
Coach: Mike Elder (1st year)
Returning starters: 13
Top returnees: Ryan O’Rourke, jr., QB, 6-1, 205; John Harrison, sr., LB, 6-1, 205; Justin Masin, sr., OL/DL, 6-0, 225; Mike Logan, sr., OL/DL, 6-3, 265; Marquis Harrell, jr., RB/DB, 5-10, 190; Kyle Gregory, sr., WR/CB,
Keys to season: Elder brings impressive credentials to Avon, after leading Perry to a
37-16 record and two playoff appearances. The Eagles could be in line for a quick rise — but not necessarily this year.
True, Avon returns a two-year starter at quarterback in O’Rourke, along with a strong group of wide receivers and ball carriers. But the line is thin and the overall numbers pale in comparison to Midview, North Ridgeville and Rocky River. Depth is a major concern.
“We have to avoid injury and get into our conference schedule relatively healthy,” said Elder. “The other thing is everyone has to learn the system fairly quickly. It’s a lot to learn and we have to avoid mistakes. We can’t confuse our assignments.”
Coach: Mike Peregord (1st year)
Returning starters: 9
Top returnees: John Rieke, sr., WR/DB, 6-1, 180; Matt Lewis, sr., ILB/G, 6-1, 215; Cayle LaRiccia, sr., OL/DL, 6-2, 220; Robert Rossman, sr., OL/DL, 5-11, 265; Pat McGlynn, sr., TE/DE, 6-4, 215; Brian Boss, jr., LB/TE, 5-11, 275.
Keys to season: The Rockets were 2-5 in the conference last year and will be looking to turn things around after promoting longtime assistant Peregord to head coach. The task won’t be easy.
The Rockets return only limited experience, but fortunately face a fairly light early season conference schedule. A quick start is a must.
Coach: Brooks Baird (1st year)
Returning starters: 3
Top returnees: Kyle Blackburn, sr., FB/LB, 6-0, 200; Dan Seidel, sr., RB/LB, 5-10, 185; Brian Johnson, sr., WR/DB, 6-2, 185; Bryan Benzinger, sr., OL/DL, 6-7, 260, Neal Schaefer, sr., WR/DB, 6-3, 170.
Keys to season: With a new coach and only three returning starters coming off a 1-6 conference season, the Warriors are in for some heavy retooling. Baird wants a physical, disciplined football team, much like North Ridgeville and Midview. But those steps take time and will have to be incremental, which could make for a long season.
Coach: Rock Farlow (1st year)
Returning starters: 7
Top returnees: Nick Forrider, sr., OL/DL, 6-3, 230; Joe Mayer, sr., RB/LB, 5-10, 190; Nate Slack, jr., RB/DB, 5-10, 175; Matt Deichler, jr., RB/LB, 6-3, 220; Paul Garcia, jr., FB/LB, 5-8, 170; Luke Williams, sr., OL/DL, 6-1, 210; Ryan Waldman, so., TE/LB, 6-5, 205.
Keys to season: No team has struggled in the WSC quite like Firelands. The program appeared to be coming apart at the seams last year, as only 16 players finished the season on an 1-9 team. But the hiring of Farlow has re-energized the community and brings hope for an eventual turnaround. The Falcons will be young and though their numbers have improved, depth will take some time to develop.
“We’re going to need to get a win early,” said Farlow. “And we have to hope we avoid injuries.”
— Pete Alpern