AVON — When it comes to the cream of the local high school crop, you have to look no further than Avon.
The Eagles have won the West Shore Conference and qualified for the Division II playoffs in each of the last three seasons, advancing all the way to the Division II state championship game two seasons ago — the first Lorain County team to accomplish as much since Avon Lake in 2004.
And, if you ask head coach Mike Elder, who has guided Avon to the postseason five times during his six years, the credit for that success goes solely to the players.
“I credit a lot of our success to the kids first,” Elder said. “We are blessed with great kids who put in the time and effort. We’re really demanding of them and they don’t waver from it. It’s not for everyone. We had 115 kids that said they wanted to play football (this summer), and we’re now down to 92. It’s not easy. If it was easy, everyone would do it.
“Each year, your players are going to change and your talent level is going to change. But make no mistake about it, we’ve been good because we’ve had great players. I do have great coaches, but as the old saying goes, you can’t make chicken salad out of chicken (bleep). We’re not dealing with chicken (bleep). We’re making chicken salad because we’ve got some good chicken.”
Elder and his coaching staff will have to find some new ingredients this year, specifically on the offensive side. Only five of 11 starters return and the Eagles will have to replace talented athletes, such as quarterback David Zeh, running back Ross Douglas (Michigan) and wide receiver Ralph Smith (Ball State).
Senior Tommy Glenn is the frontrunner to become the starting quarterback, but he’s facing a tough challenge from sophomore Jake Sopko.
“Our senior will always get the first crack at the position and Tommy’s done a great job and he’s worked really hard to better himself and better his game,” Elder said. “Jake Sopko’s a young man that can be pretty special down the road, we think. We can’t determine who the starting quarterback is until we play our scrimmages and, hopefully after the North Olmsted scrimmage (Saturday), we have a pretty good idea of what we want to do so we’re ready for our first game of the year.
“But we feel comfortable with those two guys, and that’s a good problem to have.”
Senior Antonio Orr is the frontrunner to take over at tailback among a deep field of four runners vying to run the ball, while seniors Rhys Ratino and Braeden Friss return as starters at wide receiver.
“I expect our offense to come around here pretty soon, and when it does, it’s going to be very dangerous,” said senior left tackle Walter Rauterkus, a 6-foot-7, 290-pounder that has verbally committed to West Virginia. “The new guys are stepping up well. Tommy (Glenn) is looking good at quarterback and we’ll have really good running backs in Antonio Orr and Joe Travagliante.”
The Eagles should be stout defensively, with seven starters returning, led by senior outside linebacker Kevin Maloney, senior defensive Domonic Bodnar and junior inside linebacker Cory Ohradzansky. Maloney and Bodnar are two of the team’s six captains.
“The defense is the strength of our team,” Elder said. “They’ve been beating the crap out of our offense through practice, but that’s to be expected in some ways. We’ve got seven returning starters on defense, while we only have a few returning starters on offense.
“We have every linebacker back, two of our safeties and one of our corners back. On the D-Line, we have one kid back who was a second-team All-Ohioan in Domonic Bodnar. We feel really good about our defense, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.”
Maloney, who is being looked at by a few MAC and Division I-AA schools, emerged with 77 tackles in his first year as a starter – 12 for loss – with 5.5 sacks.
“I think our defense is going to be outstanding,” Maloney said. “We’re returning seven starters, so that’s going to be a lot of fun. I always have to come to games and practices at 100 percent and making sure I’m doing the right things.
“We have high expectations for our team every year and it would be very disappointing if we didn’t accomplish our goals. But we’ve got to start Week 1 on a high note and work every week from there to get those computer points to get back to the postseason.”
With Avon’s impending departure to the Southwestern Conference, Elder knows it raises the stakes in the West Shore Conference race.
“I like our league,” Elder said. “A lot of people thought it was a football decision to get out of the West Shore Conference, and I can promise you that it was definitely not a football decision. This league has served us well. It’s prepared us for the playoffs. We’ve had success in this league. But all in all, with the size of our school and how we’re growing in all sports holistically in our program, it just makes sense to surround yourself with schools more your size that are bigger.
“With that being said, a lot of people in our league don’t believe that, so the bulls-eye on our back just got even bigger. Our league is going to be super-competitive, and I think it’s going to be a fun season in the West Shore Conference. There are no gimmees on the schedule anymore. You better come ready to play each week if you want to win.
“I remember when I first got here, everyone referred to us as the ‘We Suck Conference,’ and I don’t think many people are saying that anymore. I really believe it’s a good conference and it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Elder says he doesn’t measure a team’s success by wins and losses but on how they prepare and work and perform during games.
“What this team has done has lived up to their responsibility to the alumni who played here before them,” Elder said. “I think everyone who wore an Avon uniform in the past will be proud of this group of kids, and that’s me saying that before the season begins. I can tell whether we’ll be successful or unsuccessful before the season begins, and I can tell we’re going to be successful because our kids have worked extremely hard.”
Contact Dan Gilles at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
CONFERENCE: West Shore
2012 RECORD: 11-2, 7-0 (D-II regional finalist)
COACH: Mike Elder, 13th year (7th at Avon), 108-37 (58-14)
RETURNING LETTERMEN: 20
RETURNING STARTERS: 12 (5 offense, 7 defense)
FAST FACT: Avon is aiming not just for its fourth-consecutive WSC championship, but also its fourth-straight playoff berth as well. They’ve been to the playoffs six times – five of those within in the past 10 years.
Aug. 29 Avon Lake (7)
Sept. 6 Cleveland East Tech (7)
Sept. 12 at Twinsburg (7)
Sept. 20 at Lakewood (7)*
Sept. 27 Midview (7)*
Oct. 4 Elyria Catholic (7)*
Oct. 11 at North Ridgeville (7)*
Oct. 18 Rocky River (7)*
Oct. 25 at Olmsted Falls (7)
Nov. 1 at Bay (7)*
* West Shore Conference game