ELYRIA — It’s transition time at Elyria Catholic.
After this season, the Panthers begin a new era in a new conference, but EC would like nothing better than to exit the West Shore with a championship.
Next year, EC joins the newly founded Great Lakes Conference. The Panthers, Bay and Rocky River move over from the West Shore to join the three Parma schools — Parma Senior, Valley Forge and Normandy along with long-time rival Holy Name, but no one wants to think about that just yet.
“Avon’s been kicking everybody’s butt,” said coach Mike Polevacik (17-13 overall), who begins his 4th season at Elyria Catholic. “We’d like to try and keep them from walking away with it.”
“Avon is definitely the class of the West Shore,” said junior quarterback Jake Kuchta, who is back at his natural position this year. “They’ve been the dominate team. I’m sure there’s a lot of teams in the league that would like to take it away from them.”
It won’t be easy. The Panthers are very young and not very deep but they do have the area’s premier back in two-time All-Ohio performer Justin Rankin.
“He’s special,” said Polevacik, noting that Rankin scored touchdowns running, receiving and returning kicks last year. “Just to show you the type of kid he is. The first day in pads, he stayed after running and doing extra work. He’s willing to put the extra work in. He’s getting D-1 offers.”
“I’m definitely excited,” Rankin said. “The last two years, we were mainly a passing team and didn’t run as much. This year we’re going to pound the ball.”
Rankin accounted for nearly 1,600 yards total for the Panthers a year ago and no doubt he’ll get plenty of touches this year. He can virtually score from anywhere on the field. He had 18 touchdowns a year ago, including three kick returns.
“Justin’s the best athlete I’ve ever been with,” Kuchta said. “We’ll utilize him a number of ways”
Kuchta was Jeremy Holley’s back-up last year and knows firsthand how good the past few quarterbacks have been for the Panthers. EC has a great tradition of excellent quarterbacks.
“I’ve had some great predecessors” he said. “Cody Schuster, Danny Reaser and Holley. That’s pretty impressive.”
“He’s like another coach on the field,” Polevacik said. “His dad (Phil Kuchta) is the basketball coach so he knows what’s expected. He’s a leader out there.”
The Panthers have just six seniors on the roster. They graduated some talented players from last year, including All-Ohio lineman Dakota Tallman and Holley, a three-year starting quarterback, along with the versatile Conner Riddell, Jake Dempsey, Zac Berry, Luke Michalski, Will Washington and Zack Zidek. But Polevacik isn’t about to wave a white flag.
“We’re real young, but we’re experienced,” he said. “We’re not senior heavy but we had a lot of underclassmen contribute a year ago, and we’ll have to have lots of contributions again.”
Maybe there is only six seniors but along with Rankin is two-way wide receiver/strong safety Jake Jagielski to lead the way. Miles Flowers, Zack Sudnick, Will Lacinak and Kyle Bopp are the other seniors. Jagielski returned an interception 90 yards against Elyria a year ago and has had a number of D-III schools interested for next year.
Junior Cole Virgin along with Jagielski figure to be Kuchta’s favorite targets when Rankin gets too much attention.
Veteran coach Jeff Riesen joins EC’s veteran staff this year as offensive coordinator and Polevacik couldn’t be more pleased.
“I’ve taken a lot of history classes in my life, and I know a general is only as good as his commanders,” he said. “He gives me someone to bounce ideas off and he’ll make suggestions. The rest of the staff has been here. It’s all good.”
“I love Coach Riesen,” Rankin said. “We’ll still run our zone offense, but we’ll do things out of it to surprise some teams. I know we’re not as big up front but we’re a lot faster. I don’t think a lot of teams will be able to keep up with our speed.”
The Panthers open with three playoff teams from a year ago, and the schedule gets a little quirky after that with four home games followed by three away as the season progresses. EC needs a fast start if it has playoff hopes. The Panthers open at St. Thomas Aquinas, host Cleveland Central Catholic and visit Beachwood on a Saturday afternoon before starting conference play.
“We need a strong start,” Polevacik said. “Three playoff teams with lots of playoff experience. There is no doubt we need to get off to a good start.”
“We’ve been talking about that,” said Kuchta. “The start is the whole key,”
“The beginning of the season will tell how we do,” Rankin said. “I’m excited. I think a lot of people will underestimate us.”
Contact Tim Gebhardt at 329-7135 or at email@example.com.
Elyria Catholic Panthers
SCHOOL: Elyria Catholic
CONFERENCE: West Shore Conference
2013 RECORD: 6-4 overall, 4-2 WSC
COACH: Mike Polevacik, 4th year (17-13)
RETURNING LETTERMEN: 20
RETURNING STARTERS: 9 (5 offense, 4 defense)
PLAYOFF APPEARANCES: 14
LAST TIME IN PLAYOFFS: 2010
NUMBERS GAME: 57 different Panthers have been named All-Ohio in EC’s illustrious history and four including Justin Rankin were two-time All-state selections. Bryan Thomas, Al McKinney and Geoff Poyle were the others.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Rankin is primed to become the first three-time All-Ohio in school history. Last year Rankin rushed for 1,388 yards, caught 10 balls for 262 yards and scored 18 touchdowns — three by way of return.
Aug. 29 ... at St. Thomas Aquinas
Sept. 5 ... Cleveland Central Catholic
Sept. 13 … at Beachwood 1p.m.
Sept. 19 … Bay*
Sept. 26 … Amherst
Oct. 3 … Avon*
Oct. 10 … Lakewood*
Oct. 17 … at Midview*
Oct. 24 … at North Ridgeville*
Oct. 31 … at Rocky River*
All games 7 p.m. unless otherwise noted
* West Shore Conference