ELYRIA — Senior Donovan Warfield has a certain number in mind.
The wide receiver/defensive back will be a three-year starter this season, and he has his school’s football history on his mind.
The Panthers, currently mired in the second-longest streak without qualifying for the OHSAA playoffs in school history, have not tasted the postseason since 2010 when they went 9-1 during the regular season, 10-2 overall and lost in the second round to state semifinalist Orrville.
The longest playoff drought started in 1993 and ended in 2005.
In the six years since 2010, Elyria Catholic has finished 6-4 five times and 5-5 once.
With a difficult non-conference schedule that includes a home game with perennial playoff qualifier Mogadore and road trips to traditional powers Cleveland Central Catholic and Villa Angela St. Joseph added to a Great Lakes Conference schedule loaded with bigger schools, the Division V Panthers have plenty of potential playoff points up for grabs.
Warfield is looking for his senior class to be the one to break the playoff drought, and is aiming for seven wins — at least.
“It’s been since 2010 that we’ve made the playoffs and seem to have gone 6-4 every year,” Warfield said. “Just knowing the type of people that have come through the program … to be one of the seniors called upon for this experience is very important.
“It is extremely important to me to get past that 6-4 mark. This year I feel like people are talking about how we’ve lost a lot of guys and they expect it to be a down year. I think it is going to be an up year. We’ve made a commitment as a team, as a family, and are excited about the challenge.”
Last season the Panthers saw a pattern develop. They would start strong, remain competitive throughout the game and occasionally fade down the stretch. Division V teams playing a Division II schedule typically struggle with depth and wear down late.
This season Elyria Catholic will have an abundance of players playing both offense and defense, but more players will see significant playing time.
Head coach Dave Stupka doesn’t know what kind of team his Panthers will be.
“It’s kind of strange. We’re experienced, but we’re young,” he said. “We have a lot of guys that played as sophomores last year, but we’re still young and learning. We’re trying to get a little bit better each day.
“We still don’t know what kind of team we’re going to evolve into. We’ll see what we’re good at doing when we get into the heat of battle. We do have the ability to spread the field and also have the ability to run the ball and play power football. If we get those two styles going, I think we could be very tough to defend.”
The Panthers have a wealth of talent returning up front, and their offensive and defensive lines will be the strength of the team. Elyria Catholic has eight players that will see time at the five offensive line positions, led by all-conference candidates Gabe Hirsch (6-4, 210-pound senior tackle) and Jack Decker (6-3, 265-pound junior center). Decker and Hirsch were 10-game starters last season.
Nick Pagenstecher (6-0, 210 senior), Griffin Davies (6-2, 210 junior), Andre Rodriguez (5-10, 210 senior), Michael Jessie (5-10, 222 senior), Brian Beury (6-1, 265 junior) and Drew Dykin (6-1, 240 junior) will join to form the unit Stupka hopes will control the line of scrimmage both offensively and defensively.
“Gabe is a solid kid that has worked incredibly hard to become the best player he can be,” Stupka said. “Jack is a wrestler that really understands leverage and has dedicated himself to his conditioning and to getting himself stronger. Nick had a great offseason and in incredible camp. We expect a big year from him.”
Junior Cameron Engrish will start at quarterback.
“He has really worked hard at his craft this entire year,” Stupka said of Engrish. “He’s always looking to improve. His arm has gotten a lot stronger. He’s worked hard in the weight room and has reshaped his body.
“Cameron is at the point where he can make all the throws and now he’s fine-tuning his ability to deliver the ball and direct the offense. We’ve been focusing on that because he’s at that level.”
One of the main weapons at Engrish’s disposal will be Warfield. Warfield started at defensive back as a sophomore and led the team in receiving last season as a junior.
The 6-1, 190-pound speedster will not leave the field much this season.
“Sophomore year he was a starting corner for us, then last year he started at receiver and led the team in receiving while still playing every game at cornerback, returned punts and kicks and did everything under the sun for us,” Stupka said of Warfield. “Donovan had an amazing summer and an amazing camp. He’s extremely dedicated. He has the talent and combines it with a great work ethic. He’s also a great student and a great representative of Elyria Catholic.”
One of the areas Warfield has worked on is his leadership.
“I want to be a leader because we have so many young guys and guys that are inexperienced,” Warfield said. “I know the seniors are going to have to lead these guys if we want to have a successful season.
“My approach has always been to lead by example, but I’m not afraid to call people out when it’s needed. I don’t care what level they’re at, my grade or down to the freshmen, I know I have to point it out when they aren’t doing what we expect them to do.
“Today we had a meeting and I had to kick someone out because they weren’t doing what they were supposed to be doing. Things like that are just a part of it.”
Junior tight end/wide receiver/H-Back Zach Evans will also be depended on to carry a large part of the Panthers’ offensive load. At 6-3, 210-pounds, Evans has put on weight and added strength after his solid sophomore season.
“I put some good weight on but I think I have to be a little more physical at the point of attack,” Evans said. “If I can do that I think I should have a good season.”
Stupka expects a stellar season from the junior.
“I’ve been coaching a long time and Zach is right up at the top of the list when it comes to players who are talented and he combines his ability with a relentless work ethic,” Stupka said. “He is a tireless worker on the field and off the field, always looking to become better. I may have coached other players over the years that had more talent, but the drive and work ethic Zach possesses is unparalleled.
“Zach is destined for great things, both at Elyria Catholic and beyond.”
Elyria Catholic will have a three-back rotation carrying the football, headed by junior Leighton Banjoff. The 6-foot, 195-pounder fumbled away his first varsity carry last season, but bounced back to become one of the team’s main scoring threats inside the 10-yard line.
“We expect big things from Leighton at both the running back position and the linebacker position,” Stupka said. “We have a core of really dedicated and talented players, and Leighton is obviously one of them.”
Warfield is proud of how Banjoff bounced back from the difficult start.
“Leighton is a great example of the kind of guy we have,” he said. “Yeah, he fumbled his first carry but we picked him up and he went on to have a great game and great season.”
Senor Jonah Baker (5-7, 160) and sophomore Chris Jackson (6-1, 188) will also see significant carries this season.
Junior David Griffin (5-9, 170) will be in the mix as well. The receiver and defensive back will be lined up all over the field and should see some carries as well.
“Pound for pound he is one of the toughest young men you will ever find,” Stupka said of Griffin. “He’s going to kick off for us, return punts and kicks, play corner, catch passes. He’s going to do everything for us.
“David is one of those kids that let’s his actions speak for themselves. He’s going to be very important for us in all three phases of the game.”
Seniors Ryan Sustersic (6-1, 195) and Michael Jessie (5-10, 222) will also be depended on to make contributions on both sides of the ball as well.
One thing is certain, when the ball is kicked off on Aug. 25 against Brookside at Knights of Columbus Field, Warfield hopes the Panthers will remind people of some of the great Panthers teams of the past.
“This is my life,” Warfield said. “Football at Elyria Catholic is my life. I have always wanted to be a part of something and EC probably has the best tradition of any program in Lorain County. I look at the way teams have played at EC over the years and I feel we’ve kind of gotten away from it. We have to bring that tradition back this year and I feel like we have the guys to do it.
“Football at Elyria Catholic is such a great thing to be a part of. I love playing on the basketball team, but the turnout for football games is special. Every week, win or lose, we’ll have crowded stands, people on the sidelines, people on the fence and a great atmosphere. There are people everywhere. There really is nothing like it.”
Contact Mike Perry at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Elyria Catholic Panthers
CONFERENCE: Great Lakes Conference
2016 RECORD: 6-4, 3-3
RETURNING LETTERMEN: 16
RETURNING STARTERS: 12 (six offense, six defense)
PLAYOFF APPEARENCES: 14
LAST TIME IN PLAYOFFS: 2010 (Lost to Orrville second round)
NUMBERS GAME: Elyria Catholic turned the ball over just four times last season
PLAYER TO WATCH: Junior running back Leighton Banjoff. After losing a fumble his first varsity carry, Banjoff responded with a solid season for the Panthers, including a two-touchdown performance against Brookside, both scores coming after the fumble.
Aug. 25 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ... Brookside
Sept. 1 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .... at Villa Angela-St. Joseph
Sept. 9 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . at Cleveland Central Catholic (1 p.m.)
Sept. 15 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Mogadore
Sept. 21 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . at Valley Forge*
Sept. 29 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Parma*
Oct. 7 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .…at Holy Name*
Oct. 13 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Bay*
Oct. 20 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Normandy*
Oct. 287 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .… at Rocky River*
* Great Lakes Conference
All games at 7 p.m. unless noted