Harrison features new field and faces
By SETH STASKEY
Times Leader Sports Editor
CADIZ — There are certainly a lot of things to be excited about as it pertains to Harrison Central football.
But, head coach Justin Kropka, who is entering his 13th season at the helm, prefers to temper the excitement and simply focus on the process because he knows there’s a long way to go.
Though many of the faces will be different on the field this season, Kropka admitted the goals and approach do not change.
“We’ve gotten (this program) to the point where we want to be competitive for postseason berths,” Kropka said. “Last year, I think we would have made the playoffs in any other region except the one we were in, so we’ve done a good job of putting ourselves in the hunt. But, we just want to work as hard as we can each day and we’ll see how things shake out.”
Though he tries his best to keep his excitement on an even keel, one area where Kropka simply hasn’t been able to do that is over the upgrades at Wagner Field.
Obviously, breaking in seven new starters on both offense and defense has led to some anxious moments. However, the excitement surrounding the new artificial turf has helped to ease the anxiety. The project, which had been talked about or hoped for for several years, came to fruition this spring and Kropka is still pinching himself each time he steps foot on the field.
“We’ve been waiting a long time for a facility like this,” Kropka said. “It’s always a nice thing as a coach to see one of your long-term goals through. I feel like I can exhale now.”
After 12 consecutive years of loading up a bus for Scio for two-a-day practices, the Huskies held their entire camp just outside of their locker room.
“Anytime there’s something that done for a program or your team that’s going to outlast you, how can you ask for anything else?,” Kropka said. “I was blown away by how nice it looked when it was finished because I was just so-so on the gray when we first started talking about it, but (basketball coach) Justin Clifford actually sold me on it. Now that I see it, I am definitely glad we we went that route.”
Though the Huskies played both of their scrimmages — against Wheeling Park and John Marshall — on the new field, they’ll officially christen it for football a week from Friday against Cleveland Rhodes.
“Everyone’s still letting it all sink in,” Kropka said of the field. “It’s been great football wise and it’s also been great for morale, too. This is really something for the kids, school and community to be proud of.”
One thing Kropka wishes was that more kids were out to take advantage of football field, but he realizes he can only control so much.
“Our numbers are way lower than they’ve been in my tenure,” Kropka said. “But, if you coach high school football long enough, you’re going to see the big and small of it in terms of numbers. We’ll make the most of it. It can be challenging at times because sometimes you have to fit square pegs into round holes, but we’ll figure out how to get the best 11 kids on the field.”
The Huskies roster features just 40 players and some of those have been slowed by injuries and such already during the preseason.
On top of the smaller roster size, graduation took a toll as 13 players on last year’s roster collected their diplomas in May.
Included among the graduates were OVAC All-Star Game participants Jesse Ball and Brenton Stull.
Other graduation losses included: Grant Sproul, Shaun Logsdon, Kyle Roberts, Tyler Carter, Jacob Barr, Logan Starr, Malcom Boyer, Nevada Kuryn, Clay Gilliam, Logan Smith and Lance Smith.
“Those kids who graduated weren’t just good players, but they were wonderful kids to coach,” Kropka said. “I enjoyed every minutes we spent together. Some of those guys were pressed into duty as sophomores, so they were like having extra coaches on the field. We’re going to really miss those guys.”
Add up those graduation losses along with a few players decided not to come out for the team and the Huskies are in the market to replace seven starters on both sides of the ball. Not only has it created more inexperienced spots, but it’s also took an obvious toll on the team’s depth.
“We’ve been able to stay relatively injury free the last few years and we’ll need to do that again,” Kropka said. “We are razor thin in some spots, but if we stay healthy, I believe we can be competitive with basically anyone we play again.”
A bit more emphasis was put on the aforementioned scrimmages as Kropka and his staff wanted to see their players get as much game action as possible and for evaluation of so many new faces.
“We wanted to see who can really (play),” Kropka said. “Obviously, we’ve seen them play in reserve games and such, but you’re still not sure what’s going to happen in an actual game until they get in there and have to do it. Different kids react differently when the lights come on. Each year it seems like we have a surprise or two in the scrimmages.”
Though Kropka doesn’t plan to shift to the spread offensive attack, he does think his team will be more of a finese group than its been in years past.
“We have a lot of speed and we want to get our guys in space,” Kropka said. “We’ve done a good job of being versatile on offense in the past and we’ve been able to score a lot of points the last several years. We’ll see what our identity is, but our system gives us the ability to be versatile.”
The Huskies offense does feature some explosiveness as well as experience in some of the skill spots.
At quarterback, senior Wyatt Elias (6-1, 245) returns after a solid junior campaign. He threw for 1,268 yards and 12 touchdowns against just four interceptions. He also rushed for eight scores a season ago.
“Wyatt has the perfect demeanor to play quarterback because nothing bothers him,” Kropka said. “If he throws an 80-yard touchdown or five straight interceptions, he reacts the same. That’s good to have on the field. He’s worked on some little things and he’s a step faster. We’re excited to have him back.”
Sophomore Mark Smith (5-11, 160) is one of the backups for Elias.
Junior Tyler West (5-10, 170) exploded onto the scene last season, putting forth an all-Eastern District campaign from the tailback spot. Despite being slowed by an ankle injury in the middle portion of the season, West rushed for 1,447 yards and 12 touchdowns. He also caught 10 passes for 235 yards and four touchdowns.
“We can be very versatile with how we use Tyler,” Kropka said. “He’s not a big kid, but he runs the ball hard. We know he’s going to be a marked man (by opposing defenses), but he’s prepared for that. He’s put on some good weight and he’s faster.”
West will be joined in the backfield by junior Damon Carpenter (5-10, 195). He, too, is coming off a solid sophomore season. He rushed for 622 yards and seven scores on 80 carries.
Sophomore Tucker Coultrap (6-0, 170) will also see carries and be one of the Huskies’ top return threats. Sophomore Cale McAfee (6-0, 170) is also in the mix.
Senior Coleman Dodds (5-10, 180) and sophomore Heath Pizzino (5-8, 170) have battled for the fullback job during camp.
The wide receiver spot is an area that Kropka is especially excited about.
Senior DeJuan Caldwell (6-1, 175), like West, had a break-out season last year. He caught 25 passes for 443 yards and two touchdowns. He is also one of the area’s premier punt and kick returners. He will also serve as Elias’ primary backup.
“DeJuan did some things you don’t teach last year,” Kropka said. “He’s really developed himself (physically) a little bit more and he’s taken pride, during the offseason, in working on the little things that make you better.”
Senior Caden Arbaugh (6-3, 180) will start opposite of Caldwell on the flank. Junior Caden Dalton (6-0, 160) will also be in the mix along with senior Gage Rapavi (5-10, 155) and talented freshman Kobe Mitchell (5-9, 140). Mitchell has “maybe the best hands on the team,” according to his head coach.
Other receivers vying for time include: senior Trent McDonald (5-9, 155), junior Peyton Taylor (6-1, 165), sophomore Lee Sponagle (5-10, 150), freshmen Kanyon Coleman (5-10, 145), Paul LePlante (5-7, 130) and Jesse McLeod (5-8, 130).
At tight end, senior Lindsey Ball (5-11, 210) has shifted there from fullback and expects to see time despite being slowed this month by an injury. He’s been pushed in camp by junior Eric Perry (6-3, 230), who just moved into the Harrison district during the spring.
Two juniors are also seeking playing time at end. They are Zack Marbias (5-11, 165) and Cody Gamble (6-1, 200).
Though he’s high on his skill players, Kropka fully realizes that if there isn’t time to throw or holes to run through, the skill won’t be able to do much. Harrison lost four of its five linemen to graduation.
“My biggest concern is up front,” Kropka said. “We’ve had some real competition in camp and we’ve done some mixing and matching. We’ve kind of been feeling our way through it. I feel good about some of these guys, but it’s one thing to block a (sled) and another thing to block real players.”
The returning starter is at left guard in three-year starter Ronnie Bowers (5-10, 215). Junior Isiah White (6-2, 265) will be at left tackle, while senior Blake Barnhart (5-10, 210) is taking over at center. On the right side, junior Josh Croft (5-11, 220), who the coaching staff is very high on, will be at guard, while junior Gabe Alexander (6-1, 360) is at tackle. If he’s not at tight end, Gamble will also be in the mix for playing time on the line.
Depth up front is being supplied by seniors Jake Schoup (5-8, 165), Reese Beasley (5-8, 200), juniors Sean Francis (5-10, 210), Damien Sproul (5-10, 265), Nick Gray (5-9, 285), sophomores John Dannehl (6-0, 195), Blayne Milliken (5-9, 145), Haden Stull (5-7, 155), Albert Taylor (5-10, 180), Johnny Jarvis (5-9, 225) and freshman Ron Pauley (5-9, 180).
The kicking job is going to be handled by junior Jobe Postiano (5-10, 145). He saw some time last season. Caldwell will serve as the punter.
On the defensive side, the Huskies will once again employ a 4-4 alignment and boast most of their experience in the second and third levels.
“We’re going to be really young on defense,” Kropka said. “It’s going to be interesting on defense because we just don’t know. We like our back end because we know them. We’re going to do our best to try to hide our weaknesses and accentuate our strengths. We hope to show improvement week to week.”
Bowers will anchor the defense from his inside linebacker spot. He’ll be joined there by Carpenter, who saw time at outside linebacker last season.
“Bowers had a nice year and Carpenter has put on some muscle and we moved him inside because of the number of passing teams we play, we wanted his athleticism there, which is nice to have.”
The outside linebacker spots will be manned by Dodds and McAfee. They’re being pushed by Coultrap, McDonald and Pizzino.
The secondary is solid with Caldwell back at safety. Dalton and West will begin at corner. Also expected to see time in the secondary are Mitchell and Rapavi.
Similarly to the offense, the question mark lies in the trenches. A combination of Ball, Barnhart, Croft and Perry will work at defensive end. The defensive tackle rotation will include White, Gamble, Alexander and Barnhart.
“We like what we’ve seen so far from those guys up front, but we’ll see when the lights come on,” Kropka said. “We’ve taken some baby steps with those guys.”
The Huskies schedule underwent just one change.
The aforementioned four-plus hour road trip to East Hardy on Saturday replaces a game with Claymont, which had to re-adjust its schedule because of its new affiliation with the IVC.
“We had held out hope for Claymont and they did their best to fit us in, but decided to play New Philadelphia in that opening game, so they had to drop us,” Kropka said. “I understood where they were coming from, so we were stuck in need of an opening game.”
After searching far and wide, Kropka’s choices came down to Akron Archbishop Hoban or East Hardy.
“It’s no disrespect to East Hardy, but after looking at both teams on film, they had kids who looked like normal human beings, whereas the guys from Hoban didn’t,” Kropka laughed. “It’s a lengthy road trip, but we’ll make the best of it. It’s a good team we’re going to play.
“We’re not going down there cause it’s a guaranteed win.”
The balance of the Huskies’ schedule includes the identical nine opponents.
Kropka’s coaching staff returns basically intact. He’s being aided at the varsity level by Bryan Mays, Mike Valesko, Cain Noble, Anthony Hayes, A.J. Barsch, Ty Kenny and Willie Walker.
At the junior high level are Orion Bengier, Joe Thomas and Mark Smith.
(all games begin at 7 p.m.)
Aug. 26 — at East Hardy, 7:30
Sept. 1 — Clev. Rhodes
Sept. 8 — Bellaire
Sept. 15 — Union Local
Sept. 22 — at Martins Ferry
Sept. 29 — at St. Clairsville
Oct. 6 — Edison
Oct. 13 — Oak Glen
Oct. 20 — River View
Oct. 27 — at Buckeye Local