Martins Ferry boasts quality cast
By SETH STASKEY
Times Leader Sports Editor
MARTINS FERRY — Dave Bruney has experienced it before.
He’s not one to get caught up in the number of players listed on the roster. He prefers the quality of the players listed.
As the veteran Martins Ferry head coach prepares for his 39th season at his alma mater with a roster that features 42 players in grades 9-12, Bruney took a trip down memory lane to his first season as a head coach, which came in 1978 at Bridgeport.
“It is what it is,” Bruney said of his team’s numbers. “We won the OVAC championship in Class 3A in 1978 and we had only 26 kids on the roster and 12 of those were freshmen. We had nine seniors, six of whom went on to be all-Valley players, and they never came off the field. We had to take care of each other and condition like hell and it worked out for us. I’ve shared that story with this group and we’ve been selling them on conditioning and working hard.”
The Purple Riders, who are coming off a 6-4 season and have missed the postseason two straight years, boast a solid nucleus and corps of players who will see plenty of action in all three phases.
“All of the schools in our area are basically suffering from the same thing,” Bruney said. “Because of the drop in population and enrollment numbers, all of the schools are saddled with depth issues. Some are having trouble finding 11 who can actually play.”
While the original group of players ticketed to contribute heavily for the Riders measures fewer than 20, Bruney does have a firm belief that that number will increase as the season moves along.
“There are some of the younger kids who are mentally tough enough to help us right now,” Bruney said. “I think they’re going to be physically tough enough, but it might take till week four or five before they’re able to provide some help. We hope it’s sooner, but we’ll have to wait and see.”
Bruney has certainly been around long enough to know how and when to adapt to the myriad of situations that may present themselves before and during a season.
After all, Bruney, who is 66 years old, was part of two-a-day practices for the 52nd straight August earlier this month. And, to hear him tell it, he’s still enjoying it as much as he ever has.
“Each offseason, I think about the future,” Bruney admitted. “I promised myself that I won’t rush to make any decision (about my future). I’ll be honest, (retirement) entered my mind at the end of the last few years, but by the time weight training came back around, I was ready to go.”
An early riser, Bruney had his team on the field by 7:30 a.m. each morning for practice. He’s said — multiple times — when getting to the fieldhouse by 5 a.m. before a chore, he’ll know it’s time to hang up the whistle.
“To me, the really fun part are the two-a-days, the camp days, the weight room and then when it all comes together and a kid senses he’s getting better,” Bruney smiled. “Those are the best parts to me. Seeing a kid get to the point where he’s playing faster and his confidence level goes up is really gratifying to me. I don’t know if you ever lose that because, to me, that’s the best part of coaching.”
While Bruney returned for another campaign, 15 members of the 2016 Purple Riders collected their diplomas in May. Included in that were OVAC All-Star selections Jack Davis, who was an all-Ohioan and now plays at West Liberty, and Dom Wallace.
Other members of the class were Cameron Opic, Dom Bell, Zac Selby, Ryan Fox, Jared Straub, George Stan, Malik Hill, Logan Selby, Noah Encines, Jeffrey Lucas, Drake Rice, Keegan Hupp and Conner Patterson.
Because of several injuries, the Riders actually finished the season with numerous underclassmen playing in key spots, which led to a roller-coaster type season last year, but has sped up the process leading into this season.
“We felt that physically our best football players, last year, were juniors,” Bruney said. “Barring too many injuries to that group this year, I think we’ll be pretty good. But, if we get one or two key guys hurt, it used to be you’re replacing them with another senior or a good junior. Now, it could be a freshman. It’s just the reality of where we are.”
Bruney, who is high on his freshman class, has been excited about the leadership his senior class has shown in terms of bringing the younger players along.
“These senior guys don’t strongarm anyone,” Bruney said. “They lift up the younger kids and are very encouraging with them to step up and get better because they know we may need those kids. Those (freshmen) will get more from that leadership from their peers than they’ll get from all of the butt chewings I could ever give them because they really respect those kids. They don’t bully anyone, but they’re physical presences. Heck, I am afraid of some of those guys, but you remember the guys who treat you right and the guys who don’t.”
As has been the case for the basically the entire Bruney tenure, the Riders are going to hang their hat on the ground game. However, he does realize and expect his team to throw the ball more and better this season.
The Riders were able to rush for 2,740 yards and 32 touchdowns despite having very little success in the passing game. Of that production, all but 334 yards and two touchdowns return this season.
“We didn’t throw the ball much or very well last year, but we’ve added some different wrinkles offensively, which will fit our personnel,” Bruney said. “We were really pleased with how our summer went in terms of 7 on 7s and such.”
Senior running back Dalton Hoover (5-11, 223) returns after an all-Ohio campaign in 2016. After starting the season at quarterback, he shifted back to his more natural position of running back and shined. He finished with 1,316 yards and 15 touchdowns on 182 rushes. He’s expected to see a steady dose of carries once again this fall.
“Dalton is one of the better players in the area,” Bruney said. “He’s a powerful kid and his speed and strength have improved. Plus, his understanding of the game has continued to grow. You don’t see too many kids built like him, who are able to do as many things things as he can do. He’s a power runner, he’s fast enough to run away from you, he can catch the ball and he’s a great blocker.”
He’ll be joined in the backfield by senior Jacob Johnson (5-9. 195). He’s coming off a season in which he rushed 65 times for 523 yards and seven touchdowns.
“Jacob’s a really fine back and we’re going to use him a lot,” Bruney said.
At the fullback spot, senior Ty Allen (6-2, 220) is penciled in. He ran for 200 yards and three touchdowns last season. He’ll also see time at tight end.
Others vying for action in the backfield include: junior Logan DiLoretta (5-11, 185), sophomores Caleb Olson (5-11, 145), Richie McFarland (6-1, 160), freshmen Chase Goff (5-9, 155), Trevor Hanson (5-9, 150) and Evan Carpenter (5-11, 195).
One area where the Riders are experienced is at quarterback. After taking over the job about midway through last season, sophomore Jacob Probst (6-0, 191) returns as the full-time starter. He’s grown and matured both physically and mentally, according to his head coach.
As a freshman, he completed 32-of-78 passes for 495 yards. He threw two touchdowns, but was intercepted seven times.
“I don’t think we’ve ever started a freshman at quarterback in Martins Ferry’s history,” Bruney said. “I know we haven’t in the last 60 years that I can remember. He had some growing pains last year, but he’s taken a huge step up the ladder so far. His throwing motion is better, he’s faster and he’s certainly more confident. We want Jake to understand that him running the football isn’t a bad thing. He’s going to be a pretty good quarterback.”
Probst’s chief understudy will be highly regarded freshman Logan Smith (6-3, 172). Junior Mason Goddard (5-7, 148) is listed as a quarterback, but he’s also able to shift to wide receiver and contribute.
Though the Riders didn’t throw the ball much last year, they do return their second-leading receiver in senior Cory Bennett (5-8, 174). He caught five passes for 129 yards.
“Cory’s gotten a lot stronger and he has powerful legs,” Bruney said. “He will help us as a receiver and at running back some.”
Joining Bennett on the flanks is senior Shaun Jeter (5-9, 167), who started to come on toward the end of last season, according to Bruney. If he’s not playing quarterback, Smith could see time at receiver. Junior Trent Rice (6-1, 172) is another who is expected to make an impact.
Other receivers vying for action include: junior Donovan Shrodes (5-11, 180), sophomores Chase Ward (5-9, 130), Daysyn Hores (5-11, 150), Sabin Ward (5-8, 155), freshmen Alex Bennett (5-5, 115), Kameron Hughes (5-8, 160), Logan Meeker (5-10, 145) and Cole Sztary (5-9, 145)
When Allen’s not at tight end, junior Drake Dobson (5-11, 182) will take that role.
Like all teams, the Ferry offensive success will be predicated on offensive line play. The Riders feature two returning starters up front, but all five of their expected starters saw action a season ago.
“If the offensive line doesn’t play well, I don’t care how good the skill players are,” Bruney said. “Our young quarterback took a beating at times last year and a lot of that was us not being disciplined up front. If you play offensive football with a defensive mentality, you can win with average skill players.”
The Purple line will be led by senior Hunter Bodkin (5-8, 235) who returns for his third season as left guard.
Classmate Demtrius Dokes (5-10, 211) will see time at center and could shift to guard as well. Bruney believes junior Ian Terrell (5-9, 195) could spell Dokes at center, allowing him to shift to his “more natural position” at guard.
Senior Rayquan Prayear (6-2, 234) has shifted down to the offensive line after serving as a tight end. He actually approached his head coach about the move and Bruney called him “a possible game changer.”
The two tackle posts are expected to be won by juniors DeAndre Pugh (6-3, 286) and Shane Krob (5-11, 255). Sophomore Donte Lewis (6-0, 220) is also expected to see time and could help at basically any of the spots in the trenches.
The balance of the offensive line contingent includes: seniors Jason Husvar (5-10, 245), Keith Wilson (5-11, 225), junior Randall Youngclaus (5-10, 230), sophomores Noah Caprita (5-10, 195), Greg Kwiatkowski (6-0, 230), Jerwon Thompson (5-11, 260), freshmen Noah Duck (5-9, 170), Bill Bailer (5-11, 160), Ryan Meeker (5-8, 220) and Preston Thoman (5-7, 200).
Ferry’s kicking game should be a strength with the return of sophomore Cody Olson (5-11, 145). He had a solid freshman year, which included a walk-off field goal to beat St. Clairsville in double overtime, 17-14. He’ll also handle the punting duties.
“Cody’s gotten a little bigger, stronger and his range has increased,” Bruney said. “Eventually, he’s going to be a really good kicker. He’s still a young kid, but we’re definitely excited about his potential.”
On the defensive side, the Purple Riders boast speed and physicality. Bruney believes his team’s run defense will be a strength because of their interior line and linebacker play.
“On paper, I think it will be tough for teams to make a living running inside on us,” Bruney said. “We’re preparing for teams realizing that and trying to attack the edge and throw the ball against us. If we play to our potential inside, and I am talking end to end and the inside linebackers, it’s going to be tough to run it up in there.”
Bodkin and Krob are ticketed for defensive tackle duties, while Dokes is a returning starter at end. He’ll be complemented on the other end by Prayear.
The defensive leader, similar to the offensive side, will be Hoover. He’ll man one of the linebacker spots as he comes off a junior season in which he recorded 107 tackles. Allen will also be on the inside.
Dobson and Johnson are ticketed to start at outside linebacker, but Johnson could also see time at defensive end. Probst, Shrodes and McFarland will also see action at the outside.
In the secondary, Bennett and Jeter are listed at corner. They’re being pushed by Goddard and Hores. Rice and Smith are battling for the safety job.
“We want to get our best 11 guys on the field at the same time,” Bruney said. “That, however, requires some personal sacrifice for the good of the group.”
Obviously, Bruney feels good about his team and believes it could win a lot of games. But, he’s cautioned his team about getting too far ahead of itself.
“These kids would love to get back to the postseason, but we’re trying to sell them on playing 10, one-game seasons,” Bruney stressed. “We want to prepare like hell like this is the only game we’re playing all season, but with the realization that how we practice this week and the following weeks will affect if we play in November. We have to keep in mind that if we do stub our toe, it’s just one game. We have to get back up and work hard to get back on track. If they approach it that way, and so far they have, I think we can be as good as we’ve been.”
The Purple Riders’ schedule is basically unchanged. However, the one change is a big one. Gone is Pittsburgh Carrick and it’s been replaced by a multi-year deal with Wheeling Central. The other nine games are identical.
“We actually wanted to start playing Wheeling Central last year, but it just didn’t work out,” Bruney confessed. “It’s good game. It’s a good game for everyone, actually. We’re looking forward to it.”
While the Riders will open with Buckeye Local once again, the day has changed. For the first time, Ferry will open on Thursday against the Panthers.
“We thought we’d give it a try,” Bruney said. “Normally, the Ferry-Buckeye game is a good game monetarily for both schools because people are excited for football and the season opener. Plus, it gives you an extra day (before week 2) to get guys healed up and as coaches you’re able to go scout someone on Friday night that you might not have been able to, otherwise.”
Ferry’s other non-Buckeye 8 south games include meetings with Beaver Local, East Liverpool and Indian Creek. The Riders will play one Saturday game this season and it comes on Oct. 28 when they trek to arch-rival Bellaire to play for SPARKY.
“We’ll have our work cut out for us for sure against our schedule,” Bruney said. “I am not sure there’s a team that we’re looking at them and thinking, ‘how are we going to beat those guys?’ But, that’s not saying we can just beat everyone either. There are a lot of similar teams, which should make for a good, entertaining season … for the fans, anyway.”
Martins Ferry boasts one of the area’s largest — and most quality — coaching staffs. Bruney has no fewer than 12 assistants with him at the varsity level and six at the junior high level.
“I am definitely blessed to have the staff that I do,” Bruney said. “All quality people and coaches. We get a lot done and a lot of individual work because of the size of the staff we have.”
At the varsity level are Dirk Fitch (offensive coordinator), John Bennett (defensive coordinator), Gregg Bahen, Taylor Yoder, Chas Yoder, Chad Ware, Nick Stankovich Jr., Jim Hoover, Anthony Reasbeck, Nick Stankovich Sr., Greg Cumse and Derek Edwards.
At the junior high level are John McFarland, Robert Harris, Mike Rose, Michael Rose, Jack Fitch and Lucas Agnew.
(all games begin at 7 p.m. unless noted)
Aug. 24 — at Buckeye Local
Sept. 1 — Linsly
Sept. 8 — at Union Local
Sept. 15 — St. Clairsville
Sept. 22 — Harrison Central
Sept. 29 — East Liverpool
Oct. 6 — at Indian Creek
Oct. 13 — Wheeling Central
Oct. 20 — at Beaver Local
Oct. 28 — at Bellaire, 12:30