Bellaire features increased depth
By SETH STASKEY
Times Leader Sports Editor
BELLAIRE — Mark Spigarelli is certainly aware of the expectations that surround the Bellaire football program.
After all, other than a handful of seasons that he spent coaching at West Liberty, Spigarelli has been a part of the Big Reds program basically since his playing in the mid 80s.
But, even if he had only been in Bellaire for one season, he understands, realizes and appreciates that 3-7 seasons just aren’t going to cut it.
Unfortunately, that’s the exact kind of season the Big Reds were dealt in 2017 as they broke in several new, young faces just a season after qualifying to host a first-round playoff game in the Division VI postseason.
“Those kinds of season just aren’t acceptable to myself, Bellaire fans, the community, staff and players,” Spigarelli said. “There were a couple of games that we were right in, but just couldn’t finish the job. It was a disapponting season.”
Spigarelli and his staff have worked hard throughout the offseason, summer camp and into two-a-days to erase the bad taste that was left in their mouths.
“We were young last year and now we have a lot of guys back who are bigger, faster and stronger,” Spigarelli said. “These kids have worked their butts off since January in the weight room. They’re dedicated kids and now we’re expecting bigger and better things.”
Quite frequently, during the offseason, Spigarelli referenced his team’s record from last season as a reminder and to keep the objectives clear.
“We do not want to duplicate a 3-7,” Spigarelli said. “We’ll continue to remind them of it.”
Along with their enhanced frames, the Big Reds’ coaches have found themselves well ahead of the curve in practice because so many of the players garnered experience last season.
“We’re definitely ahead of the game,” Spigarelli said. “When everything is basically the same, including the coaches, it makes everything easier and it comes quicker to them.”
An area where the Big Reds have benefitted is their improvement of facilities. Last season, because of the construction to their fieldhouse and practice field, Bellaire practiced at the former home of St. John Central.
This offseason, however, they’ve had their full complement of ammenities at their disposal.
“Having (the fieldhouse) and the practice field is fantastic,” Spigarelli said. “We used to have to lift at the high school then come down to the field to do our other work. Now, we have everything right here and the practice field makes a big difference, too. We appreciate the work the administration, especially Darren Jenkins, did to make this a reality for our kids.”
Though the Big Reds are more experienced, they’re also still young. They lost 10 players to graduation, including a bulk of their offensive stat producers in quarterback Mason Ramsay, running backs Thor Duffy, who was selected to play in last month’s OVAC Rudy Mumley All-Star Football Game, and Gabe Rejonis.
Others to collect their sheepskins in May were Brett Berberich, Noah Giffin, Drew Tingler, Grant Gheen, Jacob Bellville and Scott Mehlman.
“That was a good group of kids,” Spigarelli said. “They leave some big shoes to fill in key positions, so some kids will have to step up.”
Though the Big Reds lost some talented players, Spigarelli believes his team has better depth than it’s had during his first two seasons.
“We have 57 kids on the team, which is a great number,” Spigarelli said. “We have a big freshmen class and a big junior class. It’s exciting because guys are interested in football and that’s the culture we’re trying to bring back. We want it to be fun and something kids are excited to be a part of, but we also want them coming here ready to work and preparing to win.”
To hear Spigarelli tell it, that’s not just an inflated number. There is legitimate depth, which will require fewer guys to play both ways and should an injury be suffered, there’s a capable backup waiting in the wings.
“This is the most depth we’ve had,” Spigarelli said. “In my first two years, we had about 15 to 18 kids who saw most of the playing time in all three phases. Now, we’re probably upwards of 25 guys who can play, which is a big thing.”
Included on the roster is a 17-member freshmen class, which has some talent. While a handful may actually crack the varsity lineup, most will be ticketed for reserve duty. The Big Reds will not separate those guys into a freshmen squad.
“Those kids will play a lot of reserve games,” Spigarelli said. “Freshmen games are hard to find these days and the schools who do have freshmen teams are from much bigger schools.”
When he takes a look at his team whether it be on the practice, in the locker room or even on paper, Spigarelli really has only one major concern.
“I would like to see our chemistry be better,” Spigarelli said. “Our kids like each other, but I think it could be better. Over time, and the course of the season, I think that will grow and if it gets there, I think everything else will take care of itself.”
Most football fans in the Ohio Valley associate Bellaire offenses with throwing the ball since the Big Reds were well ahead of the times, offensively, many years ago when they were throwing it all over Nelson Field with regularity.
However, Spigarelli wouldn’t commit to that continuing to be the case because of the make up of his team.
“We don’t totally know what our identity is going to be just yet,” Spigarelli said. “We know we have four of our five starting linemen back and some solid running backs, so if we have to run it 30 or 40 times a game, we will.”
That doesn’t mean the Big Reds are going to turn back the clock to an offense of three yards and a cloud of dust either.
“It’s going to depend a lot on how defenses play against us,” Spigarelli said. “I feel comfortable throwing the ball. I really believe we can mix it up. I am proud of how our offense has looked (this summer) both running and throwing the ball.”
During the 2016 season when they made the playoffs, the Big Reds boasted some quality speed options. They’re not as fast as that team, collectively, but Spigarelli likes his team’s athleticism.
“We have some fast guys and our job, as coaches, to get them the ball in space, so they can use it,” Spigarelli said. “Our line and our backs are the strength of our team, so I think we could probably be more run-oriented, but we have to be ready to adjust.”
Who will take over Ramsay at quarterback remains a mystery even with the season opener against River just a few days away.
The battle has been ongoing in camp between senior Cole LaRoche (6-1, 210), who won the state shot put championship in June, and junior Bobby Roth (5-11, 175).
“Both kids have done a super job,” Spigarelli said. “Bobby may throw the ball a little better, but Cole does a great job with ball handling and the run game. We won’t be afraid to use both and one guy could play one quarter and the other guy the next quarter.”
The only other quarterback on the roster is freshman Kai Ford (5-7, 135).
The Big Reds’ depth is clearly evident at running back where Spigarelli believes he could employ a backfield by committee rather than feeding the ball to one player upwards of 20 times a game.
“We would love to spread the carries out,” Spigarelli said. “We feel good about all of these kids. They’re all pretty fast, catch the ball well and know how to play running back.”
Junior Cole Porter (5-10, 170) is the leading returning rusher with 254 yards and a touchdown last season. He will be joined by senior Griffen Heatherington (5-10, 150), junior Kaleb Pitchford (5-7, 200) and Andrew Kolenich (5-8, 195), who will also be utilized at fullback.
Others working to gain carries at tailback are senior Nick Beckett (5-8, 165), freshmen Derrick Ellington (5-10, 165), Lance Piper (5-7, 145) and Brandon Mamie (5-10, 165).
The fullback spot could prove to be a critical in the Big Reds’ ground game.
Junior Trace Sechrest — who was a first-team all-Ohioan as a linebacker last season — is expected to be the starter at fullback. Junior Cody Albaugh (5-9, 165) and junior Quentin Baker (5-8, 195) round the trio. Junior Austen Rejonis (5-7, 200) provides depth.
When the Big Reds do throw the ball either LaRoche or Roth will have plenty of targets from which to pick. There are no fewer than 18 players listed on the roster at receiver.
Spigarelli pointed out junior A.J. McCarthy (5-7, 140) and senior Sheldon Lekanudous (5-10, 150) as the starters. Senior Trent Dunaway (5-11, 180) and junior Trenton Wilson (5-10, 180) are the top backups and will see time.
Other receivers working to get into that rotation are juniors Mason Beveridge (6-0, 170), Jake Stolz (5-9, 170), sophomores Karter Hicks (5-8, 120), Ethan Shaver (5-6, 120), Cody Slater (5-9, 130), Marshall Fish (5-7, 130) and freshmen Jaren Cash (5-10, 170), Skyler Evans (5-7, 140), Aidan Frazier (5-6, 105), Bradley Kosky (5-6, 125), Konner Lay (5-9, 140), Riley Kubic (5-10, 130), Jaden Kesterson (5-8, 140) and Chandler Richards (5-7, 130).
If Roth wins the quarterback job, LaRoche will move back to his original position at tight end. However, if LaRoche gets the nod at quarterback, Roth figures into the receiver equation.
And if the latter occurs, highly regarded freshman Colt Sechrest (6-2, 205) could get the call at end. Classmate Nick Materkoski (6-3, 235) also figures into the equation there.
When Spigarelli spoke about his offensive line little thought was needed as he ran down the depth chart. That’s what happens when you return pretty much the entire unit.
“These kids are used to playing with each other, communicate well, work hard and get along well,” Spigarelli relayed.
Junior Levi Littell (6-3, 280) is the most seasoned linemen for the Big Reds. He started more than half the season as a freshmen and all of last year, too. He will hold down the left tackle spot.
Junior Chase Nolan (6-0, 250) is ticketed for left guard, while senior Danny Lednik (6-0, 265) has shifted to center from a guard spot.
The right side of the line will include senior Joey Hoepfner (6-1, 290) at right guard and junior Conner Rosen (6-1, 245) at the tackle.
Junior Ryan Muklewicz (5-10, 205) and senior Zach Kolenich (5-10, 245) are the top understudies.
Other linemen who are vying for playing time are senior Haydon Lowery (6-1, 290), juniors T.J. Bell (5-9, 185), Aaron Piergallini (5-8, 250), sophomores Jay Mosa (6-1, 215), Vince Patrone (5-10, 190), Caleb Rehfeldt (5-7, 165), freshmen Luke Farmer (5-10, 180), Logan Davenport (6-0, 240), Dante Patrone (5-8, 260), Tyler Edgar (5-7, 180), Daniel Zwack (5-7, 200), Michael Kuri (5-7, 200), Isaac McConnell (5-6, 140), Timmy O’Grady (5-8, 180) and Jacob Shimble (5-7, 200).
On the defensive side of the ball, the Big Reds will once again employ a 4-2-5 stack with hopes of getting back to a Bellaire style of old.
“This is a defensive style where you have to get penetration and get into gaps,” Spigarelli said. “We want to get back to Bellaire style of knocking people down, pick them up and knock them down again. I think we have the speed and athleticism to be solid on defense.”
If LaRoche isn’t the quarterback, he returns at a defensive end spot, but he most likely won’t play on this side of the ball if he’s at quarterback.
Assuming LaRoche is the quarterback, Spigarelli listed Heatherington and Baker as the expected starters at end.
At defensive tackle, Littell and Nolan are back after seeing solid action last season. Hoepfner and Lowery are also right in the mix.
The Brothers Sechrest — Trace and Colt — are written in at the two linebacker spots.
They’re backed up by Bell and Vince Patrone.
Kolenich and Porter are listed as the strong safeties, while Cash and Albaugh will also see time. McCarthy and Lekanudous saw valuable action at corner and are back for full-time roles this season.
Dunaway will roam at free safety.
“We have eight or nine guys back on defense,” Spigarelli said. “The kids have been super so far. I think they’re all ready to go.”
Special teams has been a focus this season for the Big Reds. Spigarelli pointed out multiple plays in a loss to Martins Ferry that haunted his team.
“We have spent a lot of time working on special teams,” Spigarelli said.
Along with what he did as a quarterback, Ramsay was also an accurate placekicker. Duffy was the punter. LaRoche is expected to take over both roles.
Being ready to go will be paramount Saturday when River comes calling. The Pilots have won both meetings with the Big Reds since the series resumed in 2016.
“We had River beat for much of the game each of the last two years,” Spigarelli said. “These guys are hungry and (mad) because of what’s happened the last two years.”
Bellaire’s schedule is once again challenging and includes just one new opponent in Shenandoah. It replaces Caldwell.
The lone road trip the Big Reds will make in the opening half of the season comes in Week 2 when they venture to Sarahsville to take on Shenandoah, which is coming off a playoff season and boasts a sound cast of returnees.
“Shenandoah is just a one-year deal, but I would like to see us get them on for a couple of years after that, too,” Spigarelli said.
As it pertains to the schedule, Spigarelli is actually more concerned with the unbalance of home and away in terms of how they’re laid out.
“We only have one home game in the second half of the season and I would like to get that changed, but I realize there is some logistics to that,” Spigarelli said.
Along with the Zeps, the Big Reds tangle with 2017 playoff entrants St. Clairsville, Shadyside and once again close with arch-rival Martins Ferry.
Spigarelli’s coaching staff underwent a minor change. Raphael Johnson accepted a position on the staff at Wheeling Jesuit University. Taking his spot was former Martins Ferry standout Michael Rose.
“I am happy for Raphael,” Spigarelli said. “He’s a great coach and I know he will do a great job. We’re fortunate to have Michael on board. It’s good to have a young, energetic guy.”
Shawn Valloric is back as the offensive coordinator. Jayson Keyser oversees the special teams, Ryan McMahon spearheads the offensive and defensive lines.
Ed Miller and Bruce Stolz have become institutions on the Bellaire coaching staff. Both have been on board for more than 30 years.
Mike Sechrest and John Farrier oversee the eighth grade, while Keith Rejonis, Bill Meek and Jim LaRoche guide the seventh grade.