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Buckeye Trail is ‘all about the team’ this season

OLD WASHINGTON – It’s all about the team.

As Donnie Kerns enters his fifth season as head coach of the Buckeye Trail Warriors, two things have caught his attention.

The first is that the Warriors head into battle with more size up front than in quite a while and the second, and possibly most important, is that the Warriors truly have a “team first” mentality.

“The kids are all about the team this year, so we’ve adopted the idea of being ‘so squad’ similar to what St. V (Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary) had when LeBron James was in high school.

“I think they saw some of that “me first” attitude recently and this team doesn’t really care who gets the credit and it shows every single day.”

Trail’s senior group is at the forefront of that mentality, according to Kerns, who is 22-18 in his first four seasons.

“Our seniors are leaders,” he said. “They’ve been in the program for four years and they know what the expectations are and they’ve given us a solid foundation for this season.”

Not surprisingly, it’s been a challenging off-season for the Trail players and coaches, but Kerns – last year’s Inter-Valley Conference Co-Coach of the Year after leading the Warriors to a fine 7-3 season – feels good about things as the OHSAA-altered season is about to begin.

“We made sure the kids continued their workouts in March, April and May,” he related, “and then once we got them back, we tried to get as much done as we could while following the guidelines.

“Right now,” the BT coach added, “our kids just want to play some football!”

Trail has some holes to fill, but Coach Kerns is confident that the beefy line will make things happen if some of the untested ‘skill’ players can step up.

“We have to replace some key guys as far as offensive production, but we have some guys capable of doing that,” he said.

“I think the strength of our team will be up front,” Kerns offered. “It’s the biggest line we’ve had since I’ve been here and we will go as far as they take us. They’ve all worked hard in the weight room and gotten stronger.

“They will have to control things and our backs will need to make plays on offense,” he added. “On defense, we have a lot of returning kids, but we have to fly to the ball and make the tackle when we get there.”

Senior Connor Puskarich (6-0, 186), a three-year letterman, has the upper hand in the battle for the all-important quarterback job in Trail’s pistol wing-T offense, but sophomore letterman Nick Neuhart (6-4, 173) is challenging.

Several players are likely to carry the pigskin, headed by junior wingback Franko Rome (5-10, 167), a two-year letterman. Rome rushed 72 times for 496 yards and six TDs last fall and caught 17 passes for 140 yards. He received plenty of all-star recognition as a defensive back, including special mention all-Ohio D-VI along with first team all-East District and all-IVC.

Other wingbacks who figure in the Warriors’ attack are junior letterman Shane Smith (6-0, 173), junior letterman Brendan Bates (5-8, 132) and sophomore Noah Betts (5-9, 155).

Additional wings are freshmen Brennan McComb (5-6, 141), Cale Gazda (5-11, 133) and Koen Eagon (5-6, 135).

Getting the tough yards on the inside at fullback will be senior three-year letterman Marcus Masters (5-8, 187), who missed much of last season due to injury, and junior letterman Logan Hinkle (5-6, 182).

Tops among the wide receivers are senior two-year letterman Blake Bates (6-3, 161) and sophomore Tyler Dodd (5-10, 174).

Other pass-catchers are senior letterman Ethan Carpenter (5-6, 167), junior Will Rome (5-10, 155) and freshmen Ethan Wickham (5-6, 137) and Larry Baxter (5-5, 126).

Trail will utilize a lot of two-tight end sets, and the regulars will be junior Aidan Snodgrass (5-11, 212) and senior Austin Paden (6-0, 176, both two-year letterman. Snodgrass switched positions after earning special mention all-East District on the interior.

Also at tight end are sophomore Hunter Molisee (5-10, 196) and freshman Brady Hastings (6-0, 168).

A veteran offensive line starts with talented guard Nic Burris (5-10, 259), a senior three-year letterman who earned special mention all-Ohio Division VI, first team all-East District and second team all-IVC honors.

The other guard post will have junior letterman Dakota Milliken (5-11, 192), with junior Aidan Krise (5-9, 229) pushing for duty there while sophomore Sabastian Graham (5-9, 180) is Burris’ understudy.

Senior two-year letterman Liam Kelley (6-0, 272) returns at one tackle, with junior Cameron Hess (6-1, 277) as the top replacement, while the other tackle features senior two-year letterman Kolton Shepherd (6-5, 299) and junior Kyler Channell (6-1, 299). Shepherd was second team all-East District and all-IVC a year ago.

A battle to take over at center is ongoing between senior letterman Bryce Baker (5-9, 250) and sophomore letterman Landon Koch (6-1, 234).

The remainder of the O-line prospects are sophomores Cameron Shepherd (5-9, 192) and Isaak Pekari (5-9, 215); and five freshmen – Maddox Miracle (6-1, 251), Kaden Severn (5-8, 185), Norman Lucas (6-2, 235), Riley Bryan (6-2, 261) and Brady Kirkbride (6-2, 252).

Defensively, the Warriors will again deploy a 3-4 alignment, with several returning regulars in the fold.

Kerns & Co. figure to use as many as eight players along the defensive front, with Burris, Milliken, Channell, Kelley and Koch at the terminals while Shepherd, Hess and Krise are at nose tackle.

The inside linebackers are Snodgrass and Masters, with Baker and Hinkle also seeing action there, while the outside ‘backers are Smith and Paden, with Graham and Betts as the top backups.

At the corners, the veteran Rome returns after notching two interceptions and several pass break-ups a year ago and he’ll be joined by Blake Bates, Brendan Bates or Dodd.

Puskarich returns at free safety, with Dodd also available there, while Neuhart will be at free safety with Geiger in reserve.

Kerns’ coaching staff includes offensive coordinator Kevin Spiker, defensive coordinator Bill Hartmeyer, special teams coordinator Johnny Jones, Terry Parry, Brett Shipman, Brian Jackson and Josh Green.

Trail’s revamped schedule will feature an all-IVC lineup featuring crossover foe Indian Valley as the opener Friday on the Braves’ new turf field in Midvale followed by North Division teams Tuscarawas Central Catholic, Strasburg Malvern, East Canton and Newcomerstown.

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