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Harrison Central wants to start fast

CADIZ — Getting off to a fast start is a key element to a team enjoying success. Harrison Central hasn’t had that luxury in Anthony Hayes’ first two seasons as head coach. The Huskies have dropped their first three games in each campaign, leading to identical 4-6 finishes.

Hayes, a veteran assistant and graduate of Cadiz, is highly confident that his 2020 squad can achieve that in the abbreviated schedule mandated by the Ohio High School Athletic Association a few weeks back.

“We’re trying to get off to a quicker start. Slow starts to begin the year have been a problem for us. As a coach, I have to reflect back on myself. Maybe it’s something I’m doing. What can I change to help us get out of the gate quicker?” he wondered.

It helps to have nearly half of your roster back as returning lettermen. The Huskies have 35 players who have strapped on the helmets daily, with 13 having lettered at least once. Two are seeking their fourth letters, while another four will be earning their third letters.

“Our ceiling was 40 but with the pandemic going on and everything we thought we would be close to that number,” Hayes said. “We only have five seniors this year. Our freshmen class has good numbers and we’ve got a big eighth grade group,” he added.

Of the remaining 30 players, 12 are freshmen, 11 are juniors and the other seven are sophomores.

Hayes said the time in which the players weren’t allowed at school facilities during the global COVID-19 pandemic may have been beneficial to his group of coaches.

“As tough as the pandemic has been on people mentally, I think it has made us more efficient as coaches. I think it has made us realize we needed a shakeup … we needed to do things differently,” he continued. “It kind of forced our hand on it, so overall, I’m very pleased with where we are on both sides of the football.

“I’m excited for the season. I believe our kids have put in quality time to give us quality efforts. We need to get out of the blocks to start,” he stressed. “It’s hard to keep people on board when you’re not getting the results you desire, but unless you’re a (Harrison County) guy like me, you can’t understand our kids. They are a different breed of kids. They never quit. It doesn’t matter whether we’re playing St. Clairsville, Edison or whomever, it doesn’t matter. They don’t see any difference.”

Injuries at key positions the last two seasons has also forced Hayes’ hand. However, he is hoping that experience pays off this year.

“Last year was a tough year because we knew we were going to have to play a lot of young kids,” Hayes noted. Injuries kind of forced us to do that sooner than we really wanted to, but that’s part of the game. We have no breaks on our schedule so those guys got thrown into the fire and we took our bumps and bruises.

“I think that, however, will pay dividends for us this year,” he added. “Now we’ve got a bunch of juniors who have played 20 games already. There’s no replacement for experience.”

It also helps to have a veteran quarterback returning, and Harrison Central certainly has that.

The Huskies have one of the best talents around in senior Kobe Mitchell (6-3, 190). He was a third-team All-Ohio performer last season as a defensive back and has lettered three times.

“One of the best around. I’m biased, of course, but if he isn’t the best player in the Ohio Valley, he’s darn close. That’s not taking anything away from anyone else,” Hayes professed. “This will be his third season as the starting quarterback, so he’s got 20 games under his belt. He’s also started since he was a freshman on the defensive side of the ball.

“This year I’ve noticed a physical change in him. He’s gained about 25 pounds and he has grown about 2-3 inches. He is also more vocal than he has been in the past and, he is, without a doubt, the leader of this team,” the head coach continued.

Mitchell passed for 1,336 yards and 15 touchdowns a season ago on 104 of 188 (55.3 percent). He also threw eight interceptions.

“He’s come light years from his sophomore season to now. It’s because he is so willing to be coached,” Hayes praised. “You asked him to do something and he will do it without asking any questions. He’s a great model for all kids, not just our kids here at Harrison Central, but any kids around the valley. If you’re willing to be coached like he is, you can be an outstanding athlete.

With Mitchell at the controls, the Huskies will open the offensive package a little more than they have in the past.

“We’re going back to what we kind of did two years ago. We’re going to be spread out more,” Hayes said. “Last year we kind of had to get away from that early due to the injuries, but we were able to open it up in week 3. Now we’ve got quality work under our feet and we feel a lot more confident in our skill positions.”

Sophomore Jace Madzia (5-9, 165) and freshman Hayden Cassidy (5-10, 140) are the backups.

Harrison Central lost its top two running backs from a season ago, but Hayes has confidence in the group he has assembled this year.

Junior James Brooks (5-11, 210) was a strong point late last season and will get the bulk of the carries when Mitchell’s not slinging the ball all over the field.

“He really came on strong for us the last five games,” Hayes said of Brooks. “He’s very athletic and deceivingly fast. He played some slot for us last year.”

Sophomore Caleb Cowans (5-9, 220) is another explosive threat.

“He was our starting inside linebacker for us last year when he blew his knee out on a freak play,” Hayes said. “He was running down the field on kickoff coverage against Martins Ferry and nobody even touched him. He’s also very strong and athletic.”

Others in the backfield are juniors Riley Kubic (5-11, 160) and Nik Evans (5-9, 155); sophomore Drake Watson (5-7, 140); and freshmen Jeramy Malcomb (5-3, 120) and Nate Frye (5-8, 175).

Juniors Trevor Carman (5-9, 170) and Jonathon Vermillion (6-4, 185) return at wide receiver and tight end, respectively. Both have lettered twice already in their careers. Senior Clayton Nunez (5-9, 175) adds depth at the wideout position.

“We feel really good about our skilled personnel,” Hayes added.

Other possible receiving targets are seniors Kanyon Coleman (6-0, 165) and Brian Hendershot (5-8, 160); juniors Gabe Marbais (6-0, 155) and Daniel Thornton (5-9, 145); sophomores Josiah Jones (5-5, 115) and Wyatt Pierce (5-9, 155); and freshmen Parker Hutton (5-8, 170), Alex Fluharty (6-1, 145), RJ Belon (5-7, 130) and Clayton Vermillion (6-0, 175).

The Huskies return senior Ron Pauley (5-10, 185) at the right tackle spot. He is a three-year letterwinner.

“He is one of our smallest offensive lineman, but he’s been our most consistent linemen,” Hayes allowed.

“He’s a great leader up front.”

Junior Matt Smith (6-1, 210) returns at left guard.

Freshman Lucas Thomas (6-1, 220) will start at center and sophomore Cabot Arbaugh (6-3, 235) will be the left tackle.

Junior Nathan Bertolino (5-10, 175) will be the right guard.

“It all starts up front. If not, we’d play 7-on-7,” Hayes said.

“Up front I feel good about things.”

Also listed as offensive linemen are juniors JT Wagner (5-10, 195) and Derek Roghelia (6-1, 305); sophomore Lukas Soos (5-10, 210); and freshmen Nick Malone (5-10, 220), Nic Fluharty (6-7, 185), Hunter Boals (6-0, 220) and Colton Tanner (5-7, 150).

Defensively, the Huskies plan to mix their schemes up in an effort to confuse the opposition.

“We’ll mix it up. We’ll start with a 4-man front and jump to a 3-man front if we need to,” Hayes explained. “We have so many hybrid-type players that we feel very good about. We’ve got a lot of kids that look alike physically. They are big, strong kids.”

Roghelia, who is out for the team for the first time in a while will be a force in the middle of the down line.

He will be joined on the interior by Arbaugh, Pauley and Thomas.

Backups are Malone, Nik Fluharty, Wagner, Boals, Soos and Tanner.

Smith will be starting his third season at one end. Jonathon Vermillion returns at the other. Clayton Vermillion is a backup.

Bertolino is back in the middle at linebacker.

Cowans is another returning starter while Brooks and Pauley will also see time.

Frye is also in the mix.

Carman returns at one corner and Coleman the other.

Mitchell will start at safety and probably play at corner some, according to the head coach.

Hutton has earned playing time during camp.

Marbais, who took a year off, has come back a little bigger and stronger, Hayes said.

Other defensive backs include Madzia, Cassidy, Nunez, Kubic, Jones, Pierce, Watson, Hendershot, Evans, Alex Fluharty, Thornton, Belon and Malcomb.

Special teams is an aspect of the game that Hayes is really confident about.

Madzia returns as the placekicker after booting 20 point-afters last fall.

Mitchell will once again do the punting.

“He’s going to put stress on defenses because you’ve got to concentrate on him whenever he’s on the field, even when he’s lined up to punt,” Hayes said with a smile. He’s much faster this year than last year.”

Due to the abbreviated schedule, Harrison Central was left scrambling to field a formidable slate.

Instead of playing Claymont in the season-opener in what Hayes referred to as “The Battle of Tappan Lake,” the Huskies will now host Steubenville Catholic on the artificial surface at Wagner Field on Friday, Aug. 28. That is followed by another home game with Toronto on Thursday. A pair of road games at Bellaire and Union Local are slated for weeks 3-4 and precede home contests with rivals Martins Ferry and St. Clairsville.

The coaching staff includes Ty Kenny (WR/RBs), Bill Bryant (DL), AJ Barsch (DC), Mark Smith (OL), David Nameth (DE), Ian White (WR) and Willie Walker (WR). John Stillwagon is in first year.

“We are starting to get our graduates to start coming back and helping out as assistant coaches. We have nine guys on the varsity staff and we have six guys on the junior high staff.

“All of those guys have been through the program and most of them have been involved with coaching the past few years,” Hayes pointed out. “We feel very good about that.

“By the time you start graduating players from your program and then they come back and start to help out, it’s just that much better for us. They speak the same terminology and know what we are thinking and what our expectations are. They are then reiterating that to the kids.”

Lost to graduation were Cale McAfee, Arik Carman, Lee Sponaugle, Tucker Coultrap, Carlos Thompson-Ramirez, Alex Koersgen, John Dannehl, Mark Smith, Heath Pizzino, Haden Stull, Bryce Wade and Albert Taylor.

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