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Shadyside set to christen new turf

SHADYSIDE — It seems like there’s always a reason for celebrating the Shadyside football program.

Last season, the Tigers celebrated their 100th season of football. They’ve become consistent members of the Ohio playoffs, which is always a cause for celebrating. As Mark Holenka prepares for season number 12 at the helm of his alma mater, the Tigers have more reasons to be excited.

Two weeks from Friday, Shadyside will officially unveil the newly laid turf at Fleming Field when Magnolia pays a visit. The project began more than a year ago and was completed earlier this month.

“As the work went on (this summer), and you watch the crews tear down what you had and playing 100 years on that grass, you think maybe we should have kept the grass just because of the tradition,” Holenka said. “But, then when the turf arrived and they started putting it down, the goose bumps returned and everyone is excited for that first game on it.”

The Tigers spent most of the summer working out on their traditional practice field, which is left field of the baseball field, but will be shifting to the turf moving forward.

“It’s super nice to go out to practice and it looks like a freshly cut field,” Holenka continued. “I know it’s something that the coaches, players, school and community appreciates. We appreciate all of the people who put forth all of this effort to get this done and they deserve a ton of credit.”

The idea to put in turf was to help further showcase one of the premier small-school football programs in the area and the state of Ohio. Holenka, who watched his team finish 8-4 last season falling to Newark Catholic in the second round of the Division VII playoffs, has plenty of talent to show off.

“We’re a young squad in some areas, but we’re also talented in a lot of areas,” Holenka said. “We don’t have a whole lot of middle ground. We’re either young and learning or we have kids who have played a lot.”

Whether or not Shadyside would have a season to show off its remodeled field and talented players has been up in the air since the coronavirus pandemic has overtaken the valley, state and nation. The Tigers, once cleared to resume workouts in late May, were actually the first school in Ohio to cease workouts because of concerns about COVID-19.

“It wasn’t just the offseason of questions … it’s still going on,” Holenka said. “I just wish someone would take the bull by the horns because not too much is changing (in terms of the virus) from now until the season. It’s been hard to make the kids do different things when you don’t know if you’re going to start on time, do it in the spring, push it back a few weeks, or do it at all.”

With the clearance of the governor, Ohio Department of Health and the OHSAA, the season is moving forward and the Tigers are preparing for a road trip to Martins Ferry. While not the end all, be all to the season, it’s a big early test.

“Without having 7 on 7s or live scrimmages, it makes it really tough to gauge,” Holenka said. “We haven’t had a real chance to find a weakness since we’ve not gone against anyone other than ourselves. I think all schools are going to struggle to know where they are this early, but we certainly don’t open with a cupcake.”

Offensively, Shadyside has become a very balanced squad. Last season, the Tigers passed for more than 2,000 yards and rushed for better than 2,000 yards, too.

“I think we’re going to do a lot of what we’ve done,” Holenka said. “It’s hard to change something that’s been good to you. We need to be more balanced in our passing game, so that we throw the ball under 12 yards as much as we throw it over 12 yards and that’s a combination of reads and play calling.”

Junior quarterback Rhys Francis (6-0, 175) returns after starting all 12 games a season ago. He passed for 2,020 yards and 16 touchdowns. He was intercepted 10 times, but completed 58 percent of his throws.

“I am worried that no scrimmages or 7 on 7s could give Rhys some backward steps, especially early because he’ll need to shake the rust off, but he’s very talented and his experience won’t allow him to get rattled,” Holenka said.

He’s backed up by sophomore Garrett Grover (5-10, 161) and freshman Karl Tsoras (5-9, 167).

Tailback is certainly a strength for the Tigers as junior Wyatt Reiman returns off an all-Ohio season in 2019. He was a workhorse for the Tigers, carrying the ball 177 times for 1,346 yards and 24 touchdowns. Reiman was also a threat as a pass catcher, hauling in 26 passes for 591 yards and 6 more touchdowns.

Leading the way for him is senior fullback Jacob Visnic (5-11, 214), who rushed for 308 yards and 6 touchdowns last season.

“It’s nice to have a horse (in the backfield) like Wyatt, but his stablemate (Visnic) helps make him as good as he is,” Holenka said. “We’d like to get Rhys involved more in the running game, too. All three kids are explosive, strong runners. The slowest guy is still under a 4.8 (in the 40-yard dash).

Able to spell Reiman and Visnic are the likes of sophomore Andrew Brown (5-6, 160), freshman Andrew Osman (5-7, 148), junior Ethan Stanley (5-11, 159), freshman Mark Waggoner (5-10, 146) and freshman Dylan Booth (5-6, 134).

Holenka is also very high on his wide receiver group, which is deep, fast and talented.

Senior Jordan Joseph (5-10, 171) is the top returning receiver. He caught 17 passes for 375 yards and 4 touchdowns last fall.

Junior Mason Vannest (6-0, 165) is expected to take on a bigger role in the passing game after catching 8 passes for 134 yards in a season which was cut short due to injury.

Senior Alec Shepherd (6-2, 152), sophomore Elijah Brock (6-3, 180), sophomore Kooper Chimley (5-11, 131) and freshman Ben Wach (5-3, 117) are all in the mix if the Tigers go to a more wide-open attack.

Other wide receivers listed on the roster are sophomores Grant Miller (5-9, 140), Matthew Kempter (5-5, 130), Isacc Green (5-6, 102), freshmen Tyler Stottlemeyer (5-6, 119), Colton Gorby (6-0, 181) and Nathan Booth (5-6, 145).

Shadyside will have hesitation in utilizing the tight end position either. Junior Ryan Florence (6-0, 176) is ticketed to be the starter. Freshman Alex Olack (5-8, 145) is also listed at tight end.

The biggest area of unknown for the Tigers is up front because they’re looking to replace three starters.

Returning are junior Logan Crozier (5-10, 288) and senior Mason Geraud (6-3, 330) at center and guard, respectively.

“We have some guys who have made spot starts, so we’re not completely raw or wet behind our ears, but there could be an adjustment,” Holenka said. “I think, as the season progresses, we can turn what, on paper, looks like it might be a weakness into a strength. Our line will determine how far we go. The skill guys are all basically returning, but we’ll go as far as our line can take us.”

The battle for the other three starting spots has been between senior Jalob Honeywell (5-11, 254), senior Camden Brown (6-1, 221), junior Gage Joseph (6-0, 265), junior Kris Tsoras (5-11, 249) and junior Ryan Crall (5-10, 245). Crall has been battling back from an injury.

Depth in the trenches comes in the form of senior Ethan Olack (5-11, 228), juniors Hunter Minney (5-7, 180), William Baker (5-9, 150), Zach Heslep (6-1, 242), sophomores William Robinson (5-10, 180), Jacob Brown (5-9, 200), Josh Harris (5-5, 150), freshmen Chris Stillion (5-6, 186), Landon Prickett (5-8, 186) and Austin Carte (5-9, 175).

Special teams should be a strength with the return of senior kicker Angel Velasquez (5-4, 135). He connected on 41 PATs and a field goal last season.

“We know he can shorten the field for us to score,” Holenka said. “We don’t have to get to the 10 (yard line). We feel comfortable if we get to the 25, we can get points.”

Vannest will handle the punting duties.

Defensively, the Tigers return seven starters, including multiple pieces at each of the three levels.

“When you have seven coming back, it’s definitely a good place to start,” Holenka said. “But, the guys we plug in are going to be the key. Do we have the bodies? Yes, but I am not sure I am willing to hook my boat up to them until we see what they can do. We need to see who can give us the closest thing to the total package in the spots where we need to replace veterans.”

The Tigers will once again employee a 4-3 base defense.

Florence and Gage Joseph return up front at end and tackle, respectively. The other tackle spot is a battle between Geraud and Kris Tsoras, while Cam Brown, Andrew Brown and Karl Tsoras have battled for the end spot.

The defensive leader is at linebacker where Visnic returns. He’ll be joined by Reiman, who is also a returning starter. Osman is expected to start at the other outside spot.

“We have an intelligent group of linebackers and I continue to see growth there every day,” Holenka said.

In the secondary, Jordan Joseph was a lock-down type corner and will be on an island this season. Francis will serve as the other corner, but Holenka indicated Chimley and Shepherd could also be utilized there.

Vannest is ticketed to serve as the strong safety once again. Shepherd could get the first look at safety, but Miller and Wach are pushing hard for time.

“We feel good about our defense and believe we can be a pretty good team if we get out of the gates well and stay healthy,” Holenka said. “I like our overall speed and size. I think our leadership is pretty good, but one area that concerns me is guys becoming complacent because we have young veterans and sometimes when success comes early, it can be tough for kids to avoid that. We have to stay on them and make these kids want to be great and not just be content being a starter at Shadyside.”

Shadyside must find a way to replace six players who graduated. They are All-Ohioan Kelly Hendershot, Ryan Cain, Caleb Davis, Jakob Klug, Matt Lucey and current Youngstown State long snapper Sam Merryman.

“Everyone of those kids were major contributors at some point,” Holenka said. “They were very intrical pieces for us for four years.”

The Tigers coaching staff is impressive. Working with Holenka at the varsity level are Michael Kernik, Sean Grinch, John Grinch, Chase Grinch, Jeff Campbell, Michael Coyne, B.A. Holloway, James Edwards and Alex Krupa. Kernik and Sean Grinch are the offensive and defensive coordinators, respectively.

“I am blessed to have some quality guys and coaches working with me,” Holenka said. “The key to success is surrounding yourself with quality people.”

At the junior high level, Jayson Johnson and Nick Ongley lead the eighth grade, while Chase Kinemond, Zeke Merryman and Jacob Spencer are the seventh grade coaches.

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