St. Clairsville seeks continued success
ST. CLAIRSVILLE — Brett McLean has seen and done a lot in his tenure as head football coach at St. Clairsville High School.
As he prepares for his 19th season, he’s faced with a challenge that he and his team have faced before. For the second straight season, the Red Devils will need to find a way to replace a large number of graduation losses.
“There has been some attrition because of graduation and now we have one of the smallest senior classes we’ve had in my time here,” McLean said.
While every coach is concerned about seemingly everything before a season and/or a game, McLean feels a little bit more comfortable because of the 10 seniors’ ability to play and lead.
“Hidden in that number of 10 seniors is the fact that they are very, very good players,” McLean said. “Most are three-year starters, all of them have lettered multiple times and we’re going to rely on them. We had a very small senior class in 2007 and lost in the regional final, so you can be successful without having 100 seniors, but each of those kids needs to understand how vital his role is on the field because they’ll have to assume a greater role than even in years past.”
Mix the senior class’ talent and leadership with a strong group of juniors and sophomores and the Red Devils, who are coming off an 8-3 season that ended with a loss in the Division IV playoffs at John Glenn, are feeling pretty good as they enter Friday’s opener of a six-game sprint.
While McLean likes the make up of his squad, those aforementioned concerns that each coach maintains haven’t totally vanished by any means.
“One of my main concerns is how we approach each week,” McLean said. “We have to prepare well each week for game night and then during the game how we handle the adversity that comes our way will be key,” McLean said. “I am excited about the kids we have returning. A lot of them have played a lot as juniors and sophomores, so we have veterans sprinkled in at a lot of spots. And while you’re always concerned about the new guys who are playing, it’s their time to step up and we expect them to rise to the challenge.”
Speaking of challenges, every team in Ohio and basically the country has faced plenty as their offseasons were truncated to a degree because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’ve tried to make the best of the situation we’ve been granted, but it’s definitely been an awkward offseason,” McLean said. “We’ve controlled our attitudes and worked as hard as we could within the guidelines we had with as much as passion and energy as we could. The kids have really been awesome throughout the summer. I honestly think (the shutdown) gave every athlete a breath of fresh air because of the down time and they learned how much they value sports and being part of a team.”
As for the Red Devils on the field, McLean and the St. C. offensive staff plan to rely, offensively, on their backfield.
“We’ll have some ground influence, especially early,” McLean said. “We’ve hung our hat there the last two and almost three seasons. We have a lot of veterans in our backfield.”
Leading the way there is senior quarterback Tyler Tonkovich (5-9, 185), who is adept at running and throwing. He passed for 1,058 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. He also racked up 500 yards and scored nine touchdowns on the ground.
He’ll be joined by speedy junior Jacob Jordan (5-7, 160), who carried 88 times for a solid 663 yards and 12 touchdowns a season ago. Senior Will Balgo (6-3, 225) is an imposing force at fullback and will help pave the way.
Spelling Jordan will be junior Logan Shields (5-8, 160) and classmate Carson Woodford (6-0, 180). Junior Mason McCort (5-9, 185) is also a candidate.
Splitting between a fullback and tight end will be senior standout Reese Skaggs (6-2, 215) and senior Luke Jozwiak (6-2, 220). Juniors Austin Porter (6-3, 180) and Clay Espen (5-8, 170) are also vying to get into the mix.
“We’ve got some interchangeable pieces between our fullbacks and tight ends,” McLean said. “Having Tyler back is a huge plus and not just because he can throw and run it effectively. His knowledge of the offense is a huge plus.”
The Red Devils receiving corps is solid and deep despite the loss of leading pass catcher Brett Vike to graduation.
Junior Colin Oberdick (6-0, 165) is back after hauling in 16 receptions for 266 yards and scoring twice. Senior Austin DaRe (6-0, 155) will take on a bigger role as will junior Jaren Starks (5-8, 135).
Senior Domenic Panepucci (6-0, 160) is looking to make an impact on the outside as well. Junior Drew Sefsick (5-11, 165) is one of the most versatile contributors for the Red Devils’ offense. He will see time at receiver, back and also serves as the back-up QB.
McLean also pointed out senior Mark Benda (5-11, 155) as well as sophomores Kyle Biery (6-1, 160) and Andrew Vera (6-0, 170) could get into the mix at receiver.
One of the chief reasons for the Red Devils shift to a primarily ground-and-pound offense has been the offensive line, which has been immense to say the least. However, St. C. must find three new starters in the trenches after the graduation of Ja’Von Lyons, Austen Angus and Colton Grimm.
“We lost three guys, but we have three guys, who played a lot, returning, so that will help,” McLean said.
“I am not sure what we’ve done right, but we’re rich in linemen. We have a bunch of kids there. We have some kids who have great size, but they do still need some time to develop and gain experience on the field.”
The Red Devils feature a pair of book-end tackles in junior mainstay Avery Henry (6-7, 360), who is embarking on his third season as a starter. On the left side is senior Jalen McCall (6-6, 245).
Junior Will Smith (6-1, 260), who was a versatile back-up at all five line spots a season ago, is set to anchor the line at center.
Junior Joey Balgo (6-1, 260) and junior Jason Davenport (6-1, 240) are ticketed for the right and left guard spots, respectively. Junior Nate Nguyen (5-8, 230) is the top backup and can play all five spots. Senior Jaiden Springer (5-7, 210) and junior Jacob Saffell (6-1, 230) are also vying to get into the mix.
McLean is also high on sophomores Jamarcus Webster (6-2, 250), Drue Jozwiak (6-0, 190), Logan Fry (6-3, 250) and Marcus Rector (6-5, 210).
Special teams should be a strength for the Red Devils with the return of senior kicker Jake Bolyard (6-1, 185). He connected on 42 PATs and a field goal a season ago.
Sefsick was an All-Ohioan at punter last season, averaging nearly 40 yards a boot.
“Jake is now a fourth-year starter at kicker and will handle all of our kick-off and PAT duties and Drew just has a cannon for a leg. Obviously, I am mad when we have to punt, but if we have to punt, I am excited to have Drew back there.”
Bolyard’s top backup is junior Lucas Otto (6-0, 155).
Defensively, the Red Devils will be breaking in more new faces than on the offensive side.
“We have some places defensively where people are going to have to step up and fill the void,” McLean said. “We lost some good seniors.”
Leading the list of returnees is Will Balgo at inside linebacker. He finished with 80 tackles a season ago. Woodford will join him at inside linebacker.
Shields and Sefsick are expected to handle the outside backer duties. Shields logged 43 stops a season ago.
Up front, the Red Devils return Skaggs and Drue Jozwiak at ends. Henry will be asked to go both ways and play one of the tackles along with McCort.
“We could play up to six or seven kids at defensive tackle,” McLean said. “They all bring something to the table, but someone has to rise to the top.”
In the secondary, DaRe and Oberdick are back at corners with Starks pushing for time, too. Vera is expected to roam at safety.
Panepucci is also making a push for secondary action.
The balance of sophomores, who will be ticketed primarily for jayvee or special teams duty include: Chyron Fillion (5-9, 150), Jacob Walker (5-9, 185), David Pugh (6-0, 145), Josh Cox (5-6, 150), Rece Spomer (6-0, 145), Nathan Witsberger (5-9, 130), Jaiden Zebbs (6-0, 215), Luke D. Porter (6-0, 180), Zachary Vickers (5-8, 180), Luke A. Porter (6-2, 155), Grant Swider (5-10, 140), Vin Roach (5-11, 175) and George Harrison (5-10, 160).
A large group of ninth graders will primarily play at the freshmen and/or reserve level. The group includes: Marcus Bush (5-7, 175), Hunter Hoffman (5-9, 165), Colt Westlake (6-0, 140), Caleb Walz (5-8, 130), Tearyn Dukes (5-8, 120), Cole Thoburn (5-4, 120), Brennen Stout (5-9, 165), Ben Stewart (5-5, 135), Ryan Newton (5-11, 155), Owen Phillips (5-10, 145), Civin Murray (5-9, 120), Sammy Phillops (5-8, 175), Chris Sommerville (6-0, 195), Perry Patrone (5-10, 220), Toby Miller (6-0, 210), Cody Steczyk (5-10, 200), David Gordan (5-6, 190), Griffin Fogle (5-9, 190), Jacob Thornton (5-9, 210), J.R. Adams (6-2, 220), Alex Smith (5-7, 180), Kevin Costilow (5-10, 220), Jordan Clemons (5-8, 160), Harrison Kazmirski (5-8, 130), MaKenna Booth (5-7, 165) and Jacob Meager (5-8, 150).
The OHSAA’s alteration of the football schedule caused some stressful moments for all coaches, including McLean, and athletic directors.
Whether or not games with rivals Bellaire and Union Local will be played after the tournament ends remains to be seen at press time.
Other graduation losses include: Jake Elerick, Blake Gretchen, Joe Burdyn, Tyler Brookover, Noah Trubiano, Nate Fusco, Aaron Jordan, Derek Witsberger, Corey Naylor, Isaak Myers, Jacob Saffell, Anthony Ocohoa, Jeremiah Burdyn, Mason Thornton and David Taylor.
The Red Devils coaching staff includes Donnie Giffin, Ben Frye, Kevin Sacco, Eric Gay, Vern Ridgeway, Steve Hicks, Anthony Skrabak, Mike Jacob, Chris Balog, Jeremy Schafer, Chris Patrone and Gary Hull at the varsity level.
Working with the junior high are Chris Fogle, John Kutcher, Abbey Maroon and Zach Musilli.