Toronto just controlling what it can control
TORONTO — The two biggest questions facing the Toronto football team this season are what will the Red Knights do for an encore following last season’s successful campaign and will they even get a chance?
After missing the playoffs for three straight seasons, the Red Knights returned to the postseason last year for the first time since 2016 as the third seed in the Division VII, Region 25 playoffs.
The home game against sixth-seeded St. Thomas Aquinas was close in the first half, but the Stark County Knights eventually pulled away for a 35-0 victory.
Despite the loss, Toronto third-year head coach Josh Franke considered his team’s 2019 season a successful campaign. That disappointing loss serves as fuel to the fire this season, as the Red Knights look to get back to the playoffs for the eighth time in school history.
“We lost that game, but we understand what happened,” Franke said. “Now, we want to try and overcome that. We want to get to Week 12.
“We set goals after every season, and all of our goals was to play in Week 11. We wanted to play in Week 11, and we wanted to host a playoff game. As a coach, I think what happened was we achieved our goal and we were able to host a playoff game, and I hate to say it, but I think we were satisfied.”
To reach that goal, some players are going to have step up for the Red Knights. They will be without the services of eight seniors who graduated. However, Franke knows that comes with the territory at a small school.
Following last year’s disappointing season-ending loss, the Toronto players turned their attention to this season and got to work on trying to make the 2020 season even better. But, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the Red Knights had to alter their plans.
After months of uncertainty, Toronto was finally able to take the field for a practice on Aug. 1. It was an opportunity Franke and his team was looking forward to for months.
“Our message (on Aug. 1) was for the players to enjoy it,” Franke said. “We give kids updates every day about high school football. We tell the kids all the time that we can only control the things we can control. We cannot control the governor. We cannot control other people. We cannot control the OHSAA. We cannot control the health departments. We need to control what we are doing. We have to protect ourselves. We have to be careful what we are doing socially and what events or things we go to.
“We are ahead of the curve. With COVID-19, we are taking every precaution necessary. We just had our first practice, and I think if we had to play a game tomorrow, we would be fine. Our kids know what they are doing. We had kids fill in last year who saw significant time. We are in a good place.”
Though a lot has changed since Toronto last stepped on to the field for a game, not everything has gone by the wayside.
“Toronto football is tough,” Franke said. “We are tough mentally and tough physically. If we lose, you are going to have to beat us, and it is not going to be easy. We have a lot of pride in ourselves. A team may be more athletic than we are, but we are not going to quit. You are not going to be more physical than us. You are not going to work harder than us. You are not going to be as tough mentally as us.
“We have 34 kids. We are usually around that number. We had 31 at the end of last year. We are right about where we have been the last two years.”
With the exception of the incoming freshmen, everyone else (26) on the roster earned a letter last season.
As a result of Toronto’s success last year, its underclassmen received a good bit of playing time on Friday nights. All of that experience will prove to be a big strength for the Red Knights this season.
“I would say a strength is our offensive line and our backfield,” Franke said. “All five of our starting linemen started at some point last season. We have a 1,000-yard rusher in Garrett Dozier. We have a 600-yard rusher in JoJo Savage. I would say our biggest strength would be our experience. Our quarterback — Caleb Leasure — threw for 1,400 yards last year. We have a good core group of returners.”
Some spots need to be filled, but Franke believes some players on his team are ready to step up and fill those key roles.
“We do have to replace our receiving core and our defensive backfield,” Franke said. “I would say nine of our 11 starters on offense are set, and I would say eight of our 11 starters on defense are set.”
Leasure, the team’s senior signal-caller, returns as the team’s starting quarterback. Leasure had a solid season last year.
The Red Knights have a solid 1-2 punch in the backfield, as seniors Dozier and Savage return. Another senior, Ryan Matyas, will lead the way for the dynamic duo as the team’s fullback.
Talented junior Shane Keenan is expected to play a vital role in the passing game this season. The tight end is drawing attention from some Division I schools.
The new wide receiving core will consist of Devin Corrao, Brant Reeves and Bryson Anderson. Corrao and Anderson are seniors, while Reeves is a junior.
Senior Nathan Haines will man the left tackle spot, while sophomore Ashton Ellis will line up next to him as guard. Senior Chris Parker returns at center. Senior B.J. Pearson will handle the right guard duties, while junior Josh Fancher serves as the team’s right tackle.
“We are not going to try and do anything different,” Franke said. “Why fix what isn’t broke? We had a lot of success last year. We had a productive offense. We are going to do some different things. Our wide receivers are all seniors. Shane Keenan is going to more of an integral part of our offense. He is a 6-7, 290-pound tight end. He is going to get a lot of Division I offers. He is going to get a lot of targets this season.”
On the defensive line, Fancher will play left end, sophomore Landon Thomas will be the team’s nose tackle and Pearson and Keenan are also ends. At linebacker, senior Jack Rawson and Reeves will play on the outside, while Matyas and Parker will handle the inside responsibilities. In the secondary, Corrao and Savage will be the cornerbacks, while Anderson will serve as the team’s safety.
As far as the special teams go, Pearson will handle the kicking and punting duties. Corrao and Savage will handle the jobs of being the kick and punt returners. Anderson will be the team’s long snapper. Junior Aiden Mick will be the holder and also is expected to have a Taysom Hill-type role for the offense.
“Aiden Mick is our backup quarterback,” Franke said. “He is going to see time on the field on Friday nights. He will see time at either quarterback or running back. He is a very athletic kid. He is going to be on the field often. There may be times when he and Caleb Leasure are both on the field at the same time.”
Another versatile player expected to see time when Toronto has the ball is freshman Cam Baker, while senior Jayden Olesky is expected to contribute on defense.
The Red Knights’ schedule looks quite a bit different, as they replaced four teams (Beallsville, Crestwood, Leetonia and Oak Glen) with Buckeye Local, Bellaire, Southington Chalker and Youngstown Valley Christian.
Toronto is currently scheduled to open up the season at arch-rival Wellsville. The Tigers defeated the Red Knights, 26-15, in last season’s opener at Clarke Hinkle Field.
Though Toronto began last season with that defeat, it quickly righted the ship with a five-game winning streak. The team ended the regular season on a three-game winning streak heading into its playoff game. Though the Red Knights quickly rebounded from the loss to the Tigers last season, Franke hopes his team is not forced to have to do the same thing once again this season.
Matt Ludwig (defensive coordinator), Dave Dozier, John Parker, Ricky Daugherty, Mike Conlon, Blaine Rawson, Earl Heaton and Josh Wilson will serve as the team’s assistant coaches. Franke will serve as the team’s offensive coordinator.