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River wants to build on 2018 experiences

Photo/PAUL KRAJNYAK PICTURED IS the 2019 River Pilots football team. Front row, from left, are Mason Randall, Matt Baker, Brody Lollathin, Marshal Bier, Jake Huffman, Ty Long, River Thompson, Brayden Strawn, Clee Mitchell and Bryce Arth. Second row, from left, are Noah Lively, Gage Lyman, Nicholas Machela, Trent Bittinger, Austin Creamer, Brody Longwell, Avery Creamer, Zack Hocut, Travis Childress and Elijah Wayt. Third row, from left, are assistant coach Chris Wisvari, assistant coach Andrew Harper, Kobe Zola, Michael Johnson, Jake Rose, Chase Lawrence, Nate Bowers, Carter Dennis, Tyson Randall, head coach Mike Flannery, assistant coaches Joey Asturi and Eric James. Top row, from left, are Alex Rufener, Jonas Schmidt, Parker Blue, Stone Thompson, Heath Rosen and Colton Lawrence.

HANNIBAL — River continues to prove the pundits wrong.

Two years ago, the Pilots squeaked into the Division VII, Region 27 field with a 6-4 record and came within a whisker of shocking top seed Danville in the regional championship game.

Last fall, River opened the campaign with a pair of disappointing losses. But Mike Flannery never lost hope.

The veteran head coach kept touting the potential of his team and, despite not beating a team with a winning record, the Pilots earned another playoff berth — its fourth straight — grabbing the eighth spot.

Although River fell in the opening round to Lucas, it proved once again that Flannery and his staff have the ability to adapt to change.

With experience comes wisdom.

“I didn’t think I’d make it 17 years,” he smiled during the team’s media day activities earlier this month. “I don’t know anything else, and there are people who say I don’t know this, either. But I think I do.”

The Pilots have 10 state playoff appearances to their credit since 1993 and Flannery has been the driving force behind all but two of them. Last year might have been one of his best coaching jobs, as a team that was loaded in 2017 entered the campaign seeking to build a new identity.

“These guys were unsure of themselves and lacking confidence after Lukas (Isaly) and that group graduated,” Flannery said. “You play to expectations and our kids expected not to be very good. But their confidence grew as the season went on.

“We got in the playoffs, but we got whipped pretty good. Now we know what kind of level we need to be at to compete at this level.”

The journey toward Friday’s opener at home vs. Bellaire began in January. And it was there, Flannery said, the seeds of success started to be planted.

“We had a really good winter,” he said. “(The guys) were in the weight room all winter. The guys that weren’t playing basketball or baseball and track really got after it. I was really satisfied.

There are 33 players out for football this summer at River, Flannery said, a number he’s quite satisfied with.

“I think last year set the table,” he said. “I think that’s why we had such a great turnout in the weight room. All of the seniors were here every day, unless they were on vacation or something.”

The Pilots will quickly see if the fruits of their labors will pay off as the Big Reds enter refurbished Martin Flannery Field with a potent squad that returns many pieces from a team that made a playoff push last season before falling to powerful Johnstown-Monroe in a regional semifinal.

In addition to four D7 opponents, River’s slate also includes a D4 foe, two from D5 and one from D6.

“We’re looking forward to the schedule,” Flannery said. “Bellaire is a playoff team. Spig (Bellaire head coach Mark Spigarelli) and I are good friends. That will be a test.

“Southern is going to be a good team. Rich Wright will have his kids physically tough. He set the precedent at Beaver Local. That will be a good battle in Week 2.

“The first two games will be critical and tough. We want to win our opener with our new bleachers.”

Following the road test at Southern, River returns home for a test against county rival Monroe Central before embarking on three straight road games against Magnolia, Barnesville and Shadyside. The Shamrocks re a new face on the slate.

Week 7 features a home day vs. River View, the D4 opponent. Home dates against Bridgeport and Caldwell follow before a road trip at Frontier to conclude the regular season.

As to who’s behind center against he Big Reds, Flannery’s not sure. Last year, Stone Thompson took the bulk of the snaps. The 6-1, 175-pound multi-sport standout is now a senior and is battling with two other players for the role.

“It’ll be based on the series and who has the hot hand,” Flannery said. “We can play multiple quarterbacks, and I’m Ok with that. They all know the offense and whomever isn’t playing quarterback will be playing receiver, I can count on those guys.”

Fellow senior Colton Lawrence (5-10, 215) and freshman Brody Lollathin (5-9, 155) have seen snaps in camp.

Juniors Carter Dennis and Michael Johnson return to bolster the offense.

Dennis (5-11, 170) earned all-Ohio honors a year ago after turning into a force out of the backfield or as a receiver.

Johnson (5-10, 150) was one of Thompson’s favorite targets, hauling in more than 30 catches.

“We’re trying to get our playmakers the football,” Flannery said. “That’s Carter and Michael. We’re grooming the receivers.”

Flannery said he and his staff continue to look for ways to be more creative offensively in an effort to create additional sparks that will allow their personnel to thrive.

“We need to be confident in what we’re good at and figure out quickly where we’re not good,” he said. “We don’t want to put our quarterbacks in situations where we’re not successful.”

Flannery feels the Pilots are deep skill-level wise, with six or seven players that “can make things happen.”

“We’ve been competing all summer,” he said.

Sophomore Avery Creamer (6-0, 166) will be in the mix at running back, as will junior Jake Rose (5-10, 160), who can also dabble as a receiver.

“He’s like a coach on the field,” Flannery said. “He understands the game. He’s grown physically. We like what we see with him. He battled back from an injury early last year to play in the last two games.”

Flannery sees plenty of versatility at receiver, as well.

Lawrence will be a key player there, along with senior Alex Rufener (5-11, 185) and freshman Ty Long (6-2, 200).

Along the offensive front, Flannery is counting on senior Jonas Schmidt (6-0, 206) to anchor the unit at center.

“He got hurt in Week 2 (last year) and came back for us in the playoffs,” he said.

Guard spots are bolstered by senior Heath Rosen (5-10, 210) and sophomore Austin Creamer (6-0, 166)

“Rosen can go both ways,” Flannery said of Rosen, a two-year starter. “He’s a lunch pail guy.”

As for Creamer, he’s a newcomer to the line.

“He’s accepting his role and has done an exceptional job,” Flannery noted.

Junior Tyson Randall (5-8, 227) returns at offensive tackle and will be joined in competition for time there by classmate Kobe Zola (5-8, 250), senior transfer Parker Blue (6-2, 255) and junior Nate Bowers (6-0, 230).

Freshmen Brayden Strawn (5-8, 200) and Marshall Bier (5-9, 265) are also battling for playing time on the line.

Defensively, Flannery is looking at a 4-3 scheme this fall.

“That’s a little bit of a change from what we did last year,” he said.

Dennis will anchor the unit at linebacker.

Rufener moves to linebacker, with Avery Creamer joining them on the unit.

In the secondary, Flannery Rose, Johnson, sophomore Brody Longwell (6-1, 177) and Lollathin.

The Lawrences and Thompson are competing at outside backer, with freshmen River Thompson (5-11, 150) and Matt Baker (5-8, 138) trying to work into the mix.

Rosen and Avery Creamer are seen as ends, according to Flannery, although they could play linebacker. Bier is in the mix, too.

Schmidt, Blue, Bowers, Randle and Zola are all battling at tackle.

“They’re all interchangeable pieces,” Flannery explained.

Dennis handled punting and picking duties in 2018. Flannery said that position wasn’t set as preseason workouts moved along.

“We need to improve there,” he said.

Although he’s impressed with his large freshman class, Flannery believes the talent and potential is there to win now.

“We want to win this year” he stated. “We’re not looking forward to the next two or three years.

“I wouldn’t be coaching if I didn’t think or want to win every game. I have to instill that in our kids.”

Flannery is assisted by Eric James, Chris Wisvari, Joey Asturi, Terry Snively and Andrew Harper.

“I am smart enough to surround myself with good, loyal people,” he said. “That’s always been something here. First thing is a coach needs is to be surrounded with loyal people.”

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