St. Clairsville to feature plenty of new faces
ST. CLAIRSVILLE — It’s almost become the norm around St. Clairsville.
As they’ve been doing with regularity, the Red Devils put forth another impressive campaign in 2018.
Like at every high school, graduation occurred in the spring and members of the roster were presented a diploma.
In St. Clairsville’s case, the number measured 19 sheepskins went to former football players. In some places, that might be a crushing blow for the following season.
The Red Devils, however, subscribe to the cliche that ‘tradition doesn’t graduate.’
As he begins his 18th season at the Red Devils’ helm, head coach Brett McLean absolutely will not put an onus on his squad, but he doesn’t believe his team is in any rebuild mode either.
“I am as pessimistic as they come, and I’ll admit that I don’t think we’re very good right now,” McLean said in the early days of camp. “We lost a lot of guys to graduation, but I am really excited about the team we have coming back, too. We have a long way to go before we’re super confident, but we will utilize every day we have and so far I’ve been very enthused by our kids efforts and attitudes.”
Knowing what’s come before them can be a good and bad thing for teams. McLean has spent a lot of time this month stressing that his team must avoid any type of complacency.
“This group has been a part of some good seasons, but this is now their season, so what’s happened before really doesn’t matter,” McLean said.
McLean has had a major hand in creating the current monster expectations that surround St. C. football. After all, 11 of the school’s 14 playoff berths have come under his watch.
Though playing beyond Week 10 is the goal of every team in the state, McLean was still hesitant to talk about it.
“It scares me to talk about playoffs,” McLean admitted. “Our kids want to be as successful as we can be and that’s the most important thing. We want to be the best team we can be every week and we don’t want to take the (regular) season for granted. We can’t get complacent about what we’re trying to achieve. It just scares me to think that far ahead.”
Football, unlike all other prep sports in Ohio, doesn’t promise the postseason. So, McLean and his staff work diligently to make sure their players soak up the entire season and process that goes into a season.
“We absolutely support the rich history of the school and understand it, but we can’t take things for granted,” McLean said. “We have to be doing all of the small things correctly and hope that no one ever gets satisfied. We want our guys to be hungry all of the time because we’ve never reached the ultimate goal (of a state championship) and that drives me every single day.”
One of those aforementioned good seasons that McLean spoke of was in 2018 when the Red Devils posted a perfect regular season, won the OVAC, Buckeye 8 and advanced to the regional championship game before falling to Newark Licking Valley.
“Last year was one of the best seasons in school history,” McLean said. “We came into it off an 8-3 with a lot of expectations and a whole bunch of starters back.”
St. Clairsville featured 19 seniors on that squad, many of whom played a pivotal role.
“It will be tough to replace those guys, obviously,” McLean said.
Of the Red Devils who collected their diplomas, no fewer than eight are preparing for their first collegiate seasons. Included are Brady Kolb (Wheeling University), Craig Bober (West Liberty), Trey DelGuzzo (West Liberty), Justice McCamick (Waynesburg), Chase Espen (Waynesburg), Braedyn Mihalic (Marietta), Andrew Elerick (Waynesburg) and Colton Skukan (Capital).
The balance of the class includes: David Mellema, Caige Hepburn, J.T. Porter, Dustin Carrothers, Justin Heatherington, Declan Dombrowski, Luke Watt, Kyle Storer, Brandon Biery, Greg Norman and Luke Ewing.
“We’re going to be a different football team,” McLean said. “We have a lot of new personnel.”
Unlike the 2018 season when so many of the position battles were basically set because of the large group of returnees, camp has been grueling for the Red Devils as battles were waged all over the field for jobs.
“We’ve approached this summer and our camp with the idea of putting the kids under the gun as much as possible to try to see who handles the stress and pressure,” McLean said. “It’s been an intense camp. We’ve really worked to try to develop depth while determining our starting roles.”
McLean has certainly been in the coaching business long enough to realize that regardless of how much pressure is faced in practice, there’s no substitute for being under the lights. Quite simply, some players are better practice players and some guys are gamers.
“You can’t coach actual game experience,” McLean offered. “We saw some in our scrimmages how kids will react, but actual game nights are still even different from that. We went into scrimmages looking to answer some of our questions, but we also wanted to work on our depth and allow the kids an opportunity to show us what they could do.” With so many new faces slated to take the field Friday night at Carrollton, McLean knows his club is going to get better as the weeks go by.
“We’re hoping to be able to mold them into what they can be, but if we don’t, then it could be a long year because we have a long way to go,” McLean said. “We’re facing a formidable schedule and a tough opening half of the season, so our guys better grow up fast. I know we’re far from where we could end up.”
While many coaches and programs might suffer greatly from a loss of 19 key players from the year prior, St. Clairsville’s cupboard isn’t bare. The Red Devils have pieces and they’re good pieces. It’s simply a matter of the pieces becoming accustomed to their role.
“We have guys back who were role players and they’re going to have to be big role players,” McLean said. “This is why kids play. They want their chance to show what they can do. These kids have been waiting their turn and that’s now here.”
When you compare the Red Devil 2018 stat sheet to the 2019 roster, there are a lot of new faces who are going to be throwing, catching and carrying the ball this season.
The Red Devils — with Kolb doing most of the heavy lifting — have been a ground-and-pound team the last few seasons. Last season, St. C. accumulated 3,636 yards and 51 touchdowns on the ground. Of that, only 701 yards and 6 touchdowns return.
Though the Red Devils didn’t throw often, 116 of their 118 pass attempts and all 1,145 yards have graduated.
In the receiving group, nary an underclassmen caught a pass.
All told, 86 percent of St. Clairsville’s yards and 90 percent of its touchdowns are gone.
Because of that, McLean wouldn’t back himself into a corner into what the offensive identity for the Red Devils will be.
“We’ve always had the philosophy to build to our abilities,” McLean said. “That’s one of the big questions … what are those (abilities)?
“Obviously, we’re going to have different kids involved and I know I’ve enjoyed coaching them. We simply want to strike a balance. We got run heavy last year and it worked, but we ran into some dudes (in the regional final) who stopped us. We have to be able to do both.”
St. Clairsville has one ultimate luxury and that’s a relatively experienced offensive line group.
“We have to build around those guys,” McLean said. “And that’s not just the linemen. That includes tight ends, blocking backs, etc. We have a really good group of kids back in that area.”
Actually, the Red Devils have a legitimate Division I prospect leading the way in four-year starter Ja’Von Lyons (6-2, 260). The owner of multiple FBS offers, Lyons is the unquestioned leader of the group and will man one of the tackle spots.
Senior Austen Angus (6-3, 295) is also back and will hold down a spot. Sophomore Avery Henry (6-7, 360) started all of last season and is expected to do so again this season, too. He’s already catching the eye of collegiate coaches.
“We’ll be relying on those guys to lead the line,” McLean said. “They’ve all made progress and continued to get better.”
The other line spots have become a battle between no fewer than four players. Included in that group are senior Isaak Myers (6-0, 195), senior Colton Grimm (5-10, 230), junior Jalen McCall (6-2, 210) and sophomore Will Smith (6-0, 220).
“Those guys are really battling and working hard to nail down the other spots,” McLean said. “We’ll probably be shuffling some guys around to different positions because we want to spread the maturity.”
Supplying depth are seniors Anthony Ochoa (5-8, 240), Jeremiah Burdyn (5-6, 165), Mason Thornton (5-5, 135), junior Jaiden Springer (5-6, 180), sophomores Joey Balgo (5-9, 220), Mason McCort (5-6, 120), Jacob Saffell (5-7, 170), Nate Nguyen (5-6, 195), Jason Davenport (5-11, 230) and Jacob Feth (5-7, 180).
Freshmen linemen include: Jamarcus Webster (6-0, 230), James Wolfe (5-7, 155), Vin Roach (5-10, 220), Ian Nowak (5-11, 170), Drue Jozwiak (6-0, 165), Marcus Rector (6-3, 210) and Logan Frye (6-3, 240).
Complementing the interior linemen are a solid collection of tight ends, including senior Derek Witsberger (6-1, 210). He’s being pushed by juniors Luke Jozwiak (6-2, 220) and Reese Skaggs (6-2, 180). Sophomore Carson Woodford (5-8, 140) and freshman Nathan Witsberger (5-11, 145) are also vying.
The veterans up front should greatly enhance the maturation process of the skill players. At least that’s what McLean and company are hoping.
“Games are won and lost up front and that group should definitely help us,” McLean said. “We’ll see. Obviously, we lost some cups out of our cupboard, but we have guys I am excited about ready to step in and carry, throw and catch the ball.”
Junior Tyler Tonkovich (5-9, 165) and sophomore Drew Sefsick (5-11, 170) have been in a battle for the quarterback job. Tonkovich has the upperhand in experience since he saw some playing time a season ago.
Sophomore Austin Porter (6-1, 165) and freshman Andrew Vera (5-10, 140) are also in the quarterback stable.
“We have more quarterbacks than I’ve ever had,” McLean said. “There have been seasons where we’ve come into August with one quarterback on the entire roster. It’s a luxury right now. I think all of these kids bring good stuff to the table, including mobility and versatility.”
At the running back spot, McLean isn’t looking for someone to replace Kolb, who ran for 2,081 yards and 31 touchdowns last season. He’s looking for the collection of players who will be utilized to simply be themselves.
“I am not sure you ever replace a kid like Brady, but we’re still searching for that guy,” McLean said. “We have talented kids at running back, but I want to see it in their eye and personality that they want to be ‘that guy.’ The guy who wants the ball on a short-yardage situation to pick up a first down to close out a game.”
The running back spot — despite Kolb, Heatherington and Storer’s departure — is where the most skill experience lies for the Devils.
Senior Aaron Jordan (5-9 165) and his sophomore brother Jacob Jordan (5-6, 160) are expected to be among the chief options. Junior Austin DaRe (5-10, 140) will be the third option.
Despite those three, McLean would like to see a four or five player rotation in the mix.
Others who are vying for those jobs are junior Will Balgo (6-1, 200), sophomore Logan Shields (5-5, 120), senior Noah Trubiano (5-8, 175) and Derek Witsberger (6-1, 210) could move into the rotation.
Depth is supplied by seniors Corey Naylor (5-6, 150), Jake Elerick (5-9, 190), sophomore Clay Espen (5-3, 110), freshmen Luke A. Porter (5-7, 165), Jaiden Zebbs (5-7, 175), Luke D. Porter (5-9, 160), Zachary Vickers (5-9, 160), Josh Cox (5-6, 145), Jacob Walker (5-9, 150), Chryon Fillion (5-9, 150) and George Harrison (5-10, 160).
Wide receiver spot is where the Red Devils are the most green. Bober led the team with 24 receptions for 388 yards and 3 touchdowns. He also caught the game-winning touchdown in last month’s OVAC All-Star Game.
“We have a couple of older kids who are going to be in the mix at receiver, but it comes down to experience,” McLean said. “We have guys who look talented at practice, but until you line up against some people, it’s tough to gauge.”
Senior Tyler Brookover (6-0, 185) returns. He saw some spot duty last year. Senior Brett Vike (6-0, 165) returns to the team after not playing last season. He has also been involved in the quarterback mix, too.
Sophomore Collin Oberdick (5-9, 135) lettered last season and is expected to take on an expanded role. Senior Nate Fusco (5-8, 170) is another who McLean is “excited” about.
Other receivers listed are seniors Blake Gretchen (5-11, 150), Joe Burdyn (5-9, 165), David Taylor (6-1, 185), juniors Mark Benda (5-11, 165), Domenic Panepucci (6-0, 150), sophomore Jaren Starks (5-4, 110), freshmen Grant Swider (5-9, 140), Rece Spomer (6-0, 145) and Kyle Biery (6-0, 160).
St. C. feels confident in its kicking game. Junior Jake Bolyard (5-7, 130) returns for his third season as the primary placekicker. He connected on 28 PATs and three field goals despite missing a handful of weeks due to injury. He’s being backed up by Lucas Otto (5-6, 140).
The job of punter has been a battle between Sefsick, Vike and DaRe.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Red Devils allowed just over 220 yards and 14 points a game a season ago.
Unlike the offense, several key players return on this side, which leads McLean to believe the cliche about defenses being ahead of offenses will once again by true.
“There are definitely a lot more kids on defense back who have either started or played a prominent role,” McLean said. “There are still some areas where we’re trying to build depth, but overall we’re enthused about our defensive group.”
Will Balgo, Trubiano and Brookover are all back at linebacker and Skaggs is also expected to make a solid contribution.
In the secondary, the Red Devils must replace Heatherington, but everyone else is back.
Tonkovich will man a corner spot, while Fusco, who played in the nickel last season, will have a more expanded role. DaRe will also play corner, but Vike and Oberdick are challenging. Joe Burdyn is another who is working to get into the defensive mix.
Derek Witsberger and Myers return at the defensive end spots after starting basically every game there a season ago. Jozwiak and McCall are working with that group, too.
Depending upon the opponent and approach, St. C. could employ a bevy of defensive tackles.
Should it opt to go ‘big’, Henry and Lyons will be in the mix. It could go ‘fast’ with Naylor, Grimm and Ochoa.
“We’re hoping for eight (defensive) linemen, but we could go with a nix six-man rotation,” McLean said. “We always the best 11 guys on the field, so we’ve spent some time making sure we’re teaching guys multiple positions. Defensively, we try to teach kids at least two positions.”
Overall, St. Clairsville fields a roster of 65 players. While that’s one of the largest rosters in the area, it’s also a bit down from last season.
“I hope our roster stays like it is or even gains,” McLean said. “We have a big senior class again. Having two consecutive (big) senior classes is tough these days because kids look ahead and think, ‘well, I am never going to beat that guy out,’ so they don’t come back out. But, the fact that our kids did is a tribute to them, their families and our coaches for keeping them interested and making football fun. It takes a whole bunch of people to make a successful football team.”
In what’s starting to feel like a rite of spring for McLean, he and then athletic director Kelly Rine spent numerous hours working to complete the schedule for the season.
“Scheduling football game is not an easy thing to do,” McLean said. “We feel like we have a very challenging schedule and a lot of them are going to be deemed big games. While that’s a good thing in many ways, the schedule can also emotionally wear you out, so we need to make sure we’re compartmentalizing each game of the season into its own week and remaining focused.”
The Red Devils have three new opponents on the schedule to go along with the traditional Buckeye 8 South foes, Indian Creek, Meadowbrook and Friday’s opener at Carrollton.
“I think it’s a schedule that kids and the fans can get excited about,” McLean admitted. “It’s a schedule full of rich, rival games against some people who were playoff teams a year ago and return a ton of veterans and names you know and have heard. It’s one that we have to be ready each and every week.”
Included are a date with two of the three Ohio County schools.
Wheeling Park will visit Red Devil Stadium in Week 2 and St. C. will trek to the campus of Wheeling University to take on Wheeling Central on Halloween night to wrap up the regular season.
“Having the two Wheeling schools on the schedule is a good thing for all of the schools involved,” McLean said. “I think all three of us have had some trouble scheduling in the past and we’re all fortunate to find games that makes sense. We didn’t have to go 100 miles away or bring in someone from another country.”
Both the Park and Central games will be staged in 2020 as well with the Red Devils visiting Wheeling Island Stadium and the Maroon Knights coming to Belmont County.
The Red Devils will make one lengthy road trip. They’ll trek to Lancaster Fairfield Union in Week 9.
“The Fairfield Union game is probably a head scratcher for some people, but I love taking the team and making a nice road trip,” McLean said. “I love trips to new and different places. It creates some cool memories. Plus, in the event you’re fortunate enough to play an extended season, you have to make some road trips, so we like having that experience under our belts.”
Gone from the schedule are Meigs, South Range and Cleveland JFK.
For McLean, the fact that he’s beginning his 18th season at St. Clairsville and 20th season in coaching overall is tough for him to fathom.
“I guess I am getting old,” McLean said when he realized that he’s the dean of Belmont County coaches. “I didn’t waste time in getting (my career) started, but it’s still crazy to think it’s been that long.”
McLean, who has four sons, a wife and will be in the process of moving at some point during this season, doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.
“I’ve been going for 18 and hopefully I can do 18 to 20 more,” McLean admitted. “I still love the heck out of it. I honestly didn’t sleep the night before the first day of doubles. I just love the challenge of getting a team ready and motivated.”
While McLean has been at it for a while, he has experienced some coaching staff turnover during his tenure. That was the case again this offseason.
The Brothers Clifford — Ryan and Kurt — have stepped away from football for different reasons. Ryan, who is also the head basketball coach, wanted to concentrate more on that, but since he informed McLean of his decision he was hired as the Red Devils’ golf coach.
Kurt, meanwhile, resigned from his position as the seventh grade coach due to a change in employment not permitting him to invest the hours required.
The balance of the varsity staff includes: Donnie Giffin, Ben Frye, Mike Jacob, Kevin Sacco, Casey Callarik, Stephen Hicks, Vern Ridgeway, Chris Ballog and Anthony Skrabak. Volunteer additions to the varsity staff are Jeremy Schafer and Chris Fogle.
Tim Fortay and Ryan Jarvie are guiding the seventh and eighth grade teams, respectively.
“We definitely have a lot of familiar faces on the staff,” McLean said. “We have all of our coordinators back, which is a good thing. It’s a good staff.”
Chris Patrone and Gary Hull are once again serving as the equipment managers.