Success to continue flowing at Creek
By BUBBA KAPRAL
Executive Sports Editor
WINTERSVILLE – Andrew Connor is embarking on his 17th year at the helm of Indian Creek. During that time he has established a program that is steeped in a family-oriented atmosphere, ingrained in success.
The Redskins went 8-3 last year, gaining another OHSAA playoff berth while also capturing the OVAC 5A championship along the way. It marked the sixth playoff appearance for Indian Creek under Connor’s guidance and third in the last four seasons.
If the Redskins can avoid a rash of injuries while navigating through a challenging schedule, another post-season berth is not out of the question this fall.
Connor must replace a quality senior class, including four performers he coached to victory in last month’s OVAC Rudy Mumley All-Star Classic. This year’s 47-member squad is buttressed by a solid and deep senior class, numbering 16.
“We overcame a lot of injuries last year, including our starting quarterback in the third quarter of our opener. Our kids were resilient all year. A lot of kids were pushed into service due to injuries,” Connor said. “Last year’s negative (injuries) will be this year’s positive (added experience). This senior bunch is a good one. It has been very successful since they were in the eighth grade.”
Sam Mazar (5-11, 180) returns at quarterback. He was rushed into service in the opener due to an injury to Brennon Norris and rallied the Redskins past Cambridge. The two-year letterman was ticketed to be a starting wideout last season before blossoming into an effective quarterback.
“Sam did a great job under a difficult position against Cambridge,” Connor said. “He now has nine starts under his belt. He is a character young man.”
Mazar will be backed up by junior letterman David Ferroni (5-7, 155) and sophomore Eli Powell (5-8, 155). Both will also see time at receiver.
Tailback is a position of strength for the Creek.
Three-year letterman Trevor Fante (6-0, 200) has been a regular ball-toter since his sophomore year. When he got a little dinged up last fall two-year junior letterman Matt Schaefer (5-11, 205) stepped in and performed quite nicely.
“We are blessed to have two quality tailbacks. Both are good downhill runners,” Connor offered.
Senior Tyler Smarrella (5-10, 205) is a three-year letterman. He is the starting fullback once again, and a top-notch one. Junior letterman Jeremy Brown (5-8, 165) will get some carries as the main backup.
Providing depth in the backfield will be senior Dylan McMillen (5-10, 175), junior Pierce Petro (5-7, 135), sophomore letterman Cam Franke (5-6, 160) and classmates Jadyn Irizarry (5-9, 160) and Roan Kovach (5-11, 145), and freshman Bryssan Flaherty (5-9, 170).
Creek will utilize an H-back and it has a pair of dandies in seniors Brandon Hiles (5-10, 190) and Brock Lucas (6-0, 180). Both are three-year lettermen.
Senior Sam Baksa (5-10, 155) will get the start at slot receiver with junior letterman Jonathan Giusto (5-10, 175) also seeing time there.
Wide receiver is an area of Redskin strength with the return of Brandon Fleming (6-0, 180) and Klay Cottis (6-2, 175). Both are three-year letter-winning seniors.
“Brandon and Klay are a very good tandem. We also have good depth at receiver. I feel good about our receivers,” Connor said.
That depth comes in the form of two-year letter-winning senior Kaleb Fenske (5-11, 165), senior Devon Thatcher (6-0, 185), junior Blake Dulkowski (5-9, 140) and sophomore Sam Coleman (5-10, 140).
Other receivers vying for time are sophomore Shane Lucey (5-9, 140), freshmen Xaron Vanhorn (5-7, 135), Todd Jackson (5-8, 130), Isaac Robinson (5-9, 140), Gavin Gross (5-8, 140) Bryson Bodo (5-11, 140), Michael Belisle (5-11, 190), Gabe Hutton (5-10, 165) and Luca Morelli (5-10, 170).
Connor likes his offensive line.
“Our offensive front is looking good. We have three starters returning and some other capable bodies,” he said.
Seniors Garren Swickard (5-10, 225) and Logan Scheel (6-0, 200) and junior Jacob Hejduk (6-0, 235) are all back for another tour of blocking duty. All three are two-year lettermen and all quite effective.
The line was solidified even more when senior letterman Gerard Walsh (5-8, 200) made the switch from H-back to center.
A host of capable candidates are vying for the final starting spot up front. In the mix are two-year letter-winning senior Shawn McClurg (5-10, 235), a mainstay the last two years on defensive line, junior letterman Jesse Bolek (5-10, 245), junior lettermen Cory Cottis (6-1, 195) and Gage Simmons (5-8, 240), and promising sophomores JJ Orlando (6-1, 240) and Gavin Dondzila (5-9, 205).
Additional O-line depth will be supplied by junior Jacob Edwards (5-9, 190), sophomore Jacob Sinsel (5-9, 175) and freshmen Chance Camp (5-11, 190), Blake Dodds (5-11, 175) and Nathan Allen (5-10, 170).
The Redskins will deploy a 4-3 alignment defensively.
Schaefer and Brown will be the ends with Cory Cottis also rotating in.
McClurg and Swickard hold down the tackle slots. Connor also plans to give Walsh, Bolek, Hejduk and Orlando time at tackle.
The second level of the Creek defense has the makings of a special unit.
“The linebackers will be the strength of our defense. We have three good ones there,” Connor beamed.
Smarrella is a tackling machine in the middle. He recorded 150 stops last fall.
He is flanked by a pair of stalwarts in Fante and Hiles. The trio has the makings of one of the premier linebacking units in the OVAC.
Franke and Giusto will provide the support on the second level.
Fleming and Klay Cottis are returning starters at cornerback and are a quality tandem. Kovach, Fenske and Pietro are in the backup mix.
Lucas and Baksa will be the starting safeties with Ferroni, Lucey and Powell on call when needed. Mazar can be utilized in special situations.
The kicking game is a strength. Hiles has been doing the placement work since his freshman campaign. Connor calls him, “one of the best in the valley.”
Mazar, meanwhile, is a quality punter. Freshman Austin Herald (6-0, 185) is the backup for both.
“What I like best about this team is that our expectations have been raised over the years. This group wants to uphold those expectations. The kids have embraced that,” Connor said. “We want teams on Saturday morning to feel physically that they have played us the night before.”
Connor’s biggest concern is one shared by most coaches in the Ohio Valley, “a lack of some depth.”
Creek has one schedule change, that being Indian Valley replacing Alliance. That game takes place in week 3, marking the first game on Robert Kettlewell Stadium’s new turf surface.
“Our first three games will be a good measuring stick for us. We go to Cambridge and East Liverpool before we host Indian Valley. They are three really important D-IV games right off the bat,” Connor noted. “After Week 3 we will know a lot about us and where we are headed. The East Liverpool game will go a long way in determining the Buckeye 8 North title.”
Connor is supported by one of the premier staffs in the OVAC. It is a group, for the most part, that has been together for a long time.
The varsity assistants are offensive coordinator Joe Hammack, Doug Karas, Mike Voltz, Mike Wilson Sr., Rob Lucas, Mike Wilson Jr., Joe Strohmeyer, Todd Mazzaferro, David Kemp and Justin Wilson.
The junior high staff consists of Matt Cowser, Nick Dondzila, Mike Conrad and Denny Cowser.