Shadyside returns experienced cast
By SETH STASKEY
Times Leader Sports Editor
SHADYSIDE — Mark Holenka has a lot of hobbies, but other than helping his grandchildren, putting jigsaw puzzles together usually isn’t high on the list.
The Shadyside head football coach may grow to enjoy them even more as he embarks on his 12th season at his alma mater.
Coming off a solid 7-4 season, which ended with a thud in the opening round of the playoffs at Nelsonville-York, Shadyside returns several key pieces from that team. It also boasts a roster of 46 players and some talented younger players, so making it all come together gel and be productive is the task at hand for Holenka and his trusted staff.
“I look at our depth chart and I have a lot of optimism,” Holenka said. “The potential is there, but how we develop that potential and how long it takes for it to ignite is where the questions lie. And if the puzzle pieces don’t fit well enough together it could throw the potential off, too.”
A solid rationale from a head coach who owns an 80-28 record and has guided the Tigers to the postseason in every season he’s been in charge.
Though graduation claimed some talented players, including OVAC All-Stars Alex Krupa, Dylan Hanson and Colton Stutzman as well as Colton Selmon, Josh Robinson and Richard Francis, Shadyside’s cupboard is far from bare. Actually, Holenka talked last year in the preseason that he honestly believed the 2017 campaign was going to lay the foundation — in terms of experience — for what could be an impressive 2018 season.
A few years back, Shadyside adopted the mantra ‘finish.’ Holenka actually kicked around going back to it for this season because he was able to pinpoint a hand ful of plays in each of the Tigers’ losses that had they gone the other way, the outcome may have been different.
“There were definitely a lot of what ifs,” Holenka said. “Some what ifs actually went in our favor, too. But, a play here or there could have swung some of the losses around.”
Though Shadyside was dealt a decisive 34-0 loss to Nelsonville-York, Holenka said that loss was easier to swallow than the Meadowbrook, Wheeling Central and Linsly games.
“There were times when we didn’t finish and other times when things just slipped through our hands,” Holenka said. “Sometimes a (football) season is like roulette wheel. You hit the color you want and other times you don’t.”
Though the Shadyside tradition since 2000 is well documented, including a pair of state title game appearances in that stretch, Holenka wants all focus from the 2018 team on this season.
“The past is the past and you have to play every week,” Holenka said. “No one cares what you did last Friday or last season. We better be ready to go this season.”
The bulk of the puzzle comes in blending Shadyside’s veteran corps along with the new faces, who are going to have take on bigger roles.
“We’ve got talent and we’ve got experience in some places, but youth in other places,” Holenka stressed. “We need to get our youth to develop and not be the weak link.”
With so many veterans, including a class of seniors that measures 14 deep, that should allow for the Tigers’ youngsters to grow up gradually. Holenka believes the toughest adjustment for young players is dealing with the increased game speed.
“We have some young guys who are hyperventalating at times, but it’s not because they don’t have the talent or ability to play at that level, but it’s tough to get the game slowed down for them,” Holenka said. “We have pretty decent depth and I think we’re going to be able to get a lot of kids involved. Our experienced kids will help with that transition.”
Shadyside’s overall roster size stands at 46 and it’s broken down fairly evenly among the classes. Included is a 15-man freshmen group, which will play some separate games, according to the head coach.
“Our numbers aren’t as great as we’ve had in some years, but there aren’t a lot of drop offs from the first group to the second and third groups,” Holenka said. “The biggest problem is putting the initial puzzle together. The pieces are there, but whether or not a linebacker should drop back to the third level or questions like that are what we’re having to decide.”
Holenka believes his team is going to be afforded an ultimate luxury that not many schools in Division VI receive. He hopes that he’s able to do some platooning with his players and cut down on the number of guys who go both ways.
“At this point, we feel like we could have some guys just play one way and not weaken us,” Holenka said. “There aren’t a lot of peaks in our lineup, but there aren’t a lot of valleys either.”
So, the ultimate question that Holenka knows Shadyside’s droves of fans are wanting to know is … how good can this team be?
“As a coach, I look at us in practice and at our depth chart with a lot of optimism,” Holenka said. “There’s a ton of potential and how quickly it ignites will determine how good we are.”
Though the numbers are strong, the experience is up and the talent is there, Shadyside has its deficiencies, too. Holenka didn’t hesitate when asked about those.
“We’re not the fastest team around,” Holenka said. “We have some above average speed in some places, but we don’t have great speed anywhere. Without that we have to scheme a little bit more to make above average speed compete with better speed. I think if we had a great speedster, we could be a wow factor kind of team, but we can’t be a wow factor team without a wow guy. We do have good guys who work hard and sometimes that can be better.”
Shadyside — like most solid programs — has been able to adapt to its personnel on both sides of the ball. Of late, the Tigers have become a power-run team. Holenka, however, think his team will be able to strike a legitimate balance.
“We’ll be multi-dimensional on offense, but we’ll set up the pass through the run,” Holenka offered. “We’re experienced in a lot of skill spots and we’re bigger and stronger physically, which is good. If we can replace Krupa, which won’t be easy, we won’t miss a beat.”
Shadyside’s offense is triggered by senior quarterback Anthony Coggins (6-0, 157), who is set for his second season at the controls. He matured quickly last season, throwing for 1,372 yards and 16 touchdowns. He was also an effective runner. He was knocked out of the playoff game with a concussion.
“He’s bigger, stronger and better mentally,” Holenka said. “He feels more comfortable (at quarterback) between the ears and understands the schemes much better, which is important.”
Though Coggins is the incumbent and leader for the job, Holenka had high praise for freshmen Korey Beckett (5-10, 166) and Rhys Francis (6-0, 153), who have pushed the senior this summer.
While Krupa and his 1,074 yards and 13 touchdowns are now at West Virginia Wesleyan, the other half of the Tigers’ dynamic duo in the backfield is back. All-Ohioan Connor Banco will become more of the focal point of the offense.
Banco (6-2, 197) rushed for 1,017 yards and 21 touchdowns last season.
“Within reason, we would like to feed (Banco) the ball as much as we can,” Holenka said. “We want to make sure he’s available for both sides of the ball and a lot of defenses will be focused on him, so we have to make sure we develop some other weapons.”
Banco is being pushed by talented freshman Wyatt Reiman (5-9, 161) and senior Seth Nardo (5-7, 149). Freshman Gage Joseph (5-10, 226) is also in the mix.
Sophomore Jacob Visnic (5-10, 204) earned a letter last season and is expected to take on a much larger role as the fullback. Junior Jakob Klug (5-11, 175) is the top backup.
When the Tigers do go to the air junior veteran Kelly Hendershot returns outside. He caught 19 passes for 267 yards and a touchdown.
Senior Austin Price (6-3, 178) is coming off a season in which he caught 14 passes for 228 yards and 3 touchdowns.
“Kelly and Austin are both veterans who give us pretty good size at that spot,” Holenka said. “Both bring a lot of athletic ability.
The split end spot appears to be senior Collin Holmes (5-8, 163) to lose. He’s backed and being pushed by sophomores Jordan Joseph (5-9, 155) and Alec Shepherd (6-1, 146).
Others in the mix for either receiver or split end are sophomore Brendan Schrader (5-10, 135), freshmen Mason Vannest (5-10, 145), Ethan Stanley (5-6, 137)and Landen Salgert (5-4, 122).
Shadyside has a quality option at tight end in junior standout Sam Merryman (6-2, 183). He shared the team-lead in receptions last season, with Banco, with 20. His tallied 311 yards and he scored four touchdowns.
“Sam’s a good target and a very good tight end,” Holenka said. “He has a knack to get open.”
Merryman’s top understudy is a battle between senior Zeke Merryman (5-11, 210) and classmate Wyatt Schrader (6-0, 182). Frosh Ryan Florence (6-0, 159) provides depth.
Shadyside’s line should be quality, but Holenka has spent much of the month trying to find a couple of new starters.
“We have almost three (full-time) starters back,” Holenka said. “We rotated a few kids last year.”
Senior Andrew Jobe (6-1, 212) is embarking on his third season as the starter at center. He will lead the group. He’s joined by junior Ryan Cain (5-5, 207) at guard and junior Caleb Davis (5-10, 248) is at right tackle.
In the battle for the other two spots are seniors Zak Merryman (5-11, 221), Ian Falcione (5-11, 193), junior Matthew Lucey (6-0, 198) and sophomore Mason Geraud (6-2, 317). Senior Ricky Contraguerro (5-9, 198) has also caught the eye of the coaches and freshman Logan Crozier (5-10, 268) is serving as Jobe’s top backup.
Other linemen vying for time are seniors Trey Porter (5-9, 209), Evan Meadows (5-10, 365), junior Caden Honeywell (6-3, 299), sophomores Jalob Honeywell (5-10, 252), Camden Brown (6-1, 225), Zach Clark (6-1, 325), Ethan Olack (5-8, 228), freshmen Devon Robinson (5-8, 151), Devin McMahon (5-8, 151), Ryan Crall (5-10, 251), Zach Heslep (6-1, 223), Billy Baker (5-9, 145) and Kristopher Tsoras (5-7, 204).
The Tigers’ defense may take on a bit of a different look. Holenka, the long-time defensive coordinator, has turned the reins over to recently hired Sean Grinch, who came back to his alma mater after a lengthy tenure at Indian Creek.
“I think we’re a bigger puzzle defensively,” Holenka said. “Do we have the speed to match up with people in space? We’ve got good size and we’ve got some depth. A lot of our puzzle will depend on who we’re playing and go from there.”
Expected to serve as the defensive ends are Schrader and Merryman, while a combination of Geraud, Jobe, Lucy, Contraguerro and Falcione is expected to battle for the defensive tackle action.
Banco is one of the team’s leading tacklers from a season ago and will roam at linebacker. He’ll be joined by Visnic and Klug. Also in the mix is Nardo, Gage Joseph and Holmes.
Holmes could also see time in the secondary, but Holenka would prefer not “to play musical chairs” on that side of the ball.
“We would like to avoid bumping people around on different levels,” Holenka said. “We’re OK with moving people within their position, but would like to avoid moving levels if we can help it.’
Price is back at a corner, while Hendershot is set for his third season at free safety. Holmes could be the strong safety, but the battle for the other corner has been between Coggins and Francis.
Special teams is always a focus at Shadyside and they appear to be in solid hands with the addition of Angel Velasquez, who moved into the district this summer. The 5-3, 110 pound sophomore will handle extra points and field goals.
“He spends a lot of time working on it,” Holenka said. “Usually, he’d come to the field, get a bag of balls out and just start kicking.”
Merryman is expected to kickoff, while Hendershot and Price both saw time at punter a season ago.
Merryman is a highly regarded long snapper and is ranked highly amongst the class of 2020, according to several scouting services at the position.
It seem as if the schedule is a yearly topic for the Tigers. That’s what happens when you’ve qualified for the postseason every year except one since the turn of the century.
Though the Tigers filled all 10 games in a relatively quick fashion, they still were trying to find three opponents to replace Toronto, Caldwell and Linsly.
The aforementioned opener at East Liverpool is new. A road trip to Beallsville and a home against Shenandoah also dot the schedule.
Throw in traditional foes Magnolia, Bellaire, Meadowbrook and Wheeling Central, which has shifted to Week 10, and the Tigers will face a grind.
“Meadowbrook has most everyone back, Shenandoah picked us up when they did for a reason, Wheeling Central has most everyone back from a state championship, Bellaire is moving back toward its hey day and Magnolia has a nice team coming back,” Holenka surveyed. “We could be a 5-5 team that could get (into the playoffs) and do some damage because of the (challenging) schedule we’ve faced.
“But, there’s also a good chance that a 5-5 wouldn’t get us in.”
Though competitive balance numbers are calculated yearly since its based on rosters, Shadyside remains in Division VI this fall, which will make the path to the postseason even more of a challenge.
“We’ve had to work to get into the playoffs the last couple of years,” Holenka said of the last three trips, which have all ended in the opening round.
“Getting into the postseason has become more and more troublesome as the jungle has become thicker and thicker.”
Holenka called himself blessed because of the coaching staff he has working along side of him.
The staff is large in terms of quality and quantity.
The Tigers have no fewer than 11 coaches — including Holenka — at the varsity level.
“It’s a tremendous staff that’s allowed me to give up some of the reins on things,” Holenka said.
Shadyside pulled off one of the biggest coups in the offseason when it hired Sean Grinch away from Indian Creek to run its defense. Grinch, who is also Shadyside’s wrestling coach, accepted a teaching job at his alma mater and will join Holenka’s staff as the defensive coordinator.
Michael Kernik returns as the offensive coordinator.
Newcomers to the stafinclude Jeff Campbell, who took a season off; Chase Kinemond, who was the quarterback at Bethany the last several seasons; Billy Johnson is also on board just two years removed from his prep playing days.
The holdovers to the staff are John Grinch, Chase Grinch, Michael Coyne, James Edwards and Steve Kernik.
The junior high staff consists of Randy Merryman and Kurt Glasser with the eighth grade. Nick Onlgey and Jayson Johnson guide the seventh grade.
Willy Merryman is the quality control coach.