Ray returns to the OV to coach Bridgeport
By KIM NORTH
Times Leader Sports Writer
BRIDGEPORT — The head coaching carousel at Bridgeport continues in 2018 as Martins Ferry native Fred Ray takes over the Bulldogs’ helm. The 37-year-old follows in the footsteps of another Martins Ferry alum, Gary Krol, who led Bridgeport to a 3-7 mark in his lone season. Krol took over Zack Melton who lasted two seasons.
“I think the kids are doing the best they can considering all they’ve been through over the past several seasons,” Ray allowed. “There has been so much transition over the past few years, but the kids have done well so far. They just have to learn what type of person/coach I am and forget about all those bad habits from years past.
“It takes time and I know that. Rome wasn’t built in a day and I understand that.”
It’s no secret that the Bulldogs have struggled since that remarkable 10-0 season in 2010 when it also won a pair of Division VI, Region 23 postseason games, including the school’s first home playoff victory at Bill Jobko Stadium over Southern Local (31-20), before falling to Ohio 7 rival Shadyside, 28-0, in the regional final at Red Devil Stadium in St. Clairsville. The ‘Dogs (12-1) also took out perennial state powerhouse Newark Catholic (21-20) at Sulsberger Stadium in Zanesville, and had defeated Shadyside in a regular-season matchup.
“My passion is there and I love the game of football,” Ray said after being hired. “Football gave me this opportunity and I want to give back to it now.”
Ray is also big on tradition and he realizes Bridgeport has a long tradition that he is hoping to jump-start.
“I know it is there,” he said. “A lot of people in this area still care about Bridgeport High School, especially Bridgeport football. That’s what drew me to this job. I’m going to do all I can to re-store it and get it back to where it once was.”
The 1999 Martins Ferry graduate is no stranger to challenges.
He started his coaching career at Fairview High School in northeastern Kentucky as an assistant from 2009-12. After spending a season at River Valley High School in Bidwell, Ohio, as the team’s offensive coordinator, he returned to Fairview as head coach in 2014. There he inherited a program that was sanctioned by the Kentucky High School Athletic Association for using an ineligible player in all of its 2012 games and four games in 2013. The Eagles were not permitted to participate in 2016 playoffs and were forced to vacate their 2012 state runner-up finish, along with 14 victories.
The Eagles were 23-23 under his leadership and qualified for the Russell Athletic/KHSAA Commonwealth Gridiron Bowl (state playoffs) in each of his four seasons.
“We’re right in the thick of things right now. Everything is going pretty well despite the late start,” Ray said after a week of practice. “The coaches are getting to learn the kids’ tendencies and the kids are getting to know what the coaches expect of them.”
During two-a-day practices, Ray held a “Midnight Madness” session on the morning of Saturday, Aug. 4, which was the first day live contact was permitted by the Ohio High School Athletic Association.
“It was pretty cool,” he admitted. “I like to do things to switch practices up. It allowed us to get in some under-the-lights work. I’ve done some different things in the past, but nothing similar to this.
“Hopefully, this allowed us some team bonding. I think it worked well, and I thought the kids really liked it,” he added. “In fact, one player asked me if we could do it again at the end of the season. I told him I didn’t know because it usually pretty cold at that time of the year. But, we’ll see.”
Bridgeport returns a dozen letterwinners from last season’s 3-7 squad that collected victories over Paden City, Beallsville and Conotton Valley.
Leading that group is senior quarterback Tino Kusic (6-0, 170) who re-wrote the Bulldogs record book for passing a year ago. The three-year letterman passed for 2,884 yards and 30 touchdowns. He was 165 for 295 and threw 11 interceptions. However, six of those came in a week 7 loss to Carrick, Pa. He was injured during a scrimmage game and missed his entire sophomore season after passing for 696 yards and seven TDs when he took over for older brother, Carlos, in week 3.
Kusic, who earned all-Times Leader, all-Valley, all-OVAC and all-state honors last fall, set an Ohio Valley record with eight touchdown passes in a romp over Beallsville when he accounted for 437 yards via the air. He also tossed seven TD strikes in a rout at Paden City in which he had a season- and career-high 430 yards. His season-low of 141 came in the finale against Cameron.
“The one thing that sticks out about Tino is that all of his teammates like him. They kind of follow his lead and he is a great leader,” Ray said. “This being his third season as a starting quarterback is huge for us. He has a lot of skills and is adapting to the new system very well.”
Backup quarterbacks are sophomores Dylan Gregorcic (5-11, 180) and Corey Messerman (6-3, 175). Neither came out for the team last season.
“Dylan is a really good athlete,” Ray said. “He’s the future for us.”
Gregorcic started on the varsity team towards the tail end of basketball last season.
Returning senior letterman Jarret Deaton (5-10, 170) is Bridgeport’s top running back. He ran for nearly 300 yards last season and scored a touchdown before suffering a season-ending injury.
“Jarret is a tough kid,” Ray added. “He will get a lot of touches for us.”
Other running backs mentioned by Ray include seniors Damon Green (5-8, 180), Jacob Bain (5-7, 155) and Jaylon Addison (5-10, 170). Green didn’t play last year; Bain saw limited time in the backfield; and Addison moved in from Indiana.
“We’ve got some speed back there,” Ray advised.
Also in the mix are senior Jordan Cumberledge (5-7, 175), sophomores Jon Bugaj (5-9, 165) and Eric Williams (5-9, 160), and freshman Caiden Williams (6-0, 155).
Wide receiver is a little weak after Bridgeport lost its top five pass-catchers from last year. Replacing Booker, an all-state wideout who had 83 catches for 1,418 yards and 16 touchdowns, will be tough, but Ray has a few skilled players who are capable.
Senior Chandler Rodgers (6-2, 160) will be one starter. He caught just three passes a year ago. Classmate Trevonn Ray (5-11, 155) is out for the first time since his sophomore season. A standout on the basketball court, Ray brings a lot of speed and good hands. Junior Izaac Jozwiak (6-2, 170) and sophomore Malachi Lewis (5-8, 150) also possess speed and good skill sets.
Jozwiak will have to sit out the second half of the season due to a revised OHSAA bylaw because of his transfer from St. Clairsville.
Another receiver is sophomore Christian Waterman (5-7, 145).
“Our receivers are a little young and inexperienced, but I think they will come along nicely,” Ray noted.
The tight end will be junior Jera Massey (6-2, 210) who has grown four inches and gained 30 pounds since last season.
“Jera has gotten bigger and stronger,” Ray said.
Others in the mix are senior Jacob Waterman (5-9, 200), who didn’t play last year, and sophomore Doug Reed (6-4, 190).
“We are pretty deep at our skilled positions,” Ray acknowledged. “I think we really have some really good skilled players.”
The Bulldogs have just two starters back on the offensive line in seniors Hunter Duffey (5-10, 180) and Ryan Stewart (5-9, 170). Ray said both would start at guard.
Three players are battling for the starting center slot, with the other two being designated to the another line position. They are freshman Anthony Jaworski (5-9, 175), senior Adam Loughman (5-9, 210) and freshman Taylor Day (5-10, 210). Jaworski can also play guard, while Loughman and Day are tackle candidates, as well.
Other potential tackles are junior Devin Danhart (6-0, 210), senior David Falcone (6-6, 250) and freshmen Andrew Billos (5-9, 170) and Cody Swauger (5-8, 155).
“We’ve tweaked our offensive line some. We’ve moved some kids around and you need to do that at a smaller school like this, but we’ll adjust and go from there,” Ray said. “We still might be moving kids around until we, as coaches, feel we’ve got the right setup.
“We have some size, but I feel it is all about the fight in the dog. I feel we have some fighters out there. We do have a couple of nice-sized kids, but the smaller kids are fighters.
“We have some guys that might surprise some people,” Ray said.
“I told our seniors they are the foundation for our future. They have to lay the blocks for us to build upon..”
Defensively, the Bulldogs will line up in multiple looks, according to the head coach.
“We’ve got a lot of team speed on this side of the ball. Our linebackers and secondary will be our strengths,” he added. “Hopefully, our defensive ends can put some pressure on the quarterback, but we’ve got to be able to stop the run first.”
Those ends will include Massey, who registered a team-leading half-a-dozen quarterback sacks last fall, Falcone, Reed and Danhart.
The tackles prospects are Day, Loughman, Duffey, Billos, Jaworski, Stewart and Jacob Waterman.
Kusic and Green will be the inside linebackers, with Deaton and Bugaj on the outside. Others battling for playing time include Eric Williams, Cumberledge, Bain and Swauger.
Ray, Rodgers, Gregorcic, Addison, Jozwiak, Messerman, Lewis, Christian Waterman and Caiden Williams will all see time in the secondary.
As far as special teams go, Ray said it was way too early to even think about those positions.
“That’s a defining moment,” he offered. “At a small school you would like to have a player at each position, but that is something we will work on.”
If getting a late start wasn’t enough, the Bulldogs will be forced to play their five home games on the road due to structural issues with the home grandstands at Bill Jobko Stadium. The 100-year-old bleachers will have to be demolished. They will play two home games at the Dave Bruney Complex in Martins Ferry, with the other three being staged at Red Devil Stadium in St. Clairsville.
“That’s another thing that isn’t in our favor, but we’ll adapt to it, figure it out and do the best we can with it,” he said of the unfortunate turn of events. “It’s an unusal year and a lot of things have happened. No excuses, though. We’ll be ready to go.”
Ray’s first coaching assignment will come Thursday when the Bulldogs venture to Hancock County to meet Weirton Madonna on the artificial surface at Weir High’s Jimmy Carey Stadium.
They will then host Toronto in St. Clairsville (Friday, Aug. 31) before entertaining Clarksburg Notre Dame (Sat., Oct. 8) in Martins Ferry. That will be a special night for Ray.
“That’s a very interesting opportunity. I have the chance to come back to the valley and be a head football coach. There aren’t too many chances that you are going to get to play on your alma mater’s field, but we have that opportunity this season and we want to make the most of it,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be very special and very unique night because I played there. To see the Columbia Blue and Black out there is going to be a little different, but I’m looking forward to it.”
Week 4 has the Bulldogs returning to Martins Ferry as Paden City (Saturday, Sept. 15) visits. They will then embark upon a three-game road trip to Conotton Valley (Friday, Sept. 21), Beallsville (Friday, Sept. 28) and River (Friday, Oct. 5) before hosting Carrick, Pa. (Friday, Oct. 12) and Shadyside (Friday, Oct. 19) in St. Clairsville. They close the campaign at Cameron (Friday, Oct. 26).
“The schedule works out well. Most of our opponents are the same size as we are,” Ray noted. “But there are a couple of teams like Shadyside that are really tough. It’s going to be a challenge for us, but we’re going to look forward to each one of them. Hopefully, we take it week-by-week and get better.”
One advantage of not playing in Brookside is that all but two of the games will played on turf.
“That’s a bonus right there. There aren’t too many schools our size that get to play most of their games on turf,” he continued. “We have that chance due to some unforeseen circumstances. Hopefully, in the years to come we get in the playoffs and that second round where you play on turf. Being honest here, if we are ever able to build a new facility, I would hope the administration would look into purchasing turf.”
As far as his staff does, “I’ve done my best in terms of getting quality coaches in here in a short amount of time,” he stressed. “A lot of the guys on the staff I’ve been able to build relationships with and the guys I don’t know so well came highly recommended.
“It’s going to a coach-by-committee type of thing. We’re all going to pitch in where needed.”
Ray will serve as offensive coordinator and call the plays. R.J. Vavrock will coach the offensive line and defensive ends, while Greg Honecker serves as the offensive line and defensive tackles coach. Jason Booth will tutor the wide receivers and defensive backs, while Dom Vinci coaches the running backs and linebackers. Dennis Kasper is the offensive and defensive line coach and Jay Agnew the offensive line and defensive tackles.
“Some of those guys I’ve played with in the past,” Ray mentioned. “The thing about all of them is that the want to win. That’s why I brought them on board.”
Lost to graduation were Booker, Logan Zusack, John Simmons, Kane Kasprowski, Mannix Doyle, Carlton Justice, Layne Dunlap, Anthony Allen, Ronald Hundley, Tanner Heslop and Levi Bryant.