Franke now leading the way at Toronto
By AARON PETCHAL
For The Times Leader
TORONTO — The Toronto football team is looking to get back on track after a disappointing end to 2017.
The Red Knights began the season 4-1 but lost its last five games to finish at 4-6 and miss the playoffs for the first time since 2013. Toronto’s wins came against Bridgeport, Edison, Southern Local and Leetonia.
This season, Josh Franke takes over the reins at his alma mater. Franke, a 2005 graduate, is the third coach for the Red Knights since the end of last season. Anthony Hayes was hired in Februrary to replace Eric Meek, who resigned following eight seasons as head coach. Hayes then left at the end of May to replace Justin Kropka as head coach at Harrison Central, and Franke was hired in June to replace Hayes. Franke was originally hired to be an assistant coach under Hayes.
Toronto also lost seniors Nathan Keenan, Jake Keenan, Juston Patterson, Luke Fogle and Avery Watkins from last year’s team. Keenan missed the final six games due to injury.
The Red Knights return 21 lettermen and have nine starters back on offense and eight on defense.
A lot of kids saw time last season, and that experience gained should prove beneficial this season.
“They sure did play a lot of kids,” Franke said. “That is really good for us. We have thrown a lot at the kids, and they had to learn a lot. They have really bought in, and they picked up what we have been teaching them. We are ahead of where I anticipated us being at this point.
“We return a lot of experienced players, especially at the skill positions. We have depth at the skill positions. We also return three starters on the offensive line. You can’t simulate a game in practice. It is tough when you have kids who have never played at the varsity level. They do not know what to do. We are fortunate that a lot of these kids played last season.”
After a few days of practice, a good amount of the starters are already determined.
“For the most part, we have got things squared away,” Franke said. “We still trying to figure out our offensive line and, defensively, we are still trying to figure out our defensive line and one of our linebackers. We have a couple of battles going on, but we are pretty close to figuring things out.”
Last season, the Red Knights scored 34 or more points in five games. Toronto went 4-1 in those games but was held to 20 or fewer points in the other five games. The Red Knights lost all five of those games.
Toronto got a big boost this summer when senior standout quarterback Nate Karaffa decided to come back. He has a baseball scholarship waiting at Ohio State.
“For a while, we did not know if he was going to play,” Franke said. “He is a great athlete. It is a joy to watch him in practice. He does things in practice that you can’t coach. He is able to do a lot of things.”
Karaffa will be backed up by sophomore Caleb Leasure and junior A.J. Clegg.
Toronto has a good group of running backs to line up behind Karaffa. Senior Kobe Herrick will be the team’s starting tailback, and junior Tristan Thomas will serve as the starting fullback. Sophomore Garrett Dozier will also see time in the backfield.
Karaffa will also have a good group of receivers to catch the ball. That group includes juniors Frank Fulton, Zach Stackhouse and Brendan Matyas. Senior Nick Sninchak will be the tight end.
The Red Knights are looking to fill one of the five starting spots on the offensive line. Senior Justin Haynes will play left tackle, freshman Josh Francher will play right tackle, senior Trent Wright will start at center and junior Shane Vansteenberg will start at left guard.
A few players are battling it out to start at right guard.
“Our offensive formation is going to vary,” Franke said. “We are going to use multiple formations. We are going to use the spread. We are going to get to the ball to as many guys as we can so the defense can’t key on one kid.”
The Red Knights allowed 40 or more points seven times last season and went 1-6 in those games. The lone win came in a 44-41 victory against Southern Local.
Defensiviely, Toronto is going to play a 3-3-5 formation.
The Red Knights are going to rotate guys up front on the defensive line. That list of players includes Sninchak, junior Isaac Miller, Francher, Landon Thomas and Shane Keenan.
Seeing time at linebacker will be Wright, Trsitan Thomas, Clegg and sophomore Chris Parker.
In the secondary, Stackhouse and Matyas will be the starting cornerbacks, while the safeties will be Herrick, Dozier and Fulton.
“We want to be able to pressure the quarterback,” Franke said. “We want to contain the run. We have good linebackers who are able to make tackles.”
Coulter Kelly will kick field goals and extra points, while Karaffa will kick off. Wright will serve as the team’s punter with Sninchak as the long snapper. Stackhouse, Dozier and Matyas will handle returning duties.
Toronto is scheduled to open the season against rival Steubenville Catholic Central at Clarke Hinkle Field.
“You can’t ask for a better game to start the season,” Franke said. “We have a great game right off of the bat. It is a great opportunity. A writer could not write a better script than this. The hometown kid comes home to coach at his alma mater, and he opens the season at home against his team’s arch rival. It does not get any better than being able to coach my first game at Toronto against those guys. It is going to be an awesome opener.”
Due to scheduling conflicts, the two teams did not play last season.
“When I heard the news that we were not going to be playing them, I was upset,” Franke said. “It was like Ohio State and Michigan not playing.”
Toronto will then play at Bridgeport in Week 2 and at home against Edison in Week 3 before ending the season with six straight games against teams in the Eastern Ohio Athletic Conference. This season is the Red Knights second and final year in the EOAC. According to the coaches, they will be independent next year.
Toronto won its first two EOAC games last year over Southern Local and Leetonia before losing its last five to Columbiana, Lisbon, East Palestine, United and Wellsville. A win against the Tigers would have gotten the Red Knights into the playoffs.
Franke’s assistant coaches are Dave Dozier, Steven Rebich, Matt Ludewig, Jake Haynes and Tyler Butler. Rebich will serve as the team’s defensive coordinator, while Franke will be the team’s offensive coordinator.
“I will call the offense,” Franke said. “I have always seen myself as a play caller. I don’t think I would have as much fun as I do if weren’t calling plays. I have called plays for offense and defense. I love being in that position. I would not enjoy coaching as much as I do without having play-calling responsibilities.”