Indian Creek poised for success
By BUBBA KAPRAL
Executive Sports Editor
WINTERSVILLE — Finishing.
That is the focus for Indian Creek football this fall. The Redskins ended 2017 with a deceptive 6-4 mark.
Three of those losses were by six points or less while a fourth setback saw the outcome still up for grabs in the fourth quarter.
With that being the case, Andrew Connor, now in his 16th year at the Creek helm, dedicated the off-season to eliminating that issue.
“We lost all four games in the fourth quarter. We had a chance to win all those games,” Connor said. “Our effort and enthusisam was good last year. We just didn’t close out games. So we have talked all off-season about finishing games this year.
“After every loss we bounced back with a win. So our kids handled adversity well,” he added. “Closing out games is the only thing we didn’t do well last year. I hope all the things we did in the off-season and in camp to change that pays dividends.”
The heartbreaking losses denied the Redskins an OHSAA playoff berth. Creek has been in the post-season party four of the past six seasons while compiling nine successive winning seasons.
And while Connor’s crew must again navigate through a challenging schedule, a return to the post-season is a definite possibility as Creek brings back a veteran and battle-tested squad that numbers 54.
Connor welcomes back 24 lettermen, 11 of whom are starters — five on offense and six on defense.
“The kids have done everything we have asked. Their work ethic has been great and they have done a good job of representing the school,” Connor said. “We drug test here and we have been Academic All-Ohio for seven straight years. We have checked every box that a program needs.
“We have a senior class that exhibits great leadership and our junior class is a really strong class,” he added. “I have been here a long time. I have never been so excited. The kids are fun to be around at practice. It is a special bunch.”
The Creek offense is one packing potency.
It starts with senior Brennon Norris (6-0, 175) under center.
Norris established himself as one of the most prolific quarterbacks in the Ohio Valley last year, tossing for better than 2,000 yards.
“Brennon has great command of our offense. He gives us a lot of options. He makes us go,” Connor said.
Creek is blessed with a talented backup at quarterback in Sam Mazar (5-10, 170). The versatile junior also excels at wide receiver and he was one of the team’s leading pass-catchers last fall.
“Sam has come a long way. He is a very good athlete. He does a great job at receiver for us,” Connor noted.
Creek has a dandy at tailback in Trevor Fante (6-0, 175). The two-year letter-winning junior is a threat as a runner as well as a receiver out of the backfield.
Depth is provided by sophomore letterman Matt Schaefer (5-11, 175) and senior letterman Jakih Scales (5-10, 160).
The fullback position is a Creek strength, one where Connor can call upon a trio of solid options.
Cody Allan (5-10, 195) and Logan Wilson (5-9, 195) are both seniors. Wilson has three letters to his credit while Allan has two. Also in the mix is two-year letter-winning junior Tyler Smarrella (5-9, 180).
“Fullback is really one of our strongest areas. I feel good about all three of them,” Connor said.
Brandon Hiles (5-9, 190) is a thoroughbred of a tight end. The two-year letter-winning junior is also an accomplished placekicker. He will be backed at tight end by a pair of two-year letter-winning juniors – Brock Lucas (5-11, 180) and Parker Rodgers (5-9, 190).
“I love our wide receiver corp. We have six or seven kids who really can get after it,” Connor said.
The senior pass catchers are all two-year lettermen: Richie Gualtiere (5-11, 175), Matt Mamula (6-4, 200), and Shane Zrinyi (6-1, 185).
The junior class is also deep in talented receivers with Mazar leading the way. He is joined by Brandon Fleming (6-0, 155), Klay Cottis (6-2, 160) and Malcolm Walker (5-6, 145). Fleming and Cottis have two letters under their respective belts and Walker one.
The offensive line is in solid shape with the return of three bulky senior veterans.
Trent Bolek (6-3, 300) is a three-year letterman while classmates Josh Harvey (6-1, 290) and Nathan Truex (6-0, 295) have each lettered twice. The trio possesses impressive size and savvy that will make life easier for the other two starters.
Those two vacancies will filled by a handful of candidates. Sean Stevens (5-11, 175) is a senior while junior line aspirants are all lettermen. They are Logan Scheel (6-0, 200), Jacob Hejduk (6-0, 235), Garren Swickard (5-10, 205) and Shawn McClurg (5-10, 235).
One notable loss to the Creek grid program was that of Sean Grinch. The longtime and crafty defensive coordinator is now working his magic with the Shadyside staff.
Grinch’s defensive duties will now be handled be Matt Shreve. While Creek will still utilize its usual 4-3 alignment, Shreve plans to sprinkle in some 3-4 looks.
The defensive tackles will include a solid mix of McClurg, Harvey, Hejduk and Bolek.
Wilson will handle one defensive end slot.
“We have someone special at defensive end in Logan. He is a three-year starter there and is a great pass rusher,” Connor noted.
Hiles, Mamula and Schaefer will all see time opposite Wilson.
Connor also feels good about his linebackers, as well he should.
Allan is a three-year starter in the middle while Smarrella “had a great year as a sophomore,” Connor said.
Lucas and Fante will also see regular linebacker duty. Providing depth will be junior Gerald Walsh (5-8, 170) and sophomore Jeremy Brown (5-6, 140).
Sealing the deal on the makings of a rock-solid defense is a secondary that will feature Zrinyi, Fleming, Mazar and Gualtiere. They will be backed by Cottis, junior lettermen Malcolm Walker (5-6, 145), Sam Baksa (5-6, 135) and Kaleb Fenske (5-9, 155).
Norris is the punter and Hiles does the placement work. He booted six field goals of better than 30 yards last fall.
Creek honed its performance in three pre-season scrimmages: Shadyside, Columbiana and Carrollton.
The Redskins open their 2018 campaign Friday night at Robert Kettlewell Stadium, hosting Cambridge. Connor’s charges play the same 10 foes as a year ago.
While Shreve is now in charge of the defensive unit, Joe Hammack returns as offensive coordinator. He is one of the premier play-callers in the valley.
“Joe does a great job as our offensive coordinator,” Connor said. “He keeps teams off balance with a lot of different looks.”
The remainder of the varsity staff consists of Doug Karas, a former Mingo High quarterbacking legend; Mike Voltz, Todd Mazzaferro, Mike Wilson Sr., Rob Lucas, Mike Wilson Jr., Joe Strohmeyer and David Kemp.
The junior high coaches are Nick Dondzila, Mike Conrad, Denny Cowser, Mike Allan and Matt Cowser.
“My biggest worry is if we did enough in the offseason to change how we finish games. Everything we did was focused on closing out 48 minutes of football. My one concern is did we make them mentally ready to finish,” Connor said.
“We also want to get more guys involved this year. I think we are going to do a better job of that this year.”