River set to begin life without Isaly
By SETH STASKEY
Times Leader Sports Editor
HANNIBAL — There have been a few times this summer when Mike Flannery has to had to catch himself.
The veteran River head coach has spent the last three seasons relying heavily on Lukas Isaly. It’s been a successful recipe, too. The Pilots won 27 of the 35 starts Isaly made, qualified for three postseason appearances, won an OVAC title and advanced to the Region 27 championship game last season.
With Isaly and 11 other Pilot mainstays now graduated, Flannery oversaw summer workouts and into camp this month, trying to sell his 2018 team on a simple philosophy.
“I’ve been telling our kids just to be themselves,” Flannery said. “They’ve worked hard, put in a lot of time, but they just need to be themselves and not try to compare themselves to anyone who may have played before them.”
While Isaly’s departure leaves a major void to fill in terms of what he did on the field, accumulating 3,212 yards of total offense and accounting for 42 touchdowns, but his leadership is where Flannery thinks his presence was felt the most.
“Lukas was one of those guys who you put in charge and he takes over,” Flannery said. “He had a nice surrounding cast around him, and we feel like this team has a nice cast, but we’re lacking that vocal leader right now.”
The Pilots finished the 2017 regular season with a 6-4 record, but their schedule prepared them well for the Division VII, Region 27 tournament. They knocked off Harvest Prep and then steamrolled Portsmouth Sciotoville Community School before dropping a heartbreaker, 29-28, to Danville.
“We probably caught a lot of people off guard (in 2017),” Flannery said. “We didn’t have that high of expectations, but when you have someone like Lukas and those other seniors, they really raised the bar for everyone.
Plus, everyone was on their ‘A’ game in the playoffs.”
While Isaly led the way and garnered a boatload of post-season accolades, including first-team all-Ohio, Ohio Valley Player of the Year and more, he wasn’t alone. Also gone are OVAC All-Star Luc Baker, Drew Wagnild, Drew Dietz, Grant Williams, Cole Brown, Hunter Dotson, Zac Talbott, Ron Lamp, Ethan Lively, Cole Hinerman and Payton VanCamp.
“That was a good group that had a lot of success,” Flannery said. “These kids coming back have been around a lot of winning the last few years and now it’s their turn to take the reins.”
There won’t be many hands to put on those reins. The Pilots have just 22 players on their roster, which is a career-low for a Flannery-coached River squad.
“The numbers are low, but it’s kind of a sign of the times right now (at a lot of schools),” Flannery said. “There are two or three kids walking the halls who should be out, but we’re not concerned with them. We’re worried about the kids who are here.”
Obviously with low numbers comes depth issues. Avoiding the injury bug — as much as possible — is almost paramount for the Pilots.
“If someone told me ‘you’re not going to have one injury all season,’ I’d probably sleep better at night,” Flannery said. “But, you can’t think like that, though. It’s like riding a motorcycle. You can’t get on it and worry about (an accident). It’s the same here. We have worked to condition our kids as well as possible and we just hope we can avoid the freak injuries.”
The Pilots’ depth could be challenged Saturday.
River opens the season at Nelson Field in Bellaire. In 2016, the Pilots and Big Reds played on a Sunday due to an unforeseen circumstance that didn’t allow River to travel north. The temperature was in the upper 80s with high humidity.
“Hopefully the weather is a little better this year,” Flannery smiled.
On the field, the Pilots may take on a slightly different look because of who is gone, but the premise will be the same.
“We’ll still be a spread, Wing-T team, but we will have a different look because we’ll