Steubenville set to open defense of title


For The Times Leader

STEUBENVILLE — Big Red’s ultra successful football program boasts a bevy of first-class components, including the high-quality game day magazine sold outside Harding Stadium.

Supporters of the Crimson and the Black will definitely need that publication when the 2018 season opens just to get familiar with the new faces and numbers seeing critical playing time on Reno Field.

A boatload of talent is gone from 2017’s dream season where Big Red was a perfect 15-0 and captured the Ohio Division IV championship. Picking up diplomas last spring where the likes of Johnny Agresta, Jacob Bernard, Jonathon Blackmon, Javon Davis, DaJuan Jones, Alijah Demitras, Tyler Ely, Marlon Lawrence, Quentin Moore, Jamal Petteway, Gino Pierro, Reuben Saxon and Alec Taylor.

Many of those graduates are looking to play at the collegiate level. They were part of Big Red teams that went 41-3 during three seasons and reached three straight championship games.

The Big Red football cupboard, however, is far from bare. Hall of Fame coach Reno Saccoccia welcomed back 25 seniors and 18 letterwinners when two-a-day practices began in July.

“We really don’t have new guys at new positions; we have guys without a lot of game experience at the same positions,” said Saccoccia, who is entering his 36th season as Big Red’s head coach. “As coaches, we hope they continue to improve each day. Every team out there is counting on new guys right now. We are no different.

“Really, the only thing I am counting on right now is for all of our players to give their best effort. I’m not focused on this individual or that individual. I just want every player to give us the effort no matter where they are on the depth chart.”

Saccoccia enters the 2018 season with a career record of 371-68. His teams have made 17 consecutive trips to the postseason, captured 18 regional championships, finished second in the state five times and claimed four Ohio titles. Big Red has an all-time playoff record of 66-26.

By winning the Division IV title last year, Big Red became only the sixth Ohio school to capture football titles in three different divisions (II, III and IV). Other schools to record that accomplishment are Canton Central Catholic, Cleveland Benedictine, Maria Stein Marion Local, Minister and Youngstown Cardinal Mooney.

With new players competing for many starting positions, Saccoccia noted there’s been a different focus in his program during the summer.

“We really haven’t changed our focus as far as mental preparation goes, but we have been more patient and given some players more reps of the same thing,” he said. “We keep trying to remind them every day that the harder you work, the better you get.

“We really won’t be a team until we trust each other. A coach has to gain the trust of players, and the players have to gain the coach’s trust. You can’t be the best team you can possibly be if you don’t have trust.”

Saccoccia has four players working to replace Davis (2,000 yards passing and 26 scores) at quarterback. They are seniors Clayton Criss and Ethan Duggan, junior Randy Mitchell, who was a regular in the defensive secondary in 2017, and sophomore Cade Kernahan. Criss got some action a year ago as Davis’ backup, while Duggan transferred back to Steubenville after playing for St. Clairsville in 2017.

As is generally the case, Big Red has a full stable of tailback candidates. Players looking for carries are senior Caleb Mitchell, senior Dumaka McGhee, sophomore Isaiah Wickham, senior Taveon Montgomery, sophomore Nasari Jackson and junior Tayveon Crawford.

Crawford was second to Bernard (1,724 yards and 24 touchdowns) in rushing. He ran for 557 yards, averaging eight yards per trip and scored four touchdowns. Mitchell added 367 yards and Montgomery 341.

Candidates at fullback include junior Stone Biacco, junior Dylan Bozica, sophomore Isaiah McCartney, senior Andoni Demitras, senior Ty Arlesic (a starter at tight end last season), senior Eric Lulla (who had a huge season at middle linebacker in 2017), junior David Tuttle, sophomore Luke Zorne, senior Chris Norman and junior Niko Kausky.

Saccoccia has a load of players looking for time at wide receiver including senior Jeziah Blackwell, junior Noah Howrath, senior Nicco Bracone, sophomore Hayden Taylor, senior Ryan Rauch, sophomore Andrew Gresko, junior Draven Martinau, senior Jorian Jones, sophomore Deonbre Anderson, junior JoJo Brown, junior Tanner Power, senior Jabile Smith, senior Freedom Harper, sophomore Aaron Ferguson, sophomore Skyler Fauts, junior Shayie Robinson, sophomore Gaige Frances, sophomore Colby Saylor, sophomore Nathaniel Starks, junior James Still and sophomore Hunter Stoddard.

The Big Red tight end corps consists of senior Kwadre Williams (a two-year regular on the defensive side of the ball), junior Ethan Waugh, senior Dylan Cunningham, junior Brayden Pearce, senior James Roundtree, junior Johnny Nodianos, sophomore Quinn McCoy and junior Cazieh Richmond.

Senior Keonte Holmes is the lone regular starter returning to the offensive line. Seniors Kaleb Brown and Cameron Boley were part-time starters.

Others seeking playing time on the line are sophomore Caesan Sutton, junior Terrance Norris, junior Kaisean Wilson, senior Donavin Thornton, sophomore Cian Montgomery, junior Anthony Boley, junior Keith Bodnar, senior Elijah Simon, sophomore Raleem Brooks, junior Amari Brown, senior Cesare Jennings, sophomore Deshawn Dixon, sophomore Wesley Mohawk, junior Brad Valentine, sophomore Zack Hill, sophomore Taeshawn Conley, sophomore Eli Burgey, junior Ryan Burger and junior Emanual Ware.

Ian Phillips returns for his senior season as Big Red’s primary kicker. In 2017, he nailed 66 of his 72 extra-point attempts and also split the uprights once for a field goal.

Williams is back at his defensive end spot and will be joined there by Waugh, Pearce, Roundtree, Wilson, Brooks, A. Brown, Conley and McCoy.

Looking for playing time on the defensive interior are Sutton, C. Boley, Norris, Thornton, C. Montgomery, A. Boley, Bodnar, Simon, Holmes, Jennings, Nixon, Mohawk, Valentine, Hill, K. Brown, Burgey, Burger, Ware, Nodianos and Saylor.

Lulla will again lead the line backing unit. As a junior, he had more than 80 tackles with 19 resulting in a loss. He also recorded five quarterback sacks.

Looking to join him are Caleb Mitchell, McGhee, Bozica, McCartney, Jackson, Demitras (who saw plenty of playing time in 2017), Crawford, Arlesic, Tuttle, Zorne, Norman, Kausky and Richmond.

Defensive back candidates include Randy Mitchell, Blackwell (who started at defensive end in 2017), Bracone, Kernahan, Duggan, Taylor, Criss, Gresko, Martinau, Biacco, Anderson, J. Brown, T. Montgomery, Power, Smith, Harper, Ferguson, Fauts, Robinson, Frances, Starks, Still and Stoddard.

Looking for playing time at safety are Howrath, Rauch, Jones, Wickham and Cunningham.

“Overall as a team, we’ve had a really good summer, but our seniors have had a great summer,” Saccoccia said. “That’s where it begins, with your seniors. I can truthfully say from the bottom of my heart that on Friday nights, win or lose, they are going to play hard and leave it all on the field. That’s something we look for every year, and I’m sure we will get it this season. I just hope that we, as coaches, can put a good game plan together and, as a team, we can execute it together.

“The work is always there. Now it is the work when you are tired, when you don’t feel like doing it. That’s the next step we have to take. Everyone is fresh in the spring and during June. Once you get to two-a-days and they begin to drag on, you start to see guys who are going to play separate themselves from the guys who are doing to be backups. It’s effort really, effort when you feel you can’t go anymore.”

Saccoccia added two new members to his varsity staff in the offseason in Anthony Pompa and Ian Whittington, the former head coach at Oak Glen.

Also, Todd Filtz was promoted to defensive coordinator, replacing veteran assistant Anthony Pierro, who retired from coaching. Pierro served as the defensive coordinator since 1994. Filtz played for Saccoccia and was an all-state linebacker. As a head coach, he guided Maple Heights to the 2010 Ohio Division II championship and also served as head coach of Canton McKinley.

“I have confidence in him,” Saccoccia said of Filtz. “He’s experienced and very well qualified.”

When discussing the success of his program, Saccoccia said “the ones who have been through it understand it, but I’m not sure if all the players understand it yet.”

“We have a lot of guys who are going to need to play a bigger role for us this year, and they haven’t been through the third yet,” he said. “Until you are presented with the grind, you never know how good you are going to be.

“It’s really about how you react to the grind. When you see how players reach to it, that’s when you see where you are as a program.”

Big Red opens its season against always tough Penn Hills, which competes in the WPIAL Class 6A Northern Seven Conference.

The Indians, one of three new opponents on Big Red’s schedule, went 8-4 in 2017.

“We have a very challenging schedule, starting with our scrimmages,” Saccoccia said. “I really believe our opening game is the best we’ve had since I have been there as far as athletes on the field and defending the ball in open spaces. It’s going to be a real challenge for us, and we’re trying to prepare for that.

“It’s going to take a great effort, and I’m sure our players will be up to it. We are playing a school that had one of the better teams in Pennsylvania last year. It’s going to be a great atmosphere, and we have to be prepared and ready to go.”