HS Football Column: The Thursday Afternoon Back-Up Fullback

High school football returns on Friday night and intriguing match-ups abound within the Grand Lake St. Marys region. Sports Editor Brian Smith puts down what's been filling up his notebook about each area match-up leading up to Week 1.

St. Marys at Sidney

The question of how much  St. Marys can improve in its first season under Greg Phillips is the big one around here. No one expects a miracle in his first season taking over a program that went 1-9 and 0-9 in the WBL in 2010, but Phillips and his team know it's important to take a step forward in the Riders' opening game against Sidney.

“I think we’re really excited because we have a new optimism to the season,” St. Marys offensive and defensive tackle Steve Elshoff said on Wednesday night after practice. “I think a lot of people are sick of losing. That’s not what we do here. We’re really excited about getting out there and winning more games.”

It will be interesting to see two teams playing that are changing schemes on three of the four sides of the ball. St. Marys is moving from the Wing-T to a I-Formation/Double Wing dominated offense. On defense, they're going to a 3-4 front that better utilizes its speed. Parkway is going to the spread on offense after ditching the Wing-T altogether under new leadership.

Adam Doenges, a former Roughrider, is coaching in his first game as a head coach for Sidney. Talking with Doenges, he's driven to turn things around at a school that has gone through hard times with levys failing, pay-to-play in place and with the departure of former head coach Dan Cairns to Parkway after Cairns' teaching position was eliminated.

 Sidney-St. Marys could be a very telling match-up for where exactly St. Marys fits into the scheme of the Western Buckeye League in 2011.

Covington at New Bremen

New Bremen will have to be wily this season. Blessed with speed and athleticism at the skill positions, the Cardinals are small along the offensive and defensive lines.

That's why a game against blue-collar Covington is a nice test for the Cardinals in the season opener.

“I think athletically we match up with them well,” New Bremen head coach Rob Messick said. “We have a lot more speed than they do, but they will have the size advantage. We plan to fly around and try to get to the ball.”

Messick really believes he has a team that can surprise in 2010. That starts with getting over the Covington hump. New Bremen lost a heartbreaking 22-21 game to Covington last season on a game-ending field goal by the Buccaneers. That started a 2-8 season that saw the Cardinals lose three games by seven or fewer points in 2010.

“The last two seasons the games have come down to the last minute,” Messick said. “In 2009 we beat them in the last minute and last year they won with the field goal in the last minute. This series has come down to a pretty good matchup.

Fort Loramie at Minster

Nate Moore is probably tired of hearing questions about last season. The Wildcats did stun with a three-game playoff run following a 5-5 season.

But Moore wants the focus to be on this season and for good reason. While his team lost most of its defense from 2010, they bring back their offensive line almost completely intact, they have a three-headed running back rotation that Moore thinks complements well with speed, power and balance and they bring back a junior quarterback in Adam Niemeyer who is one of the top athletes in the MAC and got a year of starting under his belt two seasons ago.

Moore said Niemeyer has a chip on his shoulder after losing the starting job because of injury last season. With Niemeyer as a strong-armed pocket passer at 6-3 who can see over defenses to go along with a  perfectly balanced offense Nate Moore installed last year, the Wildcats can put up points.

Now, can they get enough stops defensively to make those stand up in the tough Midwest Athletic Conference?

Minster will get a great first test on Friday against Fort Loramie, a team bringing back quarterback Ryan Humphries as a part of a powerful running offense.

Matt Burgbacher, like his father Charlie at Tippecanoe, is building a durable, tough long-road program at Fort Loramie. The Redskins are a year away from joining the NWCC along with Sidney Lehman. They upgraded their stadium this offseason. Fort Loramie, much like Anna, arrived late to high school football, but they've made up for the lack of tradition in a short period of time.

While the Redskins have only been playing football for about a decade, they are the perfect out of conference rival for Minster and the perfect preparation for the MAC grind.

Look for another thrilling Minster-Fort Loramie game on Friday.

Bellefontaine at Wapakoneta

Doug Frye wins.

That's what area football fans again learned last season. Taking over a physically talented but oft-snakebitten program at Wapakoneta, Frye instantly instilled the discipline and heart — along with a smashmouth running game — into the Redskins in 2010. They committed the fewest penalties in the WBL — eight fewer than the next closest team. His squad ran for 5.1 yards per carry. They stopped the run to the tune of the second fewest yards per game in the WBL.

Now for an encore — trying to do the same with a roster that lost  talent in the backfield. Logan Erb isn't there to get those three or four yards on the third down. Conner Pickens ran for 665 yards last year, however.

But Wapakoneta returns its quarterback in Kyle Gibson, only a junior this season. And the Redskins have the best offensive lineman in the conference in Chris Schwartz — a special mention All-Ohio guard.

In that Wing-T offense, the guard is key, and Wapakoneta has one of the good ones. Add the beef of 265-pound tackle Trey Smith and 235-pounde tackle Jim Knippen and no one is going to push the Redskins around on the front line.

Frye imported some frontline skill position talent, too. Former Elida wideout and defensive back Kevin Kraft joins the Redskins after being ineligible at Elida.

Frye, who has coached secondary players for years, likes his DBs, as well. Alex Greve is back at safety after a season off with injury.

Wapakoneta hosts Bellefontaine on Friday night. Wapak drubbed the Chieftans 42-7 in 2010. The year before, Bellefontaine laid it on thick 45-0 at Harmon Field in 2009.

“This has been a game that has traditionally favored the visiting team,” Frye said.

Celina at Versailles

Celina's quick-paced spread offense took root last year when Braden Billger became a quick decision maker and leader of the Bulldogs as a sophomore.  He put up gaudy numbers, with almost 2,900 yards and 22 touchdowns last season. But he also threw the most interceptions in the league (17) and loses his top target in Kahl Knapke.

Whether Celina's young secondary can slow other teams down will be the big question of this team coming off a surprise 6-4 campaign.

Celina gave up about 189 yards passing through the air per game and gave up more than 30 points per game defensively.

So a first game against Bob Olwin's "Pass First, Ask Questions Later" offense is the perfect litmus test of Celina's abilities in the defensive secondary.

Celina beat just one team with a winning record in 2010. Can the defense hold up against the top teams Versailles, Kenton, Elida and O-G? That will go a long ways towards defining just who Celina is in the scheme of the WBL standings as a middle of the road team or a surprise contender. As will developing receivers to replace their top two pass catchers from 2010.

Kenton at Coldwater

One of the state’s marquee match-ups occurs in Coldwater on Friday night when three-time defending WBL champ tussles with powerhouse Coldwater.

Maty Mauk, a verbal commit to the University of Missouri football program, enters his senior season one of them most celebrated high school quarterbacks in the nation. Including the Wildcats’ playoff run, Mauk threw for 5,670 yards and 69 touchdowns. But Kenton is dealing with heavy losses to graduation on the offensive line and wide receiving corps. How the surrounding parts develop early in the season will be interesting to watch against a Coldwater team that made it to the state championship game again in 2010.

Chip Otten and the Cavaliers had yet another deep playoff run in 2010, making a jaunt to the state title game after a 7-3 regular season. While the season ended with a 51-21 to Youngstown Ursuline in the Division IV title game, it was a season of accomplishment after Otten took over for the late John Reed.

Last year’s playoff run made it 15 straight postseason appearances for the Cavaliers. For the winningest program in the state since 2000, there are hopes again of competing for a MAC title and playoff appearance.

There are plenty of question marks to overcome, though. The Cavaliers lost 13 seniors to graduation, including MAC co-offensive player of the year Reese Klenke (69 catches, 1,271 yards, 16 TDs) and first-team All-MAC linebacker Aaron Rammel.

Otten returns 19 letterwinners and 13 seniors this fall. Otten said one of his team’s is returning quarterback Austin Bruns, who was injured during the playoffs last season. The Cavs are quick and they have depth along with a solid kicking game. Otten thinks the toughest obstacle early will be to overcome inexperience on the offensive line.

Elida at Fostoria
Elida opens against a proud program at Fostoria that has fallen on hard times on Friday night. The Red Men  have 14 all-time playoff appearances — including appearances in 2008 and 2007 — four title game appearances and two state championships. But last year they went 0-10 in the final season in the Northern Ohio League. Fostoria is now moving to the Northern Buckeye Conference.

Elida senior quarterback and Akron basketball recruit Reggie McAdams gets all the headlines and for good reason. McAdams threw for 2,327 yards with 31 touchdowns and just three interceptions with a 60.9 completion percentage in the regular season last fall.

McAdams is joined in the backfield by the small, elusive Colin Blymyer, a 5-6 165-pound scatback who rushed for 1,098 yards and five touchdowns during the regular season.

Senior wideout Austin Etzler, a 6-2, 180-pounder, caught 44 passes for 857 yards and eight touchdowns last season.

But the lines on both sides of the ball are green and leading tackler Ross Harmon is gone from last year's squad.

Marion Local at Shawnee

Like points? Perhaps look elsewhere.

Marion Local- Shawnee will be about defense, field position and grinding out just enough to get a key non-league win.

Marion Local again won eight regular season games, again went to the playoffs and again won a first round game.

Tim Goodwin lost keys player from last year’s 9-3 squad that bowed out to Minster in a regional semifinal game, but don’t expect a program that has won four state championships to take much of a step back.

The defense — which has moved to a 3-4 this season — will be stingy and the offense will try to find a way to get better as the season goes along with a new quarterback in place in sophomore Adam Bertke.

Shawnee on paper doesn’t look like a team ready to make a big turnaround, but paper doesn’t show Seth Rosenbauer’s ability to run the quarterback position. Hurt for most of last year, the 6-3, 230 pounder is the most unheralded of the big-time quarterback prospects in the WBL, but he should upgrade a Shawnee offense that scored just 14 points per game in 2010 without him.

Trey Runneals is small but seems to make every play on defense from the linebacker position and along with  defensive end Sam Altenbach they give the Indians' always-tough defense a strong foundation to again be one of the WBL's best.

Allen East at Bath

Aaron Smith returns for a senior season after rushing for 1,700 yards last season for the Wildcats , who went 5-5. Expect a heavy dose of the bowling ball-turned running back all season when he plays. The Lima News reported earlier this week that Smith is questionable for the game with an injury. The game's outcome — much like Bath's season — will largely depend on how and if Smith suits up.

Spencerville at Indian Lake

John Zerbe has switched to the Wing-T offense and the Bearcats will unveil it on Friday night at Indian Lake. Spencerville went 0-10 last season.

Crestview at Parkway

The Dan Cairns era begins at Parkway. Cairns is installing a new spread offense and hopes returning quarterback Bryce Bedwell can run the show for the Panthers.

The Wapakoneta Daily News' John S. Hollinger and Sports Correspondent Randy Wilker contributed quotes to this column.