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BLADE HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL PREVIEW

Area's best football players reaching for top honors

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    Springfield's A.J. Gucciardo, Whitmer's Riley Keller, Central Catholic's Jase Bowen, and St. Francis de Sales' Joey Carroll are among the best players in the area.

    BLADE/JEREMY WADSWORTH

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    Whitmer High School quarterback Riley Keller throws as he's pressured by Fremont Ross High School player Caleb Wood in 2017.

    Blade/Andy Morrison

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    Central Catholic WR Jase Bowen scores a touchdown against Bay during a Division III regional football final in 2017.

    BLADE/JEREMY WADSWORTH

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With each high school football season that passes, carved into the local lore along with the championship achievements of the great teams are the individual exploits of the elite players.

Spanning the decades, the great names still emerge in conversations.

In the 1970s it was the dynamic All-Ohio duos of lineman Bob Brudzinski and back Rob Lytle at Fremont Ross, as well as back Terry Crosby and lineman Farley Bell at DeVilbiss. There was the area’s first authentic aerial combo of Rob Mangas to Dean Masztak at Central Catholic, and the bruising ground game of Ray Myers from Bowsher.

RELATED: 4 seriously talented high school standouts look to leave their mark

The 1980s brought more top duos. The skill-position excellence of Kenny Vaughn and Jeremy Lincoln at DeVilbiss. The incomparable speed and power of back Chuck Webb and his complement, Myron Bell, at Macomber. And, the running/pass-catching combo of LeRoy Smith and Mark Szlachcic at Whitmer.

Bridging the 1980s and 1990s were two Fostoria greats in back Casey McBeth and quarterback Derek Kidwell, who was Mr. Football in Ohio in 1991.

WATCH: The Blade’s cover athletes talk about the upcoming season

The 1990s also included the big-game state-championship presence of Cory Griggs at Wauseon, the unparalleled all-around brilliance of Charles Woodson at Fremont Ross, and the still unmatched passing show staged by Ben Roethlisberger at Findlay.

In the 2000s, it was the imposing size-speed combo of Drushaun Humphrey and his tackling-machine teammate Diontre Earl at Rogers. There was the irrepressible ground performance of Rodney Gamby at St. Francis, the deer-like agility of Dane Sanzenbacher at Central Catholic, the seemingly untouchable elusiveness of Eric Page at Springfield, and the supreme athleticism of Southview receiver Shaun Joplin. 

So far, the 2010s have brought the enormous line presence of Chris Wormley at Whitmer and the unforgettable one-year quarterback emergence of teammate, Nick Holley. And finally, the big-time arm of DeShone Kizer at Central, and relentless running of the Irish’s Michael Warren, who was (along with Woodson) the second area player selected as Mr. Football. 

There are many others who could join this list, and the debate is fascinating.

In their time as high school players, all of the above became “Larger Than Life.”

So, just who might join this list from the upcoming season?

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Central Catholic WR Jase Bowen scores a touchdown against Bay during a Division III regional football final in 2017.

BLADE/JEREMY WADSWORTH Enlarge

Jase Bowen, Central Catholic

A third-year starter and fourth-year varsity player, the 6-foot-1, 190-pound receiver, return man, punter, and occasional wildcat back has about as many options with his future as he provides for the Irish on the field.

Once committed to Notre Dame for baseball, Bowen later changed that plan and committed to Michigan State, where he plans to play football and baseball for the Spartans.

That’s if his baseball talent doesn’t lead to an early-round selection in the Major League Baseball draft in June. He missed the first week of two-a-days to play at an MLB showcase in Hoover, Ala., after being invited by the Kansas City Royals.

WATCH: Jase Bowen talks about playing both football and baseball

With that behind him, Bowen’s full focus is on a quest to help Central win the Three Rivers Athletic Conference title and/or a fourth state playoff championship since 2005.

“Right now, with all the distractions, I just try to tune it out and keep my focus on my guys at Central Catholic,” Bowen said. “We’re excited for the season and I feel like we can get the job done and get a [state championship] ring this year.

“There’s a lot of sense of urgency. Being a senior, with four years in the program, I know what it takes to get to the top.”

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Whitmer High School quarterback Riley Keller throws as he's pressured by Fremont Ross High School player Caleb Wood in 2017.

Blade/Andy Morrison Enlarge

Riley Keller, Whitmer

Since Keller first took over the quarterback position in the season opener of his freshman year in 2016, Panthers fans have watched a field general in the making.

Able to make every type of throw with accuracy, the 6-1, 210-pound Keller plays the position with a combination of poise and confidence beyond his years.

The genetics certainly are solid. His father, Whitmer offensive coordinator Justin Keller, starred for the Panthers at quarterback in the early 1990s. His mother, Elyse, is first cousin to Roethlisberger, the two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback with the Pittsburgh Steelers and a surefire future Pro Football Hall of Famer.

The past two summers, as Riley has made his rounds through the Midwest at college camps, one of those stops each year has been to Pittsburgh, where he stayed with Roethlisberger, attended camps at the University of Pittsburgh, and worked out at the Steelers’ OTAs.

He currently has offers from Mississippi, Iowa State, West Virginia, Boston College, Toledo, Bowling Green, Northern Illinois, Western Michigan, and Kent State. He also has had ongoing contact with recruiters from Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Northwestern, and North Carolina.

WATCH: BGSU offers Riley Keller

“The first two years were really eye-opening,” Keller said. “The first year, we didn’t make it as far as we would’ve liked. We kind of got upset [in playoffs] at our own place. The second year, obviously, we did a little better.

“As I progress, the ultimate goal is a state championship. Hopefully I’ve grown up as a junior and senior on this football team and I can bring the leadership role and take them to a state championship.”

A.J. Gucciardo, Springfield

You could say Gucciardo was destined to be a quarterback as the son and grandson of talented quarterbacks Pat Gucciardo, Jr., and Sr., who each starred in high school and continued in college. 

As for A.J., he became Springfield’s starter as a skinny 145-pound sophomore in 2016. After Blue Devils All-Ohio running back Bryant Koback was lost to a leg fracture before midseason, the team’s offensive burdened shifted immediately from the ground to the air. Gucciardo helped the Devils to a 10-0 regular-season finish, a No. 4 state ranking, and the school’s first Northern Lakes League championship in 22 years.

For his career, the now 6-2, 175-pound Gucciardo has completed 323 of 486 passes (66 percent) for 5,262 yards and 54 touchdowns. He is within range of Scottie Seymour’s school records of 6,365 yards and 64 scoring passes.

Last season, for a 6-4 Springfield team, Gucciardo was 168-of-258 for 2,715 yards and 25 touchdowns, and was named to the All-NLL and D-II All-Northwest District first teams and to the All-Ohio third team.

He has a scholarship offer from Kent State and also has been in close recruiting contact with Toledo.

“I just expect to win and [for us] to do our best and give it all we’ve got,” A.J. Gucciardo said. “If that doesn’t mean winning, at least we tried our best. I want to be an encouragement to our team, and push our team to be the best it possibly can. 

“I try to be a game manager. You look at Tom Brady. He’s a game manager. He knows what to do and how to work the game clock. He just settles everybody down. That’s what I try to emulate.”

Joey Carroll, St. Francis

In most cases it is hard to stand out as a tight end on a run-oriented team unless you’re being viewed by a coach breaking down game tapes and recognizing why the yards are being gained. It also doesn’t hurt if you’re 6-7, weigh 240 pounds, and can move like Joey Carroll.

True, Carroll’s 2017 receiving stats aren’t awe-inspiring — 14 catches, 211 yards, and two touchdowns. But when you factor in his blocking work helped the 2-8 Knights rush for more than 240 yards per game, the value increases.

It increased enough for Toledo to offer a scholarship to Carroll, whose commitment and eventual signing with the Rockets will enable him to continue playing his home games on the same field at the Glass Bowl for four more seasons.

WATCH: Joey Carroll’s BCSN “Unsung Hero” interview

This year, Carroll again will be blocking for fellow senior Malachi Wyse, who led the TRAC in rushing. He also hopes to be catching more passes with Jakiel Wells returning to football as the Knights’ quarterback.

“We just need better leadership [this year],” Carroll said. “In the fourth quarter, we’ve got to get the guys up, get everyone pumped to finish the game. That was something we struggled with last year in three games we lost in the last minute. We didn’t execute the last plays to finish games.”

St. Francis fell short by a combined five points in losses to Beford, Clay, and Lima Senior.

“It has taken a ton of pressure off my shoulders committing to UT,” Carroll said. “Now I can actually focus on my game, my speed, my strength, my catching, and my blocking. I don’t have to worry about where I’m going to play the next four years.”

Contact Steve Junga at: sjunga@theblade.com419-724-6461, or on Twitter @JungaBlade.

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