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Published: Thursday, 8/21/2003

Can St. John's dethrone Knights?

BY STEVE JUNGA
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

St. John's received six first-place votes and 133 out of a possible 144 voting points in a poll of the league's 12 coaches, thus getting the nod as the title favorite.

“I think it's an honor for my staff and my kids that, in our second year together, we're picked to win the league,” Titan head coach Doug Pearson said. “We certainly are going to work very hard to do that. We've got a lot of improving to do, and we've got to get healthy, because we're pretty banged up right now.”

Whitmer, which along with Clay makes the transition into the City League from the now-defunct Great Lakes League this season, was second in the voting with 126 points. The Panthers of coach Dan Fought split the other six first-place votes with two-time defending champion St. Francis de Sales, which will attempt to make that Oct.24 showdown irrelevant by earning a threepeat.

You can be sure that no one is counting out Dick Cromwell, the dean of City League coaches, despite the fact that his Knights are rebuilding from the graduation of starters from 20 of 22 positions. That senior class, perhaps the best in school history, won a Division II state championship in 2001 and advanced to the D-II state semifinals last year.

Still, league coaches had enough respect to vote St. Francis third at 122 points followed by Central Catholic (108), which was runner-up the past two seasons. The Irish must overcome the graduation loss of the CL's top 1-2 offensive punch, wideout Ryne Robinson and running back Derek Barksdale.

Pearson looks to St. Francis and Whitmer as prime title contenders.

“Dick [Cromwell] and Craig [defensive coordinator Schaefer] do a great job,” Pearson said. “They're young right now because for the last two years they pretty much played the same kids. These juniors and seniors are playing for the first time, but they're going to coach 'em up and they'll be ready to go. They will be very good.

“Whitmer is very talented. We're just going to play our game. We're going to play ball control and pound and play-action pass and do the things I like to do. Hopefully we can do those things well, hold onto the ball and play real hard-nosed defense.”

On the fringe of contention should be the Start Spartans of second-year coach Pat Gucciardo Jr., who installed a pass-oriented offense last year and who has the services of three DivisionI college prospects, and the Rogers Rams, who play what may prove to be the easiest league schedule in the CL and who have one of the nation's top college prospects in senior wideout/safety Fred Davis.

Here is a look at all 12 CL teams listed in their predicted order of finish:

Coach: Doug Pearson, second year

Last season: 7-4 overall, 4-2 CL

Top players: Seniors Mitch Bruss, 6-3, 235, TE/DT; Mickey Cassidy, 6-1, 164, QB/FS; Andrew Decker, 6-3, 280, G/DT; Matt Langell, 6-3, 275, OT/DT; Austin Mayberry, 6-0, 200, TE/LB; Sam Kettinger, 5-7, 170, TB/NG; V.J. Simon, 6-0, 225, FB/LB. Junior Marcus Waugh, 6-0, 230, LB.

Outlook: The Titans have 17 seniors and 20 returning letter-winners on a roster of 60, with five offensive and three defensive starters back. They might have been even stronger, at least from a depth standpoint had four projected line starters been available. But two did not come out, one was prevented from playing because of health problems and the fourth transferred.

As it is, St. John's is well-stocked in talent, size and strength and is led by three first-team All-CL players in Bruss, Mayberry (58 tackles) and Kettinger. Cassidy passed for 980 yards last season. Pearson is concerned by a lack of depth on both lines and his team's marginal overall speed.

“We are decimated with injuries right now, so we must develop some depth with our younger players,” Pearson said.

Coach: Dan Fought, fourth year

Last season: 5-5 overall, 4-1 (in GLL)

Top players: Seniors Edwin Hood, 5-11, 195, TB/FS; Greg Schermbeck, 5-11, 190, FB/LB. Juniors J.J. Fought, 5-11, 170, QB; Kyle Andrews, 6-2, 185, WR; Matt Hill, 5-10, 175, WR.

Outlook: The Panthers boast a roster of 76, which includes 22 seniors and 14 returning letter-winners. Nine starters return on offense and five more on defense from a youngish team that played one of Ohio's most difficult schedules last season.

“Petey” Hood bids for his third straight 1,000-yard season after churning out 1,236 as a sophomore and 1,175 (plus 16 TDs) last year despite missing 11/2 games with an ankle injury. J.J. Fought (878 passing yards) could become one of the area's best passers before he's through and will complement Hood. Whitmer's main point of concern is an inexperienced defensive front.

Coach: Dick Cromwell, 20th year

Last season: 12-2, 6-0

Top players: Seniors Kevin Bingle, 6-4, 185, QB; Ryan Kersey, 6-0, 195, RB; Matt Muller, 6-3, 235, OL; Josh Merkle, 6-0, 205, C/LB; Fred Blanton, 5-11, 180, WR/DB; James Starks, 5-8, 165, WR/DB; Todd Stachowiak, 6-0, 215, OL/DE.

Outlook: The Knight have 22 seniors but only two of them started last season as perhaps the best football class in school history graduated starters from 20 positions. This season, an inexperienced group must compete at the DivisionI level because of an increase in school enrollment.

Bingle passed for 1,137 yards and 11 TDs last season, and the workhorse, Kersey, carried 337 times for 1,643 yards and 16 TDs before missing the state semifinal game because of disciplinary reasons. Their leadership will be crucial to the Knights' success.

Cromwell, who is 160-57-1 with eight CL titles and 10 playoff appearances over two stints at St. Francis (1979-84, 1990-2002), feels his secondary and receiving corps will be good, but is concerned about inexperience and a lack of depth on both lines.

“Can tradition carry us?,” Cromwell said. “Losing 20 starters plus our punter [All-Ohioan Jim Laney] and kicker makes things very interesting. We plan to find our players the first three weeks and be ready to defend our city championship.”

Coach: Greg Dempsey, fourth year

Last season: 10-2, 5-1

Top players: Seniors Tony Howell, 5-10, 170, TB/DB; Matt Siedlecki, 6-2, 230, OL/DL. Juniors Nick Boyle, 5-10, 185, FB/LB; Dan Amato, 5-9, 165, QB/P/K.

Outlook: The Irish have 74 players on a roster that includes 25 seniors and 13 letter-winners. But only two starters return on offense and four on defense. Most glaring is the loss to graduation of wideout/defensive back Ryne Robinson and tailback Derek Barksdale and their combined 2,500-plus total receiving and rushing yards and nearly 40 TDs.

Dempsey points to roster size and speed as strengths, but is searching for some consistency in intensity level.

“We will play a lot of inexperienced players and they need to develop during the non-league schedule to compete for the city title.”

Coach: Pat Gucciardo, second year

Last season: 6-5, 3-3

Top players: Seniors Rob Cameron, 6-3, 275, OT; Asante White, 5-11, 170, WR; Clevon Speigner, 6-2, 230, LB. Junior Jordy Franklin, 5-10, 165, CB.

Outlook: The Spartans are a darkhorse contender with good overall numbers, midrange experience and an offense that is contrary to the rest of the run-oriented CL. Cameron and Speigner are each rated among the top college prospects in Ohio at their positions, and White (46 catches, 816 yards, 8 TDs) is also a D-I hopeful.

Operating their “Fun-n-Gun” offense with loads of speed, the Spartans plan to simply outscore the opposition. A roster of 77 includes 23 seniors and 15 returning letter-winners, with six offensive and five defense starters back.

“We have a new defensive philosophy to go along with the `Fun-n-Gun' offense,” Gucciardo said. “It should be interesting.”

Coach: Rick Rios, fourth year

Last season: 5-6, 4-2

Top players: Seniors Fred Davis, 6-4, 215, WR/SS; Brandon Garcia, 6-0, 175, QB; Stewart Armstrong, 6-2, 200, TE, LB; DeShawn Johnson, 5-11, 170, CB; Tony Sniadecki, 5-9, 170, LB. Juniors Steve Gawronski, 6-3, 280, G/DT; Marvin Jones, 5-9, 175, RB/LB. Sophomore Jermaine Dykes, 5-10, 160, WR/CB.

Outlook: With a decidedly easy seven-game CL schedule and the big-play wizardry of Ohio's top-rated wideout (Davis), the Rams should be near the top of the league standings. Whether they actually challenge for a championship will likely depend on how well they compete against CL favorites St. John's (Oct. 3) and Whitmer (Oct. 17) because they do not play St. Francis, Central or Start.

Davis rushed for 1,089 yards and caught passes for more than 700 more en route to 26 TDs last season. If he remains healthy, 1,500 rushing, 1,000 receiving and 30 TDs are legitimate targets. Garcia's passing will be a key, Gawronski could develop into one of the CL's top linemen, and Dykes is a player to watch.

“This could be as good a group of overall talent at the skill positions in my 13 years at Rogers,” Rios said. “If the defensive front comes together and the offensive line holds up, this group has the potential to have a big year.”

Coach: Jeff Lee, fifth year

Last season: 6-4, 2-3 (in GLL)

Top players: Seniors Ross Graham, 5-10, 165, RB/DB; Mitch Mack, 5-10, 195, G/LB; Mike Kanavel, 6-2, 240, OT/DT; Matt Pauley, 6-2, 205, FB/DE.

Outlook: Clay enters the CL after graduating a solid group of seniors. He says he has a lot of good athletes to work with. Depth is his main concern. Graham, the GLL's co-defensive player of the year and a member of the All-Blade team last season, will be counted on for leadership.

“We are looking forward to the challenges of the City League at all levels,” Lee said, “freshmen through varsity.”

Coach: Mike Jewell, third year

Last season: 3-7, 3-3

Top players: Seniors Derek Luczak, 6-0, 185, G/LB; Lonzo Rivers, 5-11, 170, DB; Matt Pegish, 6-0, 225, OL. Juniors Jason Chitwood, 6-0, 180, RB/LB; Aaron Polte, 5-11, 195, RB/DE; Andy Olvera, 5-11, 220, OL/DL; Mickey Jewell, 5-11, 175, QB/DB.

Outlook: The Rebels take another step in a rebuilding process that began after a disappointing 0-10 finish in 2000. Coach Jewell has 52 players out, including 11 seniors and 16 letter-winners. Six offensive and seven defensive starters are back and, with a strong junior class, Bowsher could be a year away from more serious title contention.

The Rebels have good athleticism, are somewhat experienced , possess quickness and are intelligent as a group, according to their coach, who sees depth in the secondary and on the offensive line as possible trouble areas.

“We're looking forward to utilizing our athleticism and opening up the offense,” Jewell said. “We should have a fast, swarming defense, be consistent and we look forward to postseason play this year.”

Coach: Matt Davis, sixth year

Last season: 2-8, 2-4

Top players: Seniors Keith Anderson, 6-3, 265, OT/DT; Anthony Glover, 6-1, 180, RB/DB; Anthony Hamilton, 6-3, 220, OT/LB; Keith Pope, 5-11, 195, RB/DB; Donte Campbell, 6-1, 230, G/LB; Rick Isaiah, 5-10, 170, WR/DB. Junior Dashan Wilson, 6-0, 185, RB/DB.

Outlook: The Bulldogs look to bounce back to their form of 2001 when they reached the CL's postseason Hall of Fame game, and have a strong senior group of 17 included on a roster of 53. Fourteen are returning letter-winners, and seven offensive and four defensive starters are back.

Davis is comfortable with an experienced offensive line and confident about his team's speed. His main concerns are a youthful defense and a lack of depth on both lines.

“We will have five academic All-City players who will be starters,” Davis said of his team's intelligence. “Dominique Glover will start at quarterback and he carries a 4.7 GPA, so hopefully he can pick up on things quickly.”

Coach: Charlie Delker, 16th year

Last season: 2-8, 2-4

Top players: Seniors Rocco Stella, 5-10, 190, G/LB; Larry Gillhouse, 6-0, 195, TB/S; Dennis Williams, 6-2, 260, OT/DT; Adam Messenger, 5-11, 260, G/DT; Nick Mauder, 5-6, 140, QB/DB; Mike Lucas, 5-11, 175, SE/DB.

Outlook: The Indians hope to improve behind some depth in the backfield and strong senior leadership. One obstacle to their progress could be a lack of depth on the lines.

Waite has 22 returning letter-winners, including eight starters back on both offense and defense. Delker, who has announced that this will be his last season as head coach, is counting on his backfield and secondary for leadership.

“We've got 20 seniors and these kids have been pushed around for two years since they played as sophomores,” Delker said. “It's time for them to step up and make themselves known. They're a good group.”

Coach: Henry Delffs, third year

Last season: 2-8, 1-5

Top players: Seniors Khalfani Rice, 5-10, 220, RB; Nick Stamper, 5-11, 205, QB; Jeremy Gofrich, 5-10, 217, OL/DL; Steve Coleman, 6-0, 210, FB/LB; Torian Rentz, 6-0, 225, LB; Sean Sutton, 6-6, 205, TE/DE.

Outlook: Things are looking up for the Polar Bears, who have 54 players out this season after starting out with just 25 last season. There are 24 seniors and 22 returning letter-winners, including seven starters back on offense and on defense.

Rice, who ran for 1,262 yards and 11 TDs last season, should compete for CL rushing title.

Delffs likes his team's speed and its experience at the key skilled positions. But an overall lack of game experience may cause depth problems at some positions.

“We will view the upcoming season with guarded optimism,” Delffs said. “If our line holds up and Khalfani has a good year, then we should be OK.”

Coach: Eric Henderson, first year

Last season: 1-9, 0-6

Top players: Seniors Josh Valentine, 6-4, 225, OT/DE; Gordon Hagen, 5-11, 185, QB/FS. Juniors Jayron Kynard, 5-10, 205, RB/LB; Les Courts, 5-9, 195, FB/LB.

Outlook: Henderson takes over as head coach for Terry Jackson, who stepped down to an assistant coaching role this year. The Cowboys ended a long losing streak in Week 4 last year but, with some experienced players graduated, may have to take a slight step backward before improving. In a familiar position, the Cowboys have just 25 players out for varsity football, with five seniors and only four returning letter-winners. Three starters are back on each side of the ball.

Henderson points to the low numbers and the obvious lack of experience as his greatest concerns, but is optimistic about the players moving up from the junior varsity and the players' overall positive attitude.



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