There's one team mentioned more often than any other when picking a favorite in the Suburban Lakes League.
Eastwood rolls quickly off the tongue of SLL coaches when they talk about the team to beat. The defending league champions, who advanced to the DivisionIV regional semifinals, have their sights set on another SLL championship.
The Eagles went 7-0 in the league in 2002. They escaped league play without suffering a loss in seven outings. Overall, they were 10-2, the best season in school history.
As Eastwood coach Jerry Rutherford looks ahead to the start of the 2003 season, he's convinced that Eastwood track coach Gary White deserves some of the credit for a season that had Eagles fans excited right up until the end.
“We do know that when they go out for track they're going to be faster at the end than when they started,” Rutherford said. “I think that really helps because they teach them how to run and how to work in the weight room.”
It is Rutherford's longtime belief that speed ultimately rules on the football field. It's been years since he first began directing football players in White's direction to run track in the spring. Actually, White, a former assistant football coach for Rutherford, suggested the idea after going through a challenging period trying to recruit boys to run track.
“I said, `I think I can help your football team if you could help me with track,'” White recalled. “Now his kids accept the fact that they have to be out in the spring running track.”
The numbers out for track rose from approximately 15-20 to an average of more than 60 a year since the two coaches started working together. It's not unusual for half the track team to be made up of football players running primarily to improve their speed for football.
Like the Eagles football team last fall, the 2003 boys track team experienced its best finish in school history, finishing as the Division II state runner-up.
Rutherford has found out over the years that the benefits of football players running track are not judged necessarily by a stopwatch, but by the overall experience of learning how to run and compete. He even utilizes some of White's sprint mechanics drills, which help increase speed and flexibility, during football workouts.
“He's got the best speed in league by far,” said Otsego coach Dan Cocke, referring to Rutherford's 2003 roster.
“Eastwood may have graduated a lot of seniors from last season's team, but you still can't rule them out,” said Hrabak. “And Otsego always seems to come up with a pretty decent team.”
Hrabak added: “But if anybody saw any of the games Eastwood played in last year they know Eastwood was excellent in team speed and that's something that you have to contend with when you play against them.”
Here is a look at the SLL teams in predicted order of finish:
Coach: Jerry Rutherford, 22nd year
Last season: 10-2, 7-0 SLL
Top players: Seniors West Kistner, 5-9, 180, DL; Josh Cole, 5-10, 220, OL; Josh Oberdick, 5-9, 135, K; juniors Kevin Leady, 6-3, 183, QB; Andy Stickel, 5-10, 185, RB
Outlook: The Eagles have all the tools to repeat as SLL champions.
With Leady, Stickel and Cole among the returners on offense, slowing down Eastwood should remain a challenge. Rutherford is expecting the offense to carry the team at the outset.
“We feel our offensive line will be a strength,” he said. “We've also got a pretty good athlete at quarterback in Kevin Leady. The key for us is the development of our receivers.”
The defense could be a problem, with only one starter back from last season's gritty unit.
Coach: Bill Hrabak, second season
Last season: 7-3, 5-2
Top players: Seniors Steve Brady, 5-11, 185, RB; Casey Hornyak, 6-2, 273, FB/DE; Brandon Henninger, 6-0, 180, FB; Craig Schuffenecker, 5-10, 175, QB; Brandon Pohorecki, 6-1, 195, WR
Outlook: In Hrabak's first season, the Comets not only came together and produced a winning record, they were a team to be reckoned with in the SLL.
Considering more than half of the offensive and defensive starters are back, Genoa is an obvious choice to challenge for the SLL championship.
Genoa's passing game could pose problems for opponents. Schuffenecker and Pohorecki have a chance to be one of the best passing/receiving tandems in northwest Ohio. Brady and Hornyak should give Genoa a solid running game.
Coach: Jim Kubuske, sixth season
Last season: 5-5, 4-4
Top players: Seniors Wes Blank, 5-11, 170, RB; David Collins, 6-2, 200, OL; Chad Tracy, 5-11, 160, CB; Mike McClosky, 6-1, 160, QB; juniors Marshall Severhof, 5-10, 180, LB; Shane Pfouts, 5-11, 170, QB; sophomore Cody McPherson, 6-1, 170, QB
Outlook: Kubuske has 11 starters returning from last season when the Flyers were a .500 team. Three of the returning letter-winners shared time as the starting quarterback during the season.
Kubuske said McClosky, Pfouts and McPherson each bring something different to the huddle. All have their strong points as a QB, which makes three quarterbacks to choose from actually a positive dilemma.
However, Kubuske may ultimately settle on one quarterback to lead the way.
Whoever plays quarterback will benefit from the presence of Blank, who rushed for more than 900 yards as a junior.
Coach: Dean Zeigler, fourth season
Last season: 3-7, 2-5
Top players: Seniors Kyle Rhoad, 5-10, 180, QB; Brian Berry, 6-0, 185, RB; Adam Blachuta, 6-1, 195, WR/DB; junior Benn Heater, 5-10, 200, LB
Outlook: With just over 30 players on the roster, Zeigler is concerned about depth.
“We have to stay healthy and put the ball in our [best] athletes' hands and let them make some plays for us,” Zeigler said.
Rhoad returns after throwing for more than 2,300 yards. Blachuta was his primary target a year ago, pulling in 53 catches.
Zeigler is not even ruling out the chance to finish among the league's front-runners.
“It's anyone's race from one down to sixth or seventh,” he said. “We've definitely got a shot to contend.”
Coach: Dan Cocke, 24th season
Last season: 7-3, 5-2
Top players: Seniors Chad Zellin, 5-8, 160, QB; Gary Osmond, 5-9, 155, LB; Matt Lambert, 5-9, 180, DL; sophomore Wes Punches, 6-2, 210, DE
Outlook: The Knights hope to make another run at the SLL title even though there will be plenty of new faces on the field. They lost 17 starters to graduation.
“We'll have to make progress very quickly,” Cocke said.
Zellin is the lone returning starter on offense.
“Overall, we'll trot out on the field a very young team,” Cocke said.
Puches is one of several underclassmen the coach is counting on to make his presence felt.
Coach: Glenn Owens, first season
Last season: 4-6, 2-5
Top players: Seniors Craig Dix, 6-0, 180, RB/LB; Tim Smith, 6-0, 190, RB/LB; Aaron Sherrard, 5-10, 200, OL; Mitch O'Neil, 6-3, 210, OL; junior Wes Milleson, 5-9, 160, RB
Outlook: Gibsonburg's new coach knows plenty about the program. A Gibsonburg assistant coach last season, he also knows the Golden Bears will have their hands full against their SLL opponents.
Milleson, Dix and Smith are among the returning letter-winners Owens is counting on to provide leadership.
“We're sticking pretty much to what we were doing in the past,” said Owens of his offensive and defensive strategies. “Hopefully, that pays off.”
Coach: Lou Bosh, sixth season
Last season: 5-5, 3-4
Top players: Seniors Chris Stone, 6-2, 225, OL; Dana Wend, 5-10, 215, RB; Matt Henderly, 5-10, 220, OL; Chandler Shirer, 5-10, 190, DB; junior Brett Golightley, 5-11, 205, DL
Outlook: “We're going to be young this year,” said Bosh, who has only three starters back on offense and two on defense.
Stone, Wend, Henderly and Shirer make up part of the cornerstone. But the Wildcats' success or failure will probably hinge upon the underclassmen.
So far, Bosh has liked what he's seen out of his non-seniors. Golightley and Eric Egert (5-9, 170) are expected to make an impact. Egert, a junior, should see plenty of action in the backfield.
“With the young guys coming up I really feel confident about them,” Bosh said. “I think they'll be very competitive. They don't have much varsity experience, but they have been successful at the JV level.”
Coach: Shane Jacoby, first season
Last season: 1-9, 0-7
Top players: Seniors Andrew Hoffman, 6-4, 215, OL/DE; Jacob Powers, 5-10, 220, OL; junior Curt Lowery, 5-10, 170, QB; sophomore Devon Black, 5-10, 200, QB
Outlook: Like Gibsonburg's Owens, Jacoby is approaching the season with the idea that steady improvement during the course of the season will mean as much now as victories down the road.
Of course, as a first-year head coach of a program lacking in overall numbers, establishing a greater presence within the school represents a major priority.
“In time I think we can have a nice program,” Jacoby said. “There are some athletes around here at school that aren't playing and I've got to get them out here.
“But right now the overall numbers are low.”
Barring any major injuries the Raiders will total just under 40 players. That includes freshmen.
Yet, Jacoby feels relieved to know six starters on offense and defense return. Lowery and Black, who shared the signal-calling duties last season, are being asked to provide leadership to a team composed mostly of underclassmen.
“We need to have the kids buy into what we're doing,” Jacoby said. “If we do that we can have some success.”