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Published: Thursday, 8/21/2003

Liberty back in center of title hunt

BY STEVE JUNGA
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Earlier this summer, when Tiger Woods had won three of the seven PGA tournaments but hadn't won a major championship in, heaven forbid, “more than a year,” people began talking about a slump.

Such was the case locally last fall when the Liberty Center football team “fell” to 7-3 and had its streaks of four straight Northwest Ohio Athletic League titles and five straight playoff appearances snapped.

But, if NWOAL coaches and media members covering the league are correct, nobody will be talking slump in reference to coach Rex Lingruen's Tigers this season.

In a combined coaches/ media poll taken at the NWOAL football smoker on Aug.11, Liberty Center garnered 13 of 21 first-place votes and totaled 165 voting points as the favorite to win this year's championship.

Archbold received four first-place nods and 157 points for second place in the prognostication, and defending co-champions Delta (one first, 151 points) and Patrick Henry (three firsts, 130 points) were tabbed for third and fourth, respectively.

“We still have to win some games,” a cautiously optimistic Lingruen said of the vote. “We were young and inexperienced last year and we were just a sieve on defense, so we're definitely going to have to tighten that up a bit.

“But we'll be a real physical team and we have decent speed, so it's just a matter of executing now. So far our timing's a lot better, and we're ahead of where we were last year. But we still have a lot of work to do.”

Here is a look at all nine NWOAL teams listed in their predicted order of finish:

Coach: Rex Lingruen, 19th year

Last season: 7-3 overall, 6-2 NWOAL

Top players: Seniors Brian Brown, 6-0, 170, QB; Jake Kragel, 6-2, 250, C/DT; Kyle Bodenbender, 6-0, 205, OT/DT. Juniors Curt Silveus, 5-8, 175, FB/DB; Eric Wymer, 6-1, 182, HB/LB. Sophomores Brian Babcock, 6-1, 180, SE/LB; Brett Babcock, 5-9, 165, HB/DB.

Outlook: Who says you can't teach an old dog new tricks? Last season, the longtime practitioner of smashmouth football, dabbled a bit with some no-huddle schemes and actually took to the air once in a while. This year the Tigers will utilize a run-and-boot system and depend on what promises to be a better defense.

Twelve of Liberty's 50 players are seniors, and 16 are letter-winners. Eight starters are back on offense and all 11 on defense.

Silveus is the biggest offensive threat, having rushed for 1,070 yards on just 134 carries and scored 17 TDs as a sophomore last year.

Coach: John Downey, 25th year

Last season: 10-3, 6-2

Top players: Seniors Phil Baden, 5-9, 180, FB/LB; Nick Boyers, 5-9, 160, QB/DB; Nick Cameron, 6-1, 165, RB/DB; Mike Zimmerman, RB/DB/PK. Juniors Buddy Babcock, 6-1, 175, TE/DE; Casey Nofziger, 6-1, 175, RB/LB.

Outlook: The Blue Streaks boast 18 returning letter-winners on their 51-player roster and return seven starters on offense and on defense from a team that lost in the DivisionIV regional playoff final.

Archbold should be strong in the backfield and offensive line, at linebacker, in the secondary and in its kicking game. That doesn't leave much to shore up. Depth may be an issue, and the defensive line needs to improve, especially in the run-oriented NWOAL.

Baden rushed for 1,173 yards on 226 carries and scored 13 TDs last year, and has led the team in tackles for three seasons.

Coach: Mike Vicars, fifth year

Last season: 10-2, 7-1

Top players: Seniors Matt Spangler, 6-3, 220, C/LB; Brett Bauman, 5-8, 155, HB/CB; David Torres, 5-8, 145, CB. Juniors Nate Kmic, 5-7, 170, HB/LB; Jamison Moss, 5-5, 160, FB/DT; Tony Cass, 5-11, 175, FB/LB.

Outlook: The Panthers earned an NWOAL title share and a third straight playoff berth last season under Vicars, who has 18 seniors and 20 letter-winners on this year's 45-player roster. Five starters are back on offense and eight on defense.

The top threat is speedy junior Kmic, who rushed for 1,075 yards on 131 carries last season. All-district linebacker Spangler, the team's leading tackler and an all-district player, leads the defense.

Coach: Bill Inselmann, 13th year

Last season: 9-2, 7-1

Top players: Seniors Chris Tietje, 5-11, 195, HB; Trent Meyer, 6-0, 160, QB; Tyler Hamm, 5-10, 240, T; Kurt Wells, 5-11, 190, LB. Junior Justin Sonnenberg, 6-2, 180, G/DE.

Outlook: The Patriots, defending co-champions, will be hard-pressed to repeat with just 10 returning letter-winners on their 51-player roster, which includes 12 seniors. Only three starters are back on offense and two on defense.

But a tradition of success established by seven straight winning seasons will likely keep Patrick Henry close to contention. Tietje (1,149 rushing yards) and Meyer (1,211 passing yards) make the backfield a strong suit, but the graduation of five of the front six on offense and nine starters on defense will create major challenges.

Coach: Bob Beemer, 11th year

Last season: 3-7, 2-6

Top players: Seniors Brent Simon, 6-1, 185, QB/DE; Matt Brown, 6-4, 215, OT/LB; Kyle Keeler, 5-8, 155, FB/FS; Joe Eisel, 6-1, 200, G; Brent Hudik, 5-11, 185, HB/LB. Junior Matt Keeler, 5-11, 185, NG.

Outlook: The Vikings have 55 players in their program (grades 9-12), including 11 seniors and 15 letter-winners. Seven starters return on each side of the ball, highlighted by All-NWOAL selections Simon, Brown and Eisel.

Beemer points to his offensive line as something to build around, but sees an overall lack of speed as a potentially major concern.

“We just lack speed,” Beemer said. “We have no breakaway guys. We're basically a blue-collar team that could be OK if we get some breaks.”

Coach: Joe Brigle, third year

Last season: 5-5, 3-5

Top players: Seniors Jose Salazar, 5-8, 170, QB/SS; Greg Willibey, 5-10, 180, WR/CB; Corey Geesey, 5-10, 170, G/DE. Juniors David Bauer, 6-1, 225, C/DT; Tony Pawlowicz, 5-9, 190, FB/SS; Nick Moore, 6-3, 255, OT/NT.

Outlook: The Locomotives, who turned things around in 2002 after several poor seasons, have 13 returning letter-winners including nine starters back on offense. But, the downside is that the 50-player roster has just four seniors and two returning defensive starters.

Pawlowicz (926 rushing yards, 12 TDs), Salazar (1,060 passing yards) and Moore (third-year starting lineman) lead a quick, experienced and deep offense.

Coach: Mark Emans, 14th year

Last season: 2-8, 2-6

Top players: Seniors Tyler Gearig, 5-8, 190, FB/LB; Kyle Swank, 5-10, 210, OT/DE; Marc Lane, 5-11, 168, RB/DB; Brandon Schroeder, 5-10, 195, G/DL. Juniors Tony Gase, 6-3, 175, RB/LB; Garrett Coressel, 6-0, 160, RB/DB.

Outlook: The Indians look to rebound with a 43-player roster that includes 15 seniors and 14 returning letter-winners. Six offensive and seven defensive starters are back. Emans feels the team has good overall strength and depth, but lacks in size and speed.

“We will be more competitive this year,” Emans said. “This group has a hungry look to them.”

Coach: Brian Arnold, second year

Last season: 3-7, 3-5

Top players: Seniors Adam Schultz, 5-7, 155, HB/DB; Josh Ebersberger, 5-7, 151, QB/DB; Billy Nossaman, 6-1, 235, FB/NG. Junior Leo Link, 6-0, 181, TE/LB.

Outlook: The Golden Bears have 14 returning letter-winners. Seven starters are back on offense, but only one on defense.

Arnold sees decent team speed, but points to a lack of depth, experience and size as possible weaknesses.

“If we can get off to a good start in the early, tough weeks, we will begin to believe that we can play with anyone,” Arnold said.

Coach: Mike McKenzie, third year

Last season: 1-9, 0-8

Top players: Seniors Brian Hildebrand, 5-10, 175, WR-RB/LB; Jordan Szymanowski, 6-0, 240, G/DT; Ryan Rober, 6-0, 200, G/LB; Kenny Hulme, 6-2, 185, WR/DB; Clint Swain, 6-1, 200, OT-TE/LB. Junior Nick Samar, 6-4, 260, C/DE.

Outlook: The Bulldogs should be much more competitive than last year, when they had only three seniors on the roster. But with just 30 players on the varsity, depth will be a major concern. Swanton has 17 letter-winners back, including starters returning at 11 offensive and 10 defensive positions.

One key will be the play of junior quarterback Kyle Kissling, who will again guide McKenzie's no-huddle, spread shotgun offense. His protection should be better because McKenzie has seen vast improvements in his team's overall strength and modest gains in speed.



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