If any team in the Suburban Lakes League is wearing a bull's-eye this football season it's Eastwood - the defending co-champion.
If there's any player in the league that will require special attention from opposing defenses it's Kevin Leady - the Eagles' double-threat quarterback.
Leady, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards while passing for nearly 2,000 last fall, is the focal point to an Eagles team considered the favorite to finish the season as the No. 1 team in the SLL.
"Everyone is chasing Eastwood," said Otsego coach Dan Cocke, heading into his 25th season as the Knights coach. "Eastwood is at the top, but several teams can challenge them. I hope we're one."
Leady, a 6-3, 183-pound senior, is considered the league's top college prospect and one of the top players in northwest Ohio.
His size, athleticism and the leadership last season for the 8-3 Eagles (6-1 SLL) make him a primary cause for concern for the rest of the SLL.
Woodmore coach Lou Bosh expects another tight league race but makes it clear which team he thinks is the league front-runner.
It's the team with the league's No. 1 playmaker on its roster.
"I think it's gong to be a challenge for every team," Bosh said. "Eastwood is coming back with the top athlete in the league in Leady, and everybody is going to be gunning for Eastwood."
The rest of the league doesn't intend to hand another SLL championship to the Eagles without putting up a fight.
Elmwood, the co-defending league champion, is one of the teams that has enough talent to make the race interesting again.
Lake and Woodmore, which finished a victory shy of tying Eastwood for the league championship last year, are expected to contend again, as well.
The Flyers, in spite of recent school district funding troubles that prevented them from practicing during the first week of two-a-days, are flying high with optimism about season. Lake's roster, which includes 18 returning lettermen, is headed by 13 seniors hoping to make the most of a season that nearly didn't materialize.
"We're hustling, hustling, hustling trying to catch up," Lake coach Jim Kubuske said. "I see us finishing in the top half of the league.
"If we get things going here early I think we can compete in the league."
Shane Pfouts, the Flyers' senior quarterback, will handle the responsibilities of directing a double-wing offensive attack.
Meanwhile, Woodmore's Derek Schlea (free safety), A.J. Marquis (defensive back) and Brian Perkins (tight end/linebacker) are among a group of returning lettermen expected to provide the kind of leadership that will lead the Wildcats on a run toward the league's top spot.
Otsego, which has 19 returning lettermen on its roster, also figures to be in the mix. Todd Wilson and Ryan Moser are a couple of linemen who could prove key in Otsego's push.
Here's a look at the teams in predicted order of finish:
Coach: Jerry Rutherford, 22nd season
Last season: 8-3, 6-1
Returning letter winners: 26
Returning starters: 9 offense, 8 defense
Schemes: Run-and-shoot offense, 5-2 defense
Top players: Seniors Kevin Leady, 6-3, 183, QB-DB; Andy Stickel, 5-10, 196, RB-DB; Craig Rutherford, 6-1, 201, RB-DB; Nick Jacobs 6-2, 294, OT-DT. Juniors Matt Dennis, 6-0, 160, WR-DB ; Jake Kohring, 5-11, 157, WR-DB; Corey Weiland, 5-11, 166, QB-DB.
Outlook: The Eagles are as loaded as any team in the SLL. Leady is the top Eagle and is considered one of the top athletes in the area. The All-Blade prospect showed a year ago that he's a two-way threat on offense. He rushed for more than 1,400 yards while passing for just under 2,000 during his junior season. Jacobs, Stickel and Rutherford lead an Eagles defense that is almost intact from last season. The Eagles are a team that seems sound in practically every aspect of the game.
Coach: Dan Cocke, 25th year
Last season: 5-5, 3-4
Returning letter winners: 19
Returning starters: 8 offense, 7 defense
Schemes: Wing-T offense, 4-3 defense
Top players: Seniors Todd Wilson, 5-9, 211, OL-DL; Ryan Moser, 6-2, 236, OL-DL; Jordan Murphy, 6-5, 186, SE; Matt Warner, 6-1, 182, RB-DB; Nick Horen, 6-1, 216, C-DL. Juniors Matt Mils, 5-9, 175, QB; Chad Henck, 5-8, 151, RB-DB; Adam Thomas, 6-1, 234, OL-DL.
Outlook: Even though Otsego's roster includes only six seniors the Knights believe there's enough talent and experience to compete for the league championship. Fifteen returning starters have the Knights' longtime coach optimistic about the upcoming season. "We're a little bigger, faster and more experienced," Cocke said. "We hope to compete for the league title."
Coach: Jim Kubuske, 7th year
Last season: 6-4, 5-2
Returning letter winners: 18
Returning starters: 5 offense, 6 defense
Schemes: Double-wing offense, 4-3 defense
Top players: Seniors Chris Ankney, 6-2, 240, OT; Tyler Steedman, 6-4, 230, OT; Josh Cutcher, 6-1, 215, OG; Shane Pfouts, 6-0, 179, QB-FS; Brad Lewis, 6-1, 175, RB-DB; Steve Lazur, 5-9, 150, RB-DB; Corey Robertson, 5-9, 160, RB; Joel Mass, 5-10, 180, C. Junior Danny Tarver, 5-11, 170, FB-LB. Sophomore Zach Akenberger, 5-10, 160, LB.
Outlook: No team in the SLL is more excited about playing the 2004 season than the Flyers. A last-minute rally by the community saved the fall sports season. They have enough talent to contend. Pfouts, Lewis, Ankney and Steedman are among the senior class intent on making the season quite memorable.
Coach: Dean Zeigler, 5th year
Last season: 8-4, 6-1 SLL
Returning letter winners: 9
Returning starters: 6 offense, 5 defense
Schemes: Spread offense, 4-4 defense
Key players: Seniors Chad Reynolds, 6-0, 200, WR-LB; Eric Wansitler, 6-3, 185, WR-DB; Benn Heater, 5-10, 210,OL-MLB; Garrett Davis, 5-11, 225, OL-DL. Juniors Al Tyson, 6-0, 180, QB-OLB; Justin Schafer, 5-9, 170, RB-DL.
Outlook: The co-defending champions have a handful of players back from a team that lost only once in SLL play a year ago. Wansitler and Reynolds return after combining for 88 catches in 2003.
Wansitler grabbed 50 passes, including 10 for touchdowns, while Reynolds accounted for 38 receptions and should give Tyson a pair of reliable receivers in his first year at quarterback.
"We've got a good number of guys back who played and contributed last year, but we lost six players to graduation who equated to 11 positions on last year's team," Zeigler said. "Eastwood has everybody back and they're going to be pretty good. Otsego and Woodmore will be competitive."
Heater, who made 144 tackles a year ago, is the top returning defender.
Coach: Lou Bosh, 7th year
Last season: 6-4, 5-2
Returning letter winners: 23
Returning starters: 4 offense, 6 defense
Schemes: Multiple offense, 5-2 defense
Top players: Seniors Derek Schlea, 6-2, 180, FS; A.J. Marquis, 5-9, 140, DB; Justin Kassnel, 5-10, 151, DB; Brian Perkins, 6-3, 195, TE-LB; Josh Dix, 6-3, 231, OT-DT; Chris Buck, 6-2, 190, DE; Eric McCarthy, 6-1, 186, SE. Juniors Kyle Rosenberger, 5-11, 160, ILB; Marc Ribe, 5-9, 176, OG.
Outlook: The Wildcats boast just as much experience as anyone in the SLL. With 23 returning lettermen from a team that posted a 5-2 league mark a year ago, Bosh understands why his team has displayed plenty of enthusiasm and energy during the grind of two-a-day practices.
Seniors such as Schlea, Marquis and Dix lead the Wildcats' defense, which may have to carry the team during the first half of the season.
Coach: Glenn Owens, 2nd year
Last season: 4-6, 2-5
Returning letter winners: 6
Returning starters: 5 offense, 5 defense
Schemes: Wishbone offense, 5-3 defense
Top players: Seniors Wes Milleson, 5-10, 180, RB-LB; Marcus Able, 6-1, 205, TE-DE; Dustin Rowan, 6-1, 265, OT-DT; Casey Miller, 6-0, 220, OG-LB; Derek Hetrick, 6-0, 180, TE-LB.
Outlook: With only six returning lettermen on the roster, the Golden Bears are among the league's least experienced teams. Owens will have to rely on the underclassmen to emerge as playmakers to help the Bears' cause.
However, seniors such as Milleson, Rowan and Hetrick must provide direction for the rest at the outset.
Milleson rushed for more than 700 yards and four touchdowns while averaging better than five yards per carry last season.
Coach: Shane Jacoby, 2nd year
Last season: 2-8, 1-6
Returning letter winners: 14
Returning starters: 6 offense, 7 defense
Schemes: Multiple offense, 4-4 defense
Key players: Seniors Kyle Chaflin, 5-11, 200, OG-DE; Curt Lowry, 5-11, 175, QB-S; Ron Diaz, 6-0, 165, RB-DB; D.J. Martin, 5-10, 310, OT-DT. Juniors Billy Sayre, 5-11, 180, C-OLB; Devin Black, 5-11, 200, TE-LB; Billy Eisenman, 5-10, 175, RB-OLB.
Outlook: The Raiders hope to make a push upward in the SLL, but it is not expected to be an easy climb for a team that produced just one win in league play and two overall last fall. "From top to bottom it's a tough league," Jacoby said. "Eastwood and Otsego have just about everyone back from two really good teams from last year. We're much improved and hopefully it will show. We're a lot more experienced than last year."
Chaflin, Lowry and Diaz head a group of seven seniors.
Coach: Bill Jones, 1st year
Last season: 1-9, 0-7
Returning letter winners: 17
Returning starters: 4 offense, 5 defense
Schemes: Double-wing offense, 4-4 defense
Top players: Seniors Justin Goulet, 6-2, 320, C-DT; Ryan Harder, 5-11, 210, G-DT; Andrew Hathaway, 5-10, 160, WB-DB; Richie Hatton, 5-10, 160, WB-DB. Juniors Anthony Robertson, 6-2, 265, FB-DE; Josh Huddleston, 5-10, 180, WB-DB; Blake Skilliter, 5-8, 155, WB-DB.
Outlook: Bill Jones begins his first season at Genoa, but his eighth school overall with a career record of 172-157-2 in 32 years. The Comets were winless in league play a year ago. Avoiding such a scenario this fall is a high priority for a team that returns 17 lettermen. A good start in nonleague play could help gain some confidence and momentum. Hathaway, Hatton and Robertson must play significant roles on offense in order for the Comets to find success.
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