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Published: Thursday, 11/13/2008

Sidelines: New faces help lift Genoa to new heights


Genoa s Zach Apel makes a catch against Eastwood s Nick Schmeltz. Apel has 41 receptions for 768 yards and 12 touchdowns. He was voted Division IV all-district first team. Genoa s Zach Apel makes a catch against Eastwood s Nick Schmeltz. Apel has 41 receptions for 768 yards and 12 touchdowns. He was voted Division IV all-district first team.

GENOA The best football season in Genoa s history might not have been quite so successful without help from four current starters who had no connection to the football program prior to this year.

The Comets, 12-0 and ranked fourth in the final Ohio Division IV state poll, won a second straight outright Suburban Lakes League championship.

Since then, Genoa has taken impressive playoff wins over Huron (47-21) and Fostoria (28-14) to earn a berth in tomorrow s D-IV regional final at 7:30 p.m. against Ottawa-Glandorf (8-4) at Perry Stadium in Bowling Green.

Second-year Genoa coach Mike Vicars, 22-2 with the Comets, credits the role of new additions for a portion of that success.

The most obvious contributions have come from senior receiver/defensive back Zach Apel and junior running back/linebacker Greg Hillabrand, each two-way starters. The others are Hillabrand s senior brother Josh, a starting defensive tackle, and Beau Lamb, a senior starter at guard.

There s no doubt we probably wouldn t be where we are without them, Vicars said. They ve really added to what was already a nice group of kids.

Apel is a former soccer player, the Hillabrand brothers transferred from Lake, and Lamb decided to try football again after suffering an injury two years ago.

That s what makes the whole thing neat, Vicars said. They re all part of our football family. That s our biggest strength. We re a happy family.

The speedy 6-0, 170-pound Apel spent last fall earning a school-record 11 shutouts as the goalkeeper for the soccer team. His favorite sport is baseball. As a junior he was one of the SLL s better second basemen.

Apel had already begun preseason soccer practice in August before he decided to make good on a wish made by his late uncle.

Arturo Flores, the brother of Zach s mother, died of a heart attack at age 45 in March, 2005. He had often prodded his nephew to give football a try. Both Flores and Zach s father, Jeff, played football for the Comets in the 1970s.

My uncle was like a second father to me, Apel said. He was always pushing me to play. I guess he saw something in me.

During the summer I was thinking about that and I decided to do it for him. I knew this would be my last shot to ever play football. I had already missed all the summer 7-on-7 stuff, plus the first couple days of two-a-days. I stopped in to see [Genoa assistant athletic director] Mike Thomas to see if I could get some football equipment and give it a try.

Apel said Thomas told him he d better make up his mind quick because he had already missed a lot. Apel joined practice immediately. Too soon, in fact. He hadn t had a chance to inform Genoa soccer coach Ken Katschke of his decision. Katschke found out when he drove through the school parking lot and saw his star goalie doing football drills.

I felt bad the way that happened, Apel said. A couple days later I went over to talk to him. He was disappointed, but he respected my decision and he was supportive.

Calling Apel a rookie would be an understatement. He had to learn everything from how to put on a uniform to how to run a pass route.

The only time I ever played football before was just with my friends in the yard, Apel said. I was all right at it, and everybody always wanted me to play [for Genoa]. But I was scared. I never wanted to get hurt for baseball because that s my main sport.

Calling Apel a fast learner is also an understatement. In a season-opening 55-0 win over Mohawk, Apel scored the Comets first touchdown with a catch. After Genoa scored on a running play, Apel added the game s third TD on another reception.

It kind of makes having experience overrated, Vicars said, and it shows the kind of athlete he is.

In 12 games Apel has 41 catches for 768 yards and 12 TDs, and is the established primary target of junior quarterback Matt Bassitt. The rest of the team combined has 30 catches for 472 yards.

Zach Apel has filled a big-play void, and that makes all the difference in the world, Vicars said.

Apel earned Division IV all-district first team at receiver, and SLL coaches voted him first-team all-league at receiver and defensive back.

I m really glad I played, Apel said. Football teaches you some life lessons. I definitely would have regretted it if I never played.

Lamb tried football his sophomore year, but a shoulder injury took him out of action.

His parents didn t want him to play football and further jeopardize his baseball prospects.

A lot of my friends were talking to me about it. The coaches wanted me to come out, Lamb said. I went the first day and pretty much got addicted to it. I m real glad I came back out. It s been amazing.

Lamb (5-11, 170 pounds) started out working with the receivers before Vicars thought he was better suited for guard, a good move considering his recent selection to the All-SLL second team at that position.

Along with Apel, the team s other two-way SLL first-teamers are senior lineman Ryan Bless (offensive and defensive tackle), and Greg Hillabrand.

Greg and elder brother Josh transferred to Genoa from SLL rival Lake. Enrollment and athletic eligibility were secured when their parents established residence in the Genoa district.

The Comets' Greg Hillabrand has rushed for 898 yards on 119 carries, scoring 14 TDs The Comets' Greg Hillabrand has rushed for 898 yards on 119 carries, scoring 14 TDs

The Hillabrand brothers had each struggled through two tough seasons at Lake. That program had been depleted in recent seasons, partially the impact of a recent string of tax-levy failures. The Flyers were 0-10 in 2006 and 1-9 last year, and the Hillabrand brothers had had enough. Greg despised losing and sought an alternative at Genoa.

I know what it s like to lose, and I hate it, Greg said. I can t stand it when you play as hard as you can and still lose. Now I know what it s like to win. It s amazing. It s an honor to be a part of this team. It s a dream come true. I m very proud that I ve been able to help the team.

Greg is Genoa s second-leading rusher with 898 yards on 119 carries. He s scored 14 TDs and is approaching 100 tackles at linebacker.

Josh said his Lake football experience had erased his love for the game. His initial plan was to remain at Lake, skip football his senior year, and resume with hockey in the winter. That all changed when, Josh says, some of his former Lake football teammates turned on him for quitting.

I still have some friends at Lake from the team, and some who didn t play football, Josh said. But that s when I made my mind up to go to Genoa with Greg.

Greg is sure he made the right choice.

I had heard from people I knew in Genoa that coach Vicars was a great coach, and I wanted to be a part of it and give it a shot, Greg said. It was a great move and the best decision I have ever made. I don t regret it at all.

At Genoa, I m fitting in pretty well now. I know just about everybody in the school. Football is a blast. All the players and the coaches get along great. It s like I ve known them my whole life.

And the brother who once wanted to forget about football now likely never will.

This has been incredible, Josh said. I went from one extreme to the other. Now I ll have a great story to tell to my kids and grandkids in the future.

Contact Steve Junga at: sjunga@theblade.com or 419-724-6461

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