Up for grabs.
In a nutshell, that is what the City League football race promises to be this season, not unlike a year ago when four teams - Whitmer, Central Catholic, St. Francis de Sales and Rogers - posted identical 6-1 league records.
When the CL's point system was applied,
Whitmer had earned enough points (36) to be declared champion, in similar fashion to how the Panthers were denied the crown four times in the previous six seasons (2003, '04, '06 and '07) since joining the City League.
The first two near misses came under former coach Dan Fought, the latter two under current coach Joe Palka. Each time Whitmer matched the eventual champion's 6-1 CL record but had fewer league points.
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By finally securing its first City championship, Whitmer (9-2 overall) broke the four-year hold Central and coach Greg Dempsey had on the title, a run that started during the Irish's 14-1 Division II state championship season of 2005.
With these two City powers having dueled it out at the top in recent seasons, it is no secret that they are again the favorites in the preseason coaches poll. The vote reflects the nature of the parity.
Central, which finished 9-3 overall last season and was second in CL points at 31, received four of the 11 first-place votes in the coaches poll, and edged Whitmer by the narrowest of voting margins (111-110) to earn the label of favorite this year.
Whichever team winds up on top, this will represent the final CL football championship to include Toledo Public Schools and Catholic schools, and Whitmer and Clay (who joined in 2003).
Central, St. Francis, St. John's, Whitmer and Clay will all exit the CL following the 2010-11 school year to become founding members in the new Three Rivers Athletic Conference.
As for now, there's still one more title at stake with the CL at this size.
"We've been fortunate to string together a few good years here, and with success comes expectations in the following years," Dempsey said. "That's one of the difficult things - you're happy about the past accomplishments, but they don't guarantee anything in the future. You have to crank your game up even more because you're wearing more of a target on your back."
Palka believes the parity has driven up the competitive level of the league as a whole, but especially near the top of the standings.
"If you look at the past several years, it's really come down to us, Central, St. John's and St. Francis being in that mix," Palka said. "And, when you look at the top three teams each year, very little separates them. On any given day any one of those teams can beat the other.
"It just reflects the talent and the coaching and the hard work that those programs are putting in."
Central was picked to win a fifth straight title heading into the 2009 season, with Whitmer tabbed for second.
"The favorites are always usually the teams that return the quarterbacks that played the previous year," Palka said, "or return a good number of their skill players.
"We don't have that this year, so we'll have to rely on a veteran defense to keep us in close games. We're going to have to adjust our [offensive] game and try to win games in a different manner. That could mean more low-scoring games, maybe playing a little bit more conservative."
St. John's Jesuit (7-4, 4-3 CL) matched Whitmer's three first-place votes but was third in the poll at 103 points, a position that did not exactly upset veteran Titan coach Doug Pearson. He would much rather operate without the No. 1 target placed on his team.
St. John's, which placed fifth in the CL standings a year ago, did not make the D-I playoffs. The Titans instead settled for a spot in the league's postseason Hall of Fame charity game a win over Bowsher.
"There's a lot of good football teams in this town this year." Pearson said. "Central returns a ton, Whitmer's going to be tough, and so will St. Francis and Rogers. Start and Bowsher and Clay will also be good. I think it's the best the City League's been in a long time."
The Titans' top rival, St. Francis (11-2 overall) placed third in the CL at 28 points and were the only team to beat Whitmer during the regular season, a thrilling 21-17 win on the Panthers' home field. The Knights also made the league's best playoff run, reaching the third round in D-II.
This year, with former Knights assistant coach Mike Blochowski installed to succeed Dick Cromwell (208-85-1 record in 26 years at the school), St. Francis picked up one first-place vote and was fourth in the coaches balloting at 90 points.
Rogers (9-2 overall) also was one of four CL teams to reach the playoffs in 2009, its third time in the postseason in D-II, all under 11th-year coach Rick Rios. The Rams are expected to take a run at a fourth this year while also competing near the top of the CL chase. Rogers was fifth in the coaches vote at 78.
Here is a look at the teams in predicted order of finish:
Coach: Greg Dempsey, 11th year
Last season: 9-3 overall, 6-1 CL
Last 10 years: 88-28, 54-13
Returning letter winners: 20
Returning starters: offense 7, defense 4
Schemes: Multiple offensive sets; multiple defensive fronts
Top players: Seniors Chris Boles, 6-4, 300, OT; Kyle Cameron, 6-2, 280, C; Ryan Gregory, 6-0, 250, G; Chris Hoover, 6-2, 195, LB; Calebb Goings, 5-11, 190, TB; Josh Stump, 5-8, 165, WR; Delroy Chance, 6-1, 280, NT; Luc Meacham, 6-1, 180, WR.
Outlook: Some say football success lies in the trenches, and perhaps no previous CL team has possessed the potential of this year's Central offensive line, a front five of returning senior starters that averages 6-foot-2 and 270 pounds. Boles (Illinois) and Cameron (Toledo) have already committed to D-I college programs, and rounding out this wall is Gregory, guard Cameron Glover (5-11, 240) and tackle Jason Lee (6-2, 250).
Combined with Goings, who rushed for 1,004 yards in 2009, this combination should help the Irish transition from the graduation of two-year QB starter Dave Walender. Dempsey has the luxury of 35 seniors on his roster, and depth on both lines. He sees overall team quickness, great work ethic and a group focused on its goals.
Perhaps the make-or-break factor for Central - which last season saw its run of four straight CL titles snapped by Whitmer - will be how quickly a relatively inexperienced defense develops. The graduation of All-Ohio placekicker Kyle Burkhardt also leaves a void.
"We've got all of our front five back on offense with the top two backups also back," Dempsey said. "It's definitely an advantage with that kind of a line, especially with having a new quarterback. If you have a good running game that can open up a lot of things and take a lot of pressure off of a new quarterback. That's something we're counting on.
"Everything starts up front, whether it's the running game or the passing game. If you can't block you can't do it. So, having a good running game and a strong defense is a big part of our plan."
Coach: Joe Palka, fifth year
Last season: 9-2, 6-1
Last 10 years: 66-45, 37-12
Returning letter winners: 18
Returning starters: offense 2, defense 6
Top players: Seniors Kenny Hayes, 6-5, 255, DE; Andrew Maciolek, 6-1, 240, DT; Nick Wert, 5-10, 185, LB; Chris Reaper, 6-3, 240, OT; Jesse Murray, 6-2, 220, G; Aaron Kramer, 6-0, 210, C; Scott Pfeifer, 5-9, 175, DB. Junior Chris Wormley, 6-5, 245, DE.
Outlook: After knocking on the title door four times since entering the CL in 2003, Whitmer finally came through with a championship last fall. The good news is that more than half the starters from a solid defense return, led by perhaps the most talented pair of ends (Hayes and Wormley) in league history.
The bad news is the Panthers lost nine offensive starters to graduation, including All-Ohio QB Joe Missler (816 rushing yards, 856 passing yards), bookend backs Teryl Mershon and Micah
Merritt, who combined for over 1,100 yards and 23 TDs, and a solid receiving corps. That personnel scenario demands that the defense carry the load. Especially early on, until new QB Alex Palicki and the rest of the skill positions find their collective stride. Helping Palicki get settled will be three returning offensive linemen. A lack of depth on both lines, the inexperience at the skill spots, and an untested kicking game are Palka's chief concerns entering the season.
"Our senior class is small but contains excellent players that will have to carry the load as our young players develop," Palka said. "Continuous improvement and staying healthy are a must for us to be in position for the City League title.
"Alex Palicki is a kid who's paid his dues. He's been in the wings and developed and gotten better every year. He's gotten stronger and faster, and he's had a real good camp. He's untested, but he's been in the system for four years, so we expect him to step in and do a good job."
Coach: Doug Pearson, ninth year
Last season: 7-4, 4-3
Last 10 years: 71-42, 49-18
Returning letter winners: 19
Returning starters: offense 8, defense 6
Schemes: Spread option/
Top players: Seniors Jack Miller, 6-4, 275, OT/DE; Cheatham Norrils, 5-11, 185, WR/DB; Jake Pennese, 5-10, 220, FB/LB; Nate White, 6-1, 191, TB/DB; Zach Steinmetz, 6-5, 240, TE/DE; Sean Beach, 5-10, 170, WR/DB; Ben Nevers, 5-11, 210, FB/LB.
Outlook: The Titans may have the league's most balanced blend of returning talent, including junior Kent Kern, who rushed for more than 500 yards and passed for 700-plus in 2009 as a starting QB. Miller has committed to Michigan, and Norrils and Steinmetz each have offers from several Mid-American Conference schools. With 23, the Titans will be a senior-dominated team. One of Pearson's chief concerns is a lack of depth at some skill spots. But St. John's edge in returning starters at these spots may make it the CL's team to beat.
"This team has great potential, once we develop a consistent effort at practice," Pearson said. "We need to embrace each day and work at getting better."
Coach: Mike Blochowski, first year
Last season: 11-2, 6-1
Last 10 years: 78-37, 50-17
Returning letter winners: 11
Returning starters: offense 6, defense 5
Top players: Seniors Dan Yodzis, 6-3, 200, QB/FS; Tre Mack, 6-0, 207, NG. Juniors Cam Stanley, 6-4 1/2, 254, OL/DL; Hunter Stanley, 6-3, 262, OL/DL; Andrew Villolovos, 6-5, 305, OL; Nathan White, 6-1, 205, TE; Scott Wawrzyniak, 6-1, 205, LB.
Outlook: The most obvious change will not be on the field but on the sideline, where the most successful football coach in City League history, Dick Cromwell, will no longer be in charge. He was 208-85-1 in 26 seasons guiding the Knights (251-119-2 overall in 34 years as a high school coach), a run that included 11 City titles and two state championships in 13 playoff appearances.
But don't expect the end product to look too much different, as former Cromwell assistant Blochowski has retained much of the coaching staff and the St. Francis football philosophy. His main concern, aside from an overall lack of depth, is how to fill the graduation void left by a top-notch senior class led by standouts Scott Loy and Tyler Johnston.
The Knights will build around a bulky and talented offensive line led by the Stanley twins and Villolovos, and Blochowski has witnessed good team unity in the preseason. Yodzis, one of the area's top DBs in 2009 and a college prospect, moves in at QB succeeding Johnston.
"If we can survive our brutal nonleague schedule, I believe we will be well prepared to compete for our last 'City League' title."
The Knights have a tough schedule, opening with Southview, Findlay, and defending D-I state champion Hilliard Davidson.
Coach: Rick Rios, 11th year
Last season: 9-2, 6-1
Last 10 years: 52-52, 37-30
Returning letter winners: 21
Returning starters: offense 5, defense 9
Top players: Seniors
DerJuan Gambrell, 6-2, 180, WR/FS; Damond Powell, 5-11, 165, WR; Felix Fowler, 6-7, 315, OT; Brandon Hunt, 5-8, 185, LB/RB; Gary Johnson, 5-8, 170, RB; Glandoy Hill, 6-3, 185, WR/SS; Marquise Snider, 5-9, 165, QB.
Outlook: The Rams come off a solid season which culminated in the school's third playoff appearance. The biggest void is left by the graduation of E.J. Tucker (QB), CL and Blade player of the year. He led the league in scoring and rushing and was second in passing in 2009. Also gone is LB Ray Bush (now at UT).
But Rios has the services of his biggest offensive line ever at an average of 6-4 and 307 pounds per player. They toil in front of the Ohio State-bound Gambrell and Johnson in the backfield, and new QB Snider, who has speed burner Powell and Hill as top targets. Team speed, like it was in 2009, is Rogers' primary strength. Depth on the offensive line is a concern.
"We've got pretty high expectations with 14 seniors back from last year," Rios said. "We expect them to pick up where they left off. The key right now for us will be coming together as a group, as a family, and not to become complacent or individualistic. Sometimes it's easier to deal with adversity than success."
Coach: Tyson Harder, first year
Last season: 2-8, 2-5
Last 10 years: 47-56, 33-34
Returning letter winners: 8
Returning starters: offense 4, defense 4
Schemes: Spread option/
Top players: Seniors Deonte Rozier, 6-2, 240, TB/DE; Alfonzo Howell, 5-11, 160, WR/S; Christian Bates, 5-7, 150, WR/CB; Silas McCall, 5-7, 175, RB/CB. Juniors Brian Lee, 5-11, 220,
G/LB; Tyler Ritter, 5-11, 180, QB.
Outlook: The Spartans transition to a new coach with the exit of Pat Gucciardo, and Harder brings over some new schemes from his post as an assistant at St. John's. This system switch and Start's relative lack of varsity experience may require some time for trial and error. Speed and athleticism are viewed as team strengths, according to Harder, while an overall lack of depth, particularly on the front lines is a notable concern.
"The kids came in with a positive attitude," Harder said. "They're excited and dedicated. They realize they need to make a commitment to win, and they're buying in pretty well. They just have to stay committed, follow the course, and trust the seniors who are leading them."
Coach: Mike Donnelly, fourth year
Last season: 4-6, 2-5
Last 10 years: 52-50, 25-24
Returning letter winners: 24
Returning starters: offense 8, defense 7
Schemes: Multiple option/odd stack
Top players: Seniors Tyler Sibbersen, 6-3, 280, OL/DL; Rex Carlo, 6-0, 240, OL/DL; Dylan Gore, 5-10, 205, OL/LB; Sam Berry, 6-0, 180, TE/DE; Josh Utter, 6-1, 165, QB; James Huss, 5-7, 190, FB/S; Kevin Gaskins, 6-0, 180, FB; Austin Achter, 6-2, 165, WR; Bobby Hoffman, 5-7, 155, WR.
Outlook: With the amount of returning starters and overall varsity experience, the Eagles appear poised for improvement in the CL. Utter passed for 971 yards, Achter is a multiple threat, and Hoffman had 413 receiving yards in 2009, highlighting Clay's experience at the skill spots. Senior leadership is also a plus, according to Donnelly, whose primary concerns are a lack of overall depth, specifically on the offensive line.
"We will be only as good as our offensive and defensive fronts," Donnelly said. "They need to be the heart and soul of the team."
Coach: Craig Lubinski, first year
Last season: 4-7, 4-3
Last 10 years: 33-68, 27-40
Returning letter winners: 20
Returning starters: offense 6, defense 4
Schemes: Multiple sets/5-2
Top players: Seniors Mike Allen, 6-4, 280, OL; Dijon Tucker, 5-10, 205, FB; Cam Florence, 5-9, 150, WB; J.T. Griffin, 6-0, 220, DL; Allen Cook, 5-11, 160, WR; Eric Daniels, 5-11, 170, utility.
Outlook: The Rebels make a coaching transition as longtime assistant coach Lubinski, a veteran of CL football as a player and coach, tackles his first head post. He likes what he's seen in the athleticism department, and with the team's speed and chemistry. The Rebels, who got a few additions from the closing of Libbey High School, must survive a lack of depth at the skill spots to maximize success.
"It should be an exciting season," Lubinski said. "A lot of kids came out for football, and the change in coaches has been very positive. If you want something you've never had, you have to do something you have never done."
Coach: Gardner Howard, second year
Last season: 3-7, 3-4
Last 10 years: 28-71, 22-45
Returning letter winners: 20
Returning starters: offense 7, defense 5
Top players: Seniors Henry Newson, 6-4, 195, WR; Antoine Jackson, 6-3, 230, OT/DL; Gary Cummins, 6-0, 225, OT/LB; Alex Ramirez, 6-0, 225, OL/DT. Juniors Kevin Carter, 5-8, 160, RB/DB; Chad Payton, 6-1, 250, G/DT; Devonte Hughes, 6-0, 175, WR/CB.
Outlook: The Indians appear to have enough returning personnel to expect an improvement over 2009, but the question is how much higher they can reasonably expect to climb in a CL well balanced in the top half. Howard is pleased with his team's speed, athleticism and unity, and points to a lack of depth, especially on both lines, as a legitimate concern.
"So far the seniors have done a good job of leading and working hard," Howard said. "They've shown a positive attitude. We have a chance to surprise some people, but the key is developing some depth in the trenches."
Coach: Mike Daniels, second year
Last season: 2-8, 2-5
Last 10 years: 29-71, 19-48
Returning letter winners: 10
Returning starters: offense 7, defense 6
Top players: Seniors
Branden Pyles, 5-7, 150,
WR/CB; David Lightner, 6-3, 235, C/DE; Damon Allen, 6-2, 270, OT/DT; Tremon Hinton, 5-11, 220, G/LB; Jamel Butts, 5-9, 200, G/DT. Juniors Chris Pinkney, 5-11, 170, SB/S;
Montrece Crosby, 5-10, 185, RB/S.
Outlook: With school remodeling still going on at the Scott campus on Collingwood, the Bulldogs remain at the former DeVilbiss campus and this year will have no actual home games. With some additions because of the closing of Libbey, Daniels' program hovers around 45 players. But the Bulldogs hope to make strides this season with some experienced starters returning, and Daniels likes the team's speed and athleticism. His main trouble spots may be with inexperience at QB, and with the front seven on defense.
"We expects great things," Daniels said. "We have great numbers compared to last year, and we have some good athletes that have come over from Libbey. We look to improve from last year. We should be better just because of our numbers."
Coach: Ron Rice, first year
Last season: 0-9, 0-7
Last 10 years: 23-75, 17-50
Returning letter winners: 16
Returning starters: offense 4, defense 5
Schemes: Multiple sets/4-3
Top players: Seniors Brandon Hunt, 6-4, 290, OT/DT; Chris Cowson, 5-8, 265, OT/DT. Juniors Franklin Levey, 5-11, 155, QB/DB; Javon Harris, 5-11, 185, DB; Jamar Allen, 5-7, 180, RB/LB; Davian Allison, 6-4, 280, G/DT.
Outlook: With only 25 players in a program that took some hefty lumps over the last two winless seasons, Rice, who steps up after 11 years as an assistant, has an extremely tall order in making the Polar Bears competitive. Increasing the burden, although Woodward students will be attending school in their new building, the Bears have no home field. Rice likes his team's speed and the Bears have a sizable line. But the lack of roster numbers and the resulting lack of depth make any measurable climb in the CL a stretch. But, after being outscored 458-8 in its nine games last season, the only place to go is up.
"First of all, we're getting them to want to play for us and for themselves," Rice said. "We're working on the basics - blocking and tackling skills - and a lot of repetition to improve execution. The biggest thing is making sure they understand the fundamentals. If they conquer that I believe we'll win some games this year. We've got some tough kids."
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