STEUBENVILLE - Entering his 29th season as head coach of the marvelously successful Steubenville Big Red, Reno Saccoccia finds himself on the threshold of another significant milestone.
Already a member of the Ohio High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame - he was inducted in 2009 - Saccoccia stands nine victories away of 300.
His record is 291-52, highlighted by three state championship seasons (1984, 2005, 2006), 13 regional titles and three runner-up finishes.
On 12 occasions, Big Red turned in undefeated seasons, including all three when they earned state championships.
The Jefferson County juggernaut is coming off a 2010 season where it posted an 8-3 record, the most losses the school has sustained in a single year since 2002. Big Red also failed to get out of the first round of the playoffs, falling to Dover, 31-28, on Reno Saccoccia Field at Harding Stadium.
''We had the toughest June and July that we experienced in the last four or five years for this reason,'' Saccoccia said. ''You are only as good as your last game and that one didn't have a good ending.''
When people talk about expectations surrounding the Big Red football program, they have heard the same things from the head coach since the first day he took charge in 1983.
''Our expectations never change,'' Saccoccia stressed. ''We want to play good enough during the season to get a home playoff game and go from there. Graduation took several three-year players but with young players comes fresh enthusiasm.
''Older players have been down this road before and they know what needs to be done.''
Graduation claimed 17 seniors with five of those standouts continuing their football careers in college. All-State, All-Valley linebacker Shaq Petteway will be wearing the Gold and Blue colors at West Virginia University this fall, while quarterback Anthony Pierro and tackle Jake Linn are at Ohio University. Also on college rosters are receiver-safety Jordan Meyer, now at Fairmont State, and guard Willie Pruitt, Robert Morris. Meyer also was an All-Valley first-team selection along with guard Mason Campbell.
Pierro stepped in at quarterback to replace 2009 senior Dwight Macon and enjoyed a stellar year, completing 75 of 137 passes for 1,074 yards, nine touchdowns and six interceptions.
Other departing seniors were Hunter Naylor, Jesse Birden, Bryan DiFillipo, Delshawn Woods, Blake Carroll, Joey Pizzino, Frank Mastroianni, Wesley Prichard, Michael Bonley, John Eckroth and Dominic Garay. Eckroth was a second-team honoree on the All-Valley squad.
Finding a successor to Anthony Pierro at quarterback is one of several question marks for the Big Red coaching staff on both sides of the ball. Stepping in to lead the offense is senior letterman Marcus Prather (6-foot-2, 205 pounds), backed by junior Cory Stinson (5-8, 160) and sophomore Bryan Pierro (5-8, 155).
Saccoccia has high hopes in Prather's ability to do the job but is taking a cautious approach when talking about this vital position.
''He is a very important piece of the puzzle no matter how you look at it,'' Saccoccia said. ''Basically, the quarterback gets too much credit when we win and too much of the blame when things go wrong.
''We feel we have a kid in Marcus who has worked hard and this is his opportunity. I hope it is the greatest five months of his career from August through December. But a lot of key people need to help him.''
Big Red can rely on an experienced, talented stable of running backs to help out their first-year quarterback. Seniors JoJo Pierro (5-9, 175), Lucas McClurg (5-9, 200) and LeShawn Luke (5-9, 195) head the list of tailbacks. Pierro had a sensational junior season, as he had 203 carries for 1,120 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Also seeking playing time are junior Willie Hubbard (5-6, 140), Teshawn Luke (6-0, 175) and sophomores Kai McClurg (5-9, 165), Tyler Lathem (5-9, 150) and Chez Glenn (5-8, 160).
Juniors Dashon Redman (5-10, 200) and William Houst (6-1, 230) are at fullback, along with junior Manard Reed (5-11, 235).
Senior Najee Murray (5-10, 175), who gave a verbal commitment to Ohio Sate recently, leads the receiving cast that also includes two junior letter-winners in Matt Petrella (6-2, 175) and Evan Westlake (5-9, 150). Quinton Smith (5-8, 155) is a senior candidate looking for playing time.
Other junior receivers are Mike Pannell (5-8, 160), Perrigon West (5-8, 155), Tajuan Lawson (6-0, 165), Mark Cole (5-8, 160), Jerrick Shackleford (5-8, 145) and Kelvin Grissom (6-1, 165). Sophomore candidates include Cody Saltsman (6-0, 160), Michael Jett (5-9, 150), Goron Lytle (5-10, 160), Robert Haden (6-1, 175), Perrier Coleman (5-8, 150) and Malik Young (6-0, 155).
Two lettermen, senior Michael Costantini (6-0, 200) and junior Eric Robinson (6-0, 200) return at tight end, backed by sophomores Arin Goldsmith (6-0, 210), Tyler Ingram (5-10, 190) and Cameron King (6-0, 165).
The offensive line has its share of question marks.
''We graduated three starters who were three-year players,'' Saccoccia said. ''Our only line starter back is Michael Camilletti who is moving from center to tackle. We need to find five or six kids who can move their feet and fire off the ball. That will be the key our season.''
Just two other offensive linemen return who lettered last year. They are senior Simon Saxon (6-0, 210) and junior Joey Nation (6-0, 250).
Senior line candidates include Joe Gamble (5-7, 200), Zach Clayton (5-9, 195), and Davon Wicker (6-2, 200). Among the juniors are Greg Moray (6-1, 245), Torrie Corter (6-2,230), Anthony Leone (5-10, 235), Charles Keenan (6-2, 220), Luke McCourt (5-11, 250), Pat Fizzoferrato (5-10, 190), Brandon Davis (5-11, 200), Ryan Wood (5-11, 265), Ed Wison (6-4, 220), Geno Atkins (6-3, 360) and William Jones (5-10, 245).
Among a promising list of sophomore linemen are Andrew Reed (6-2, 260), Josh DeFrank (5-10, 185), Dennis Fillipi (5-9, 165), Jaylin Williams (6-3, 225), Dillon Ribar (6-3, 230) and Chris Starlipper (6-0, 250).
Replacing Anthony Pierro as the punter will be sophomore Luke Smith (5-9, 215), who also will be handling the kickoff and placekicking duties.
Murray heads a list of defensive backs that also includes Bryan Pierro, Petrella, Lawson, Westlake, Smith, Stinson, Saltsman, Jett, Hayden, Coleman, Pannell, West, Lathem, Lytle, Hubbard, Young, Schackleford and Grissom.
Lucas McClurg and Jo Jo Pierro head the linebacking corps. Others are Kai McClurg, Redman, LeShawn Luke, Glenn, Cole, TeShawn Luke, Clayton, Wicker and Fillippi.
Among the defensive line candidates are Camilletti, Costantini, Houst, Ingram, Reed, Goldsmith, King, Jones, Fizzoferrato, Davis, DeFrank, Saxon, McCourt, Gamble, Leone, Keenan, Corter, Williams, Moray, Ribar, Wood, Wilson, Starlipper, Nation, Reed, Atkins, Robinson and Blair.
''Defensively, we also lost a lot of key people,'' Saccoccia said. ''We'll be counting on the mental toughness of the kids that play on defense.
''Many of them got their feet wet last year. Now they have to stay in the water. They have to learn to suck it up from the 10-yard-line in and learn how to play from behind.
''Every day we need to improve, not just blocking and tackling, but as men. If you don't love the game, it is tough to play it.''
The Big Red schedule is demanding as ever as it includes eight teams that competed in the playoffs in their respective states. Steubenville begins the season 6 p.m. tonight with a clash at Harding Stadium against 2010 West Virginia Class AAA semifinalist Morgantown. This will be the first game of the annual Ohio Valley Athletic Conference Kickoff Classic.
Missing from the 2011 Big Red slate are Inkster (Mich.), McKeesport (Pa.) and Wheeling Park. They have been replaced by Ontario (Canada) Bishop Ryan, Akron Buchtel and East Liverpool. Steubenville will play eight games on Reno Saccoccia Field, traveling only to Wellsburg for a Sept. 16 contest against 2010 state runner-up Brooke, followed by a Sept. 13 meeting with Youngstown Ursuline.
The Big Red coaching staff includes Bob LaMantia, Jason Kernahan, Rick Camilletti, Gus DiMarzio, Anthony Pierro, Mike Haney, Dan Filtz, Justin Banks, Mike Blackburn, Joe Pierro, Jo Jo Saccoccia and Jeremy Pressley.
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