By SETH STASKEY
MARTINS FERRY - There have not been too many years during Dave Bruney's illustrious career where his Martins Ferry teams sneak up on some people.
However, this version of Purple Riders football could just be that team.
"I'm sure we're under the radar a little bit," Bruney said.
And Bruney's not sure how many games it'll take exactly before the Riders come out from under that radar.
"We're definitely a team that will get better as the season goes along," Bruney said. "Our approach is to try to improve each week and have fun while we're doing it because when you've got a younger team, with some veterans sprinkled in, you're going to have some surprises, but you're going to have a few disappointments, too. But, I think we, as coaches, feel we're better than we thought we would be at this point."
Aug. 24: at Heath7:30 p.m.
Aug. 31: Shenandoah7 p.m.
Sept. 7: at Ridgewood7:30 p.m.
Sept. 14: at Harrison Central7:30 p.m.
Sept. 21: Union Local7 p.m.
Sept. 28: at Buckeye Local7 p.m.
Oct. 5: Indian Creek7 p.m.
Oct. 12: Edison7 p.m.
Oct. 19: at St. Clairsville7:30 p.m.
Oct. 26: Bellaire7 p.m.
Win 7, Lose 3
Bruney, who is the one of the deans of area football coaches, is set to begin his 35th season on the Purple Riders sideline. Last season, Martins Ferry re-named its football field the Dave Bruney Football Complex.
Each August, the juices start flowing again for Bruney, who's a member of the Ohio High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame. Actually, the juices start flowing in December when Bruney and the Riders not involved in a winter sport began their weight training.
"It's a lot of fun," Bruney said. "When I get tired of getting up at 4:30 a.m. to be (at the fieldhouse) at 5, I'll know it's time for me to give it up, but I still enjoy everything about it."
One of the areas Bruney is thoroughly enjoying is the amount of teaching that's gone on as he welcomes back a fairly young squad.
"It's been great just being around the kids and watching them learn and getting better each day," Bruney said. "This team has had a great attitude and it's been a really fun bunch to coach. If we keep working like we have during the preseason, I really think we'll win more games than people think we might."
The Riders are coming off yet another outstanding campaign. Martins Ferry finished the regular season 8-2, dropping setbacks to Ridgewood and Indian Creek. It won the OVAC Class 3A title and earned the right to play host to an opening-round Division IV, Region 15 playoff game against Coshocton.
"We lost two tough games ... to Ridgewood by one (at home) and at Indian Creek," Bruney said. "Our playoff game was kind of an eerie game since we lost (Sean) McGee right off the bat and he meant so much to us on both sides of the ball."
Gone from last year's team are Josh Hakr, Johnny Payton, Jonathan Carlier, Jeremy Cusick, Tyrel Simmons, Hunter Pyles, C.J. Williams, Jeff Oberdick, Tyler Donahue, Dean Redinger, Michael Minder, Elliott Albert and Richie Padyjasek.
The Purple Riders, who've won five OVAC titles and qualified for the playoffs every year but three since 1998, found themselves battle-tested a year ago, which is something Bruney believes could pay big dividends this season.
"The kids coming back have been on the field against some good people," the coach said.
For the first time in several years, Bruney had no holes to fill on the schedule. The Riders will meet the identical 10 opponents they faced in 2011 except at the opposite location, including Friday's lengthy bus trip to Heath, which is located near Newark.
"I don't see anyone on our schedule where I look at it and think we'll have to play absolutely perfect to win that game," Bruney said. "The trip to Heath will be tough. They've got a lot of kids back. They're not real big physically, but they're wrestlers, so they move well and they're aggressive."
Bruney has made sure his players keep a level head regardless of the outcome on opening night.
"It's tough for younger kids to realize, sometimes, that there are nine more games," Bruney said. "When you're preparing for that first game, it seems like you've been working toward it for a year, and in essence, you have really. The key is you have to keep your nose to the grindstone, keep working on the things that you know will give you a chance to be competitive."
While the Riders schedule remained the same for this season, Bruney pointed out that Heath, Ridgewood and Shenandoah - the Riders' non-Buckeye 8 opponents - were all two-year deals. He's unsure whether any, let alone all, will re-sign following this year.
"It would be nice to play some more local teams," Bruney said. "If you struggle for a few years, it's not tough, usually, to get games."
The Riders boast a 56-man roster and in a rare occurrence, the biggest class is the sophomores.
"We're relative young," Bruney said. "Our sophomore class is relatively large with 21 kids, and we've actually got more sophomores than we have juniors and seniors combined which is a rarity for us."
Bruney is also high on his freshman class, which includes 15 players.
"We've got some talent in that freshman class," Bruney said. "We really like those young kids."
While the youth signals a bright future, it also could send up a few question marks, but that's not how Bruney and his staff see it.
"The challenge is the fact that we're pretty young, but the upside is the fact that those younger players are talented," Bruney said.
With the large amount of youth - several of which is going to thrusted into duty Friday night - Bruney believes his team should be considered "a work-in-progress."
"For a lot of our kids, the first time they saw themselves on film was after our scrimmage against Meadowbrook," Bruney said. "A picture is worth a thousand words, so if the kids embrace what they see on tape, learn from it and then work at it, we should make steady improvement."
To survive in the rigors of the high school football season, teams must rely on their veteran leadership and Martins Ferry's 10 seniors has Bruney believing the Riders will be no different.
"When this group was in eighth grade, I thought there would be at least five kids who could be first team All-Valley players by the time they're seniors," Bruney said. "We've got a few kids who we feel are as good as anyone in the area at their respective positions."
With one of those five players - Trent Neavin - already on the shelf for at least half the season, the Riders can't afford many more injuries to that key core of players.
"If any of those other four kids get hurt, it would really hurt our leadership," Bruney said.
The offense could be diverse and Bruney believes they'll employ some of the old-school Purple Riders formations that involve run first, ball control, but they could also get into some spread attacks to utilize their deep threats and home-run hitting capable players.
"We didn't know if we'd be able to play much spread, but from our scrimmages, we think we'll be able to utilize some of both," Bruney said. "We're physical enough up front to use power, but we're skilled enough to open things up some."
For the second straight season, Martins Ferry will be breaking in a new quarterback.
Senior Tyler Strama (6-foot-2, 212 pound) is back out for football for the first time since he was a freshman. After spending much of spring talking with Bruney about the terminology and system, Strama won the job as the starter in camp.
"Tyler has been a pleasant surprise for us," Bruney said. "He's performed beyond our expectations. He's run the ball well and he threw the ball well in our scrimmages. Most importantly, he threw the ball to the right place."
Strama's primary backup will be junior Eric Flowers (5-10, 198), who transferred from Barnesville.
Junior Bryan Styles (5-6, 145) could also see time at quarterback if the Riders employ a 'Wildcat' look. However, Bruney and company will make it a point to find a position - most likely at wide receiver - for Styles, who earned a letter last season.
A pair of freshmen - Kylil Bass (5-8, 115) and James Edwards (5-9, 140) - supply depth under center.
In the backfield, the Riders have spent much of the offseason jockeying some people around after talented senior fullback Neavin (5-11, 250) went down with an injury during conditioning work in the spring.
Neavin has been rehabbing and Bruney has been informed that he could be back by the second half of the season.
"He's been working like crazy to get it healed," Bruney said. "I am amazed, too at the progress he's made, and hopefully, we do get him back because he's a difference-maker. He's a heckuva linebacker, but he's the ideal I-formation fullback, who embraces that role as if he was the guy carrying the ball 30 times a game."
During the spring, Neavin was attracting some looks from Division-I schools, including Pitt, West Virginia and Wisconsin. The University of Ashland offered a scholarship to the all-district performer a few weeks ago.
"His injury not only hurts player-wise, but it hurts leadership-wise and attitude-wise," Bruney said. "He's here every day and works his rear end off."
Stepping into Neavin's role will be senior Sean McGee (6-0, 241), who played on the offensive line last season. McGee rebounded from his football injury to earn All-Ohio accolades in the shot put this past track season.
"Sean is an excellent athlete," Bruney said. "He's got soft hands, catches the ball well, he's a terrific blocker. He was one of our better blockers each of the past two seasons, but he's athletic and quick enough that he can make the transition without any problems at all."
Sophomore Bruce Burger (5-10, 188) has shown some flashes of speed in the preseason and Bruney sees him as a solid backup for McGee. Sophomore Bryce Coleman (5-6, 158) is in the mix.
Ferry has been a machine in cranking out talented tailbacks. Slated to take over the duties for the Riders is junior Marcus Sutton (5-8, 165), who shined in scrimmages.
Sophomore Brandon Laughman (5-8, 175) has also seen plenty of reps in the backfield. Freshman Arjay Buress (5-11, 177) could be the sleeper in the backfield and could see time as the year progresses.
Other running backs vying for action include seniors Tyler Lanum (5-8, 173), Shaun Nice (5-8, 170), who is working his way back from a serious injury, sophomores Isiah Sears (5-6, 145), Jahad Joyce (5-10, 195), R.J. Reed (5-9, 185), freshmen Nikko Bruney (5-9, 225), Andrew Hython (5-11, 150), Stephen Callarik (5-8, 140) and Matt Barbour (5-11, 195).
At the receiver spot, Styles and senior Cody Schau (6-2, 170) will be the Riders' primary threats.
"Both Bryan and Cody can make plays," Bruney said. "We had a scrimmage where Cody went up over a guy and caught a touchdown. He's a heckuva athlete."
Along with Styles and Schau, sophomores Jack Fitch (5-11, 145) and Jake Barritt (5-7, 140) could make impacts and will see time. Another pleasant surprise through camp has been senior Damon Outward (5-7, 140). Sophomores Lucas Agnew (6-0, 145) and T.J. Jacob (5-11, 150) are also in the mix.
The balance of the receiving corp includes junior Kyle Betz (5-9, 160), sophomores Steve Mayle (6-0, 140), Alex Costello (6-0, 140), Shawon Manns (5-7, 140), freshmen Takota Haggerty (5-4, 125), Brendon Mayle (5-11, 160), Trevor Neavin (5-9, 130), Mark Wells (5-7, 130) and Raven Schrader (5-11, 140).
"We've got some depth at our skill positions," Bruney said. "I think we'll be able to shorten some games if we can.''
As is the case with so many area teams, a lot of Martins Ferry's keys rest on the offensive line.
Senior Zack Coole (5-11, 222) leads the way at the left guard spot. He's a two-year starter in the trenches and Bruney believes he's primed for another big season.
Another returning starter from a season ago is at the other guard in junior Luke Straub (5-11, 251). He and Coole are backed up by sophomore Kyle Staley (5-11, 233).
Snapping the ball for the Riders will be sophomore Jonathan Bodkin (5-8, 244). He enjoyed a strong season of wrestling last winter and has dropped a lot of weight. He'll be backed up by classmate Mark Douglas (5-9, 208).
Two sophomores are penciled in as the tackles. Cody Beavers (6-2, 240) and Nick Bain (6-0, 260) won the jobs during camp. Seniors Tyler Lenz (5-8, 220) and Braxton Waleisky (5-7, 215) are the top backups.
Junior Robert Vargo (6-5, 244) is a returning starter at tight end and proved to be equally valuable as both a pass catcher and blocker last season.
Junior Logan Kinney (6-0, 196) is the top backup, but Bruney indicated they could move McGee there based on the set they're in offensively. Senior Jason Reuther (6-2, 185), junior Austin DeLeonardis (6-0, 170) provide depth.
"I am very happy with our line," Bruney said. "We've got pretty good size. Actually, it's one of the biggest offensive lines we've had physically, but we're pretty athletic up there. We feel, especially in the second half of the season, if we get a lead, we can really play ball control."
Other linemen who are seeking action include junior Brad Kingery (5-9, 175), sophomores Lucas Lloyd (5-10, 180), Kyle Rine (5-10, 197), Brian Sadosky (6-3, 195) and freshmen Chris Brown (5-10, 170), Collin Jamison (5-10, 155) and Emilio Appolloni (6-7, 220).
Defensively, the Riders will have some holes to fill especially with the loss of Neavin at linebacker. However, Bruney still feels his team, with its physical style, will be extremely tough against the run.
McGee and Straub, who Bruney says, "plays with an attitude," are set to handle the inside linebacker duties. Neavin will fall into that mix upon his return to the lineup. Coleman and Burger are also in the mix at linebacker.
Strama and Sutton are slated to man the outside linebacker posts. Outward and Burress have also had strong camps and should see action.
Along the defensive line, Bain is set for one tackle spot, while Beavers and Bodkin have been splitting the duties at the other tackle spot.
Vargo and Coole are ticketed to handle the defensive end duties. Kinney and Laughman are listed as the top backups.
"We feel we'll be strong up the middle and make it tough for teams to run against us," Bruney said. "We've got some really athletic kids."
Schau will roam at free safety, while Styles and Fitch man down the corner spots. Flowers and Barritt are the top understudies at corner, while Fitch could shift to the safety spot.
"I think we've got some good cover people, but we'll have to be able to generate some pass rush up front," Bruney said. "We're a little bit worried about our speed on the first two levels."
With the graduation of Padyjasek, the Purple Riders have been actively working with the kicking game.
Vargo, Flowers, Strama and Nikko Bruney have all been working to handle the punting and placekicking duties. Bruney indicated it could be a job by committee.
Bruney employs one of the area's finest coaching staffs. A season after adding Gregg Bahen to the staff, Bruney hired his oldest son, Zac, who had been coaching at Mt. Union the last several years.
"It's really special for me to have Zac working with us," Bruney said. "He's very knowledgeable and he brings a world of experience with him.
Also on the staff is Bill Bruney, Dirk Fitch, Jim Hoover, Rich Materkoski, Joe Mamone, Nick Stankovich, Anthony Reasbeck, John Bennett, Chas Yoder, John McFarland, Robert Harris, Robert Dalton and Chad Ware.
Zack Coole, Tyler Lanum, Tyler Lenz, Sean McGee, Trent Neavin, Shaun Nice, Damon Outward, Jason Reuther, Cody Schau, Tyler Strama, Braxton Waleisky.
Kyle Betz, Austin Deleonardis, Eric Flowers, Brad Kingery, Luke Straub, Bryan Styles, Marcus Sutton, Robert Vargo.
Lucas Agnew, Nick Bain, Jake Barritt, Cody Beavers, Jonathan Bodkin, Bruce Burger, Bryce Coleman, Alex Costello, Mark Douglas, Jack Fitch, T.J. Jacob, Jahad Joyce, Brandon Laughman, Lucas Lloyd, Steve Mayle, Shawon Manns, R.J. Reed, Brian Sadosky, Kyle Rine, Isiah Sears, Kyle Staley.
Emilio Appolloni, Matt Barbour, Kylil Bass, Chris Brown, Nikko Bruney, Arjay Burress, Stephen Callarik, James Edwards, Takota Haggerty, Andrew Hython, Collin Jamison, Brandon Mayle, Trevor Neavin, Raven Schrader, Mark Wells,