BELLAIRE - Five years ago, Jose Davis took control of a once-proud program when it was at a low level.
Since then, he's steadily helped to rebuild the tradition that had been the norm for Big Reds teams and got them back to the Ohio postseason thanks to their berth in the Division V tournament last season.
But, in no way is the former Big Reds' standout quarterback satisfied, nor should he be.
With 20 lettermen back, including a 3,000-yard passer and a 1,000-yard receiver from an 8-3 squad, expectations are very high again.
"When you have a lot of guys returning from a successful season the year before, obviously the expectations are going to be high," Davis said. "But like I tell people, and the kids, games aren't played on paper. So, our guys need to continue to improve all the way across the board for us to be competitive, and keep on climbing the ladder like we've been doing."
The Big Reds open the season at 12:30 on Saturday when Steubenville Catholic Central invades Nelson Field in a game the Crusaders will no doubt be seeking revenge in after a pair of tough-to-swallow setbacks the last two seasons on the Harding Stadium turf in Steubenville.
"We all know they are going to come in here fired up because of what has happened the last two years up there," Davis said of the Crusaders, who were blown out 63-27 in 2011 before watching the Big Reds pull off a dramatic, 44-42 come-from-behind victory last season, winning on the final play after trailing 42-19 late in the third quarter.
When you talk about Bellaire, the first thing that pops into your mind is the strong tradition when it comes to quarterbacks. Names like Mike Sherwood, P.J. Woods, Davis, Ty Masciarelli, Matt Materkoski, Nate Davis, Nick Rocchio and Anthony Rocchio have all thrown the ball all over the field, and done it well.
However, third-year starter Spencer Badia (5-foot-10, 180 pounds) has a chance to erase some more of those names as he enters his senior season as the Big Reds field general. He has already eclipsed many of the career and single-season passing marks in Bellaire lore.
In two seasons, the strong-armed Badia has racked up 5,383 yards passing on 365 of 686 in the Big Reds' pass-happy attack. He has 52 career touchdown tosses, but has been picked off 30 times. Last fall, he hit on 212 of 387 for 3,001 yards, 24 TDs and 13 INTs. He was 153-for-299 and 2,382 yards as a sophomore when he fired 28 touchdowns and 17 picks.
Early in Bellaire's first-round playoff loss to Cuyahoga Heights, Badia injured his right knee, but continued to play on basically one leg. He eventually went to the sideline that night and underwent surgery a while later, forcing him to miss his entire junior baseball season.
"He's fine," Davis stressed. "He's been cleared since June and he's been playing baseball, so he's good to go."
However, Davis, who has a pair of championship rings from his professional indoor playing career, knows that a great quarterback is only as good as the players around him.
"A lot of our success is going to depend on how we are up front; how we run the ball; and how we are at receiver," he said. "A lot of it goes hand-in-hand. Sure, everything starts with offense for us, but we've got to continue to improve across the board, and that means on defense, as well.
Davis also knows he's got a special talent in the shotgun.
"Spencer's film study has gotten a lot better and his knowledge of what we are trying to accomplish has also gotten better," Davis said. "He's also gotten bigger; he's put on some weight."
Badia also ran 93 times for 321 yards and four touchdowns last season.
To give Badia a break, Davis will utilize the talents of junior Hunter Westlake (6-1, 185) in a variety of ways.
"We've got some things that we'd like to try and do with Hunter," Davis said. "We did the same thing a couple of years ago with Manny Ray."
Freshmen Tyson Camsky (5-9, 145), D'Eondre Burney (5-7, 120) and Ty Taylor (6-0, 160), a transfer from St. John Central, are listed as the backups.
"Ty Taylor is getting better and better every day," the head coach said.
According to Davis, the running backs will be a committee.
"Losing Nick Maffe will certainly hurt a little, but the way we look at it, he wasn't even counted on before the season started. He got the call when Logan (Koshenka) got nicked up. He stepped up and played a big role in our success."
Maffe picked up 527 yards on 94 carries, scoring 10 touchdowns. He also caught 25 passes for 267 yards and another two TDs.
Cat-quick junior Bralen Snell (5-8, 170) will be the first option, with classmate Tyler West (5-10, 160) also expected to see a lot of time in the backfield.
"We're looking for some big things from Bralen this year," Davis said. "He kind of fits the mold of what we want back there."
Another player that could develop into something big is junior transfer Brandon Laughman (5-8, 185), who comes over from rival Martins Ferry where he ran for 392 yards and seven touchdowns on 73 carries last season. However, Laughman may have to sit out the first five weeks because of that transfer.
"We've got some bodies that we can mix in there," Davis added. "Like I tell people, we're not going to have a 1,500-yard rusher, but as a group, if we can get between 1,500-2,000, then we're doing what we need to be doing."
Senior Skylar Jeter (6-0, 190), sophomore Alex Hibbitts (5-6, 185), and freshmen Lance Norman (5-8, 150), Derek Schybal (5-9, 135) and Trent Gibson (5-10, 145) are also listed as running back candidates.
When Badia goes up top, which he does frequently, he has an arsenal of talented receivers, led by senior Nick Patrone (5-9, 165). Joining him on the outside will be Westlake and West, along with seniors Kenny Hess (6-0, 190) and Brendon Ross (6-2, 185).
Patrone had a breakout junior campaign in which he caught 66 passes for 1,009 yards and a team-high seven touchdowns. He landed 22 catches in 2011 for 204 yards and a score.
"Without a doubt, he was a surprise for us last year," Davis said of the shifty Patrone. "He had a great year of being our go-to guy when we needed him to be. He progressed a lot during the course of last season. He's gotten a lot more explosive this year and he has picked up some weight.
"But what goes off Nick goes off the other guys. Having those other guys around allows Nick to do whatever he can to get open. It keeps the defenses honest."
Westlake caught 31 passes for 492 yards and four scores, while Hess had 33 receptions for 503 yards and a four touchdowns. West came up with nine catches for 94 yards and a pair of scores.
Gone is graduated Quinton Crosby who finished with 41 catches for 580 yards and five TDs.
"We have some guys and I like our talent at wideout, but then again, some of these guys have to be able to step in and understand what we're trying to accomplish."
Other receivers include seniors Kyle Hess (5-10, 170), Robert Kovalyk (6-4, 215) and Collin Nolan (5-8, 135); juniors Austin McConnville (6-0, 170), Dom Vinka (5-8, 165) Jonathan Longwell (6-0, 150) and Chace Braden (5-10, 160); sophomores Dylan Marling (5-6, 135), Anthony Piper (5-10, 160) and Anthony Price (5-7, 160); and freshmen Gage Eden (5-6, 120), Justyn Keyser (6-0, 150), Cody Hamilton (5-5, 110) and Jacob Smith (5-10, 175).
Three of five starters return on the offensive line, those being junior center Cody LaRoche (6-0, 255) and senior tackles Wyatt Back (6-0, 265) and Ryan Callarik (6-1, 210). Back and Callarik will be fourth-year starters.
"We lost our two starting guards from last year," Davis said. "But we like the guys that we've got replacing them. We are continually moving guys around, but it's hard to gauge what a kid can do in practice. It's not until that first scrimmage that we start finding out about different players. We've got a lot of bodies, but until the bullets start flying, we can't tell."
Davis said senior Robby Kalinowski (6-4, 290) will sub in at a guard, but can also play tackle. Classmates Seth Pickens (5-10, 205), James Dunfee (5-9, 215), Myliek Green (5-10, 175) and Jeff Nelson (5-9, 180), as well as junior Donivan Taylor (6-0, 335), are also in the mix for playing time.
Others listed as linemen include juniors Jeremy Rife (6-2, 185) and Michael Kovalyk (5-10, 205); sophomores Austin Anastasia (5-6, 185), John Price (5-9, 215); Cody Tredway (5-9, 175) and Steven Krupa (6-1, 200); and freshmen David McConn (6-0, 180), Josh Sabinski (5-9, 170), Todd Morris (6-3, 265) and Devin Violet (5-9, 190).
Most observers will look at Bellaire as a team that will pass about 80 percent of the time, but Davis will dispute those numbers.
"People look at us as a 70-30 or 80-20 pass-to-run mix, but when you add up our passes and rushes, we're about 60-40 when it comes down to the actual math," he noted. "To us, we count the screen passes as run plays. They're just long handoffs to us. Even though they count as passing yards, we don't look at it that way.
"As long as we're not dropping back 40 times a game, we're in good shape. We're happy with 25 to 32 passes a game. That's feasible for us. We'd like to gave that 60-40 mix because if it's 70-30, that's that much harder on our offensive linemen."
Defensively, according to Davis, the squad needs to continue improving if the Big Reds are going to be successful.
"We've got a lot of bodies with game experience," he said. "That's something that we didn't have the luxury of last year, but those guys must progress and improve on some of the weaknesses they had last year."
Back, Callarik, Dunfee and Kalinowski return along the defensive front.
"Those four started at some point last season and all of them got quality playing time which should help out this year," Davis said.
Other frontliners are Robert Kovalyk, LaRoche, Morris, Donivan Taylor, Michael Kovalyk, Anastasia, McConn, John Price, Rife, Sabinski, Tredway, Krupa and Violet.
The linebackers in the 4-4 alignment will be Green and Kenny Hess on the inside, with McConnville, Pickens and Vinka vying on the outside. Also listed as linebackers are Anthony Price, Snell, Ty Taylor, Hibbitts, Camsky, Eden, Kyle Hess, Keyser, Braden and Schybal.
Heading up the secondary is the heady Patrone, who charted a team-high six interceptions from his free safety spot.
"Having Nick back there is like having a quarterback on defense," Davis said. "He did a tremendous job for us last year."
Also returning are Westlake at strong safety, while Ross and West will man the corners.
"I like our secondary," Davis admitted. "Ross did a good job for us last year. West played half the season back there as a starter, and Westlake is a very good athlete."
Other defensive backs are Badia, Marling, Jeter, Burney, Hamilton, Nolan, Norman, Longwell, Smith, Gibson, Laughman and Piper.
The Big Reds lost all-state kicker Dalton Conroy to graduation, but LaRoche is ready to take over the kickoff and placekicking duties, according to Davis.
"Cody worked hard all last season even though he knew he wasn't going to kick much," Davis recalled. "He did just as much as Dalton. He seems to have found his groove so far."
Conroy had a powerful leg and served as Bellaire's secret weapon, winning the Harrison Central game on a walk-off field goal. He finished with a Bellaire single-season record nine field goals and 61 points.
"We can't depend upon 40-yard field goals like we did last year," Davis said. "That was a luxury that comes around once in a lifetime for us and we took advantage of it. We'll have to prepare accordingly this season, but we've talked to Cody and told him that if he can be consistent between 25-30 yards, then we're talking."
Westlake is back for his third year as the punter.
"I think our special teams will be all right," Davis said.
Only one new face dots the Big Reds' schedule, but it's a familiar name and only a few miles south - Shadyside.
"It's a natural rivalry," Davis said. "The history of their program speaks for itself. They've established a winning tradition and their kids don't give up. We'll have to strap it up for four quarters when we play them."
Shadyside replaces East Liverpool.
In addition to the Crusaders and Tigers, other home games include St. Clairsville, Harrison Central, Edison and Martins Ferry. Road games include John Marshall, Buckeye Local, Indian Creek and Union Local.
"We don't get a break," Davis said of the brutal slate which includes seven Buckeye 8 clashes. "We're D-VI and we only play down twice, those being Weeks 1 and 3 and those are two very good programs in Steubenville Catholic Central and Shadyside. The two programs are good even on their down years.
"The Buckeye 8 is always tough. We'll have to battle it out."
The coaching staff remains intact, something that Davis said is very beneficial.
"We've got the same guys that have been here for the last three years," he noted. "That's a luxury. We haven't lost anyone. We picked up Shawn Valloric a couple of years ago. Everyone is on the same page and that has helped immensely."
That staff includes Valloric, Casey Davis, Bruce Stolz, Ryan McMahon, Justin Green, Adam Shallcross, Ty Masciarelli and Ed Miller. BeeBee Marinacci is the equipment manager.
Lost to graduation were seven seniors that contributed to the turnaround in the program. They were Conroy, Crosby, Koshenka, Maffe, Vince Kolenich, Austin Dodrill and Johnathan Carter.
"That was my first four-year class," Davis said of that group. "Losing them was huge. They fought through a lot."
Wyatt Back, Spencer Badia, Ryan Callarik, James Dunfee, Myliek Green, Kenny Hess, Kyle Hess, Skylar Jeter, Robby Kalinowski, Robert Kovalyk, Collin Nolan, Jeff Nelson, Nick Patrone, Seth Pickens, Brendon Ross.
Chace Braden, Michael Kovalyk , Brandon Laughman, Cody LaRoche, Jonathan Longwell, Austin McConville, Jeremy Rife, Bralen Snell, Donivan Taylor, Dom Vinka, Tyler West, Hunter Westlake.
Austin Anastasia, Alex Hibbitts, Steven Krupa , Dylan Marling, Anthony Piper, Anthony Price, John Price, Cody Tredway.
D'Eondre Burney, Tyson Camsky, Gage Eden, Trent Gibson, Cody Hamilton, Justyn Keyser, David McConn, Todd Morris, Lance Norman, Josh Sabinski, Derek Schybal, Jacob Smith, Logan St. John, Ty Taylor, Devin Violet.