BELLAIRE - For the third time in four seasons, St. John Central has a new coach.
Although the term new doesn't really fit for Jeff Paolina, who takes over for Jason Merryman after he guided the Irish to a 4-6 mark last year in his only season.
Paolina is a 1981 graduate of the school, and has been around the Irish programs for 12 years, two at the junior high and 10 at the high school.
"Knowing all of the kids in the program is definitely a bonus," the 50-year-old Paolina said. "Just knowing their personalities and such. Knowing what buttons to push on what kids and what buttons not to push on some kids. Just knowing what gets them going because every kid isn't the same.
"I've got a very good relationship with every kid. To steal a phrase, 'I'm firm, but I'm fair.' The kids respect that."
After some not-so-good seasons, the Irish rebounded last year and were in a couple of the games they eventually lost.
"We're hoping to win some ballgames this season," Paolina said. "We've got a good senior class. This is the class when we started making changes at the school with the athletic programs. Coach (Paul) Rose came in for two years and really got the discipline back into the program. He did a good job of setting it on the right track, and I was there with him helping get the weight program re-established.
"The current seniors were freshmen then. They've really bought into what we are trying to do with the program. We are really excited about the senior class and what they bring to the table."
Those six seniors are Jonathan Bossell (6-foot-1, 180 pounds), Nick Cervelli (5-11, 220), Devon Hennessey (5-10, 185), Dario Paolina (5-11, 180), Kyle Wharton (5-9, 165) and Zach White (6-1, 270).
Paolina will take over the quarterback duties on a full-time basis this season.
"He saw limited action a year ago," his uncle and head coach said. "I think we'll be able to throw a lot more with him than we've been able to in the past."
So far is his career, Dario Paolina has completed 7 of 23 passes for 95 yards. He has a touchdown pass and an interception. In addition, he has picked up 112 yards and scored a touchdown on 36 carries.
Backing him up will be sophomore Kyle Ogden (6-0, 170).
"He's the youngest of the Ogdens," Paolina offered. "He'll get some snaps."
St. John will switch to the zone-read offense with Hennessey and Whorton as the wingbacks. Cervelli will man the fullback spot.
"Devin is a three-year starter and Kyle played a lot last year," the head coach said. "Nick also saw some time in the backfield."
Hennessey has run for 442 yards and five touchdowns on 104 carries in his career, including 277 yards and all five scores last fall. Cervelli has 98 carries for 418 yards and has found the end zone twice.
One problem for the Irish, like any school of their size, could be injuries to the skill-position players. No backups were listed for the backfield spots.
When St. John runs the ball, it will likely be behind the mammoth White at one tackle.
"Zach is nearing 300 pounds and were expecting big things from him," Paolina said.
The other tackle will be junior Landon Gray (6-0, 230). A two-year starter, Gray is another huge body up front.
The backups will be sophomores Brycen Murray (6-2, 240) and Bryce Zonkoski (5-10, 160); and freshman Jeremy Hagiloizou (5-9, 190).
The guard slots will be filled by twin junior brothers Greg (5-10, 190) and Nick Wilson (5-10, 200). They will be backed up by classmate Quinn Myers (5-10, 165) and freshmen Keegan Sproul (6-1, 147) and Austin Schramm (5-11, 190).
The center will be sophomore Nick Petho (6-0, 210). His backup will be freshman Brock DeCoy (5-9, 165).
When Dario Paolina takes to the air, he will likely to look for a player who blocked for him last season as senior Jonathan Bossell (6-1, 180) has developed into the Irish's top receiving threat.
"We kind of found him by accident," the coach said. "He was a three-year starter on the offensive line, but we converted him to wideout and he's one of our better receivers on the team.
"Jonathan is one of those guys that plays multiple sports and I think his involvement in basketball has really helped his skill level in football."
Other receivers vying for playing time are junior Jacob Jones (6-1, 170), sophomores Kyle Coppa (5-9, 150), Jared Keiser (6-1, 170) and Anthony Busack (5-8, 145), and freshman Cameron Opic (5-10, 165).
"We're going to be pretty balanced offensively," Paolina said. "We've been run-oriented in the past, but I'm a big believer in throwing the ball. I think in some ways, our lack of being able to throw the ball hurt us because the opposition loaded up the box on us. They knew we were going to run.
"We've spent a lot of time this summer throwing the ball."
Defensively, the Irish will employ a 4-4 alignment instead of the 4-3 that was used the last couple of seasons.
"We've got quite a bit of depth back on this side of the ball," Paolina said. "We can finally switch some people in and out."
The tackle spots will have Gray, White and Myers likely rotating in and out, according to the coach.
"Myers is going to be a big part of our schemes because he is so quick," Paolina said.
Also in the mix are Murray and Hagiolizou.
The line spots were still up for grabs as Greg Wilson, Jones and Keiser are vying for starting positions. Petho and Sproull will also see time.
Cervelli will man the inside linebacker spot, with Nick Wilson, Schramm and DeCoy in the mix. The outside linebackers will be Hennessey and Whorton, with Ogden also seeing action.
Bossell will be one cornerback, with Busack, Coppa and Opic battling for the other spot. Dario Paolina is the free safety and had three interceptions last season.
When it comes to special teams, Dario Paolina returns as the plackicker and punter.
"Dario had a real good season last year as a specialist," his uncle said. "He earned a couple of postseason honors and has really worked hard in the offseason to improve.
"I think we will be able to kick the ball downfield more and extra points should come rather easily. I won't be afraid to kick field goals, either."
The schedule-makers weren't real kind to the Irish as a couple of journeys begin the season, including a trip across the Buckeye State to Troy to meet Troy Christian on Friday night.
"We know they are just starting their program back up," Paolina said of the Eagles. "They played a jayvee schedule last season."
While on the 3-hour trek, the first-year coach hopes his team bonds.
"We're going to use this trip as a way to really get the kids together and on the same page," he added. "It's 3-4 hours. We've got a chartered bus and the day is already planned out. We think we can be competitive with them."
Week 2 has the Irish heading to Bowerstown to meet Conotton Valley.
"We've been somewhat competitive with them," Paolina said of the Rockets. "We're primed to compete with them again this season."
St. John Central makes its home debut in Week 3 as Strasburg visits the Irish Youth Sports Complex along the Ohio River in a noon kickoff.
"They've always got a solid program," Paolina noted of the Tigers. "Even in their down years they're pretty good."
Strasburg came on board when Paden City dropped the Irish, something that still puzzles Paolina.
"We're still trying to figure out whey they dropped us. They won't say. We should be playing OVAC Class 1A teams like them. It's a win-win situation for everyone involved."
The Irish remain home in Weeks 4 and 5 as Bishop Donahue and Clay-Battelle, respectively, travel to Belmont County. Also on the home schedule are Valley and Sciotoville Community School. Away games include Toronto, Cameron and Beallsville.
Paolina thinks he has assembled a "great" coaching staff that begins with longtime Irish assistant Neal Zaccagnini.
"Neal has been with me for four years now," Paolina said. "I consider him my assistant head coach. He was here when Mike Rose coached and they made the playoffs. He is solid on both sides of the ball and will serve as defensive coordinator."
Calling the plays will be Keith Knapp, who is in his first season. A graduate of Olmstead Falls High School, he was a backup punter at West Virginia University to Todd Sauerbrun. He also spent a couple of weeks with the St. Louis Rams in training camp.
Rick Paolina will work on both sides of the ball, his brother noted. Dirk DeCoy has moved up from the junior high and will coach the defense. Also new are former Irish standouts Nick Falcone and Jerry Manukin. Falcone played four years at Notre Dame College in Ohio, while Manukin was a two-year performer at Muskingum University, seeing some playing time last season at quarterback.
Also new this year are black pants and green helmets.
"We've had this idea in mind for a couple of years," Jeff Paolina said. "We've been wearing the green jerseys and green pants for about 10 years. Three years ago we bought white pants and they are shot already. We're introducing a little bit of black into the uniforms. The kids like it and I think the alumni and fans will too.
"We've been going back and forth between green and white helmets. We decided to go with the green this year."
Paolina said he is extremely grateful to the school administration for having confidence in him.
"I'm flattered that they asked me to take the program over last year," he said. "It's something that I've been interested in, but with my two businesses I just didn't have the time it takes last year.
"But now it's me. There's nobody else to blame for things. I'm the guy."
The Irish will compete in the newly formed Division VII this season.
Lost to graduation were D.J. Shoemaker, Alex Francis, Kolin Melko, Gage Tiber, John Alvey, Darren Palmer, Tyler Buttersworth and Kasey Opic.
Jonathan Bossell, Nick Cervelli, Devin Hennessey, Dario Paolina, Zach White, Kyle Whorton.
Landon Gray, Jacob Jones, Quinn Myers, Greg Wilson, Nick Wilson.
Anthony Busack, Kyle Coppa, Jared Keiser, Brycen Murray, Kyle Ogden , Nick Petho, Bryce Zonkoski.
Brock DeCoy, Jeremy Hagiolizou, Cameron Opic, Austin Schramm, Keegan Sproull