CADIZ - Through the course of a 10-week season, there are plenty of highs and lows. Harrison Central coach Justin Kropka is preparing himself for just that as he gets set to begin his ninth season at the helm.
"As the years have progressed in my career, I've been able to handle the ups and downs a little bit better than I did when I was a little bit younger," Kropka said.
The Huskies are coming off their second trip to the postseason, but 14 key pieces have moved on via graduation.
Harrison Central finished the 2012 regular season with a 7-3 record, losing to a trio of playoff squads (St. Clairsville, Bellaire and Indian Creek). In the playoffs, they ran into the Red Devils and were belted, 41-6, in the regional quarterfinals.
"The original plan was to maybe squeeze in in 2011, get some playoff experience and then hopefully make a deep run last year," Kropka said. "Obviously we had some injuries and things happened that season and we didn't make the playoffs. But, we felt all the way up through, that last year's senior class was going to be a playoff-caliber group. Unfortunatley we ran into St. Clairsville, which was a powerhouse. But I was still happy with how things turned out and happy to send those seniors out as they should have been sent out."
That senior class included Maurtice Hython, Nick Pelegreen, Tyler Rose, Rashaen Mitchell, Josh Moore, Ryan Rose, Terrance Lindsey, Josh Leggett, Rhett Kuryn, Justin Friend, Colton Houston, Tyler Hood and Kyle Smith.
"We lost our all-time leading rusher (Hython), leading tackler (Pelegreen) and scorer (Hython) in that class, so it's tough to say good-bye to those guys," Kropka said. "That's the way high school football goes, though."
Despite the anticipated ups and downs that are expected because of a relatively young cast set to learn about Friday nights on the fly, don't think for a minute Kropka and his staff have changed their approach or goals.
"Nothing's changed for us," Kropka said. "We're still working toward making the postseason. That will never change here. I think we've gotten to the point in our program where that's a legitimate goal because we're a good, solid football program, which I am pleased about. But you get a little taste of it and you always want to take that next step."
Kropka is well aware there's a belief around the area that the Huskies are going to be down a bit from where they've been.
"If I was an opposing coach and looked at our roster this year and our film from last year, you'd definitely notice some new people," Kropka said. "Obviously that's what people are going to think, but it's what you consider down because I've enjoyed coaching this bunch of kids as much as any other group. These guys are young, showing up excited and go 100 miles an hour in practice because they don't know any better."
Because of so many new faces, Kropka knows his team is going to be a work in progress throughout, and it gets under way tonight at Wheeling Island Stadium against Wheeling Central in the McDonald's OVAC Kickoff Classic.
"We know sometimes these kids are going to make a play, but sometimes they're not," Kropka said. "The key will be whether or not they make the play the second time around, especially when you're playing young kids. Against our schedule, a lot of times people don't see that improvement. But my goal as a coach is to make sure we're still getting better and still playing good, sound football."
The Huskies boast a 49-player roster despite a junior class that has six members. A large number of freshmen and sophomores are expected to contribute on both sides of the ball.
"The talent's there," Kropka said. "Our freshmen and sophomore classes have a chance to be special. How quickly we can polish what we have, get better and gain experience is going to determine our record. I hate the word potential, but we have a lot of it. We have 32 freshmen and sophomores and these kids have all stuck around. They're all good kids who will play hard and do things the right way."
Though the Class of 2013 took with it plenty of stats and accolades, the ability to lead has trickled down into this season's squad.
"We've had some pleasant surprised in terms of kids stepping up into a leadership role, but I am hoping that we continue to get some more," Kropka said. "You can't just appoint a guy as a leader. You have to earn that."
Kropka loves the attitude his players have come to work with all summer.
"Most of our guys are just tickled pink to be playing varsity football," Kropka said. "They're probably too young to know any better. That's really made it fun."
The Husky offense will take on a slightly different look as Kropka expects to work a little more in the air than he has last few seasons, because veterans are in place at quarterback and in the receiving corps.
"I think we have some guys who can make plays for us and stretch the field," Kropka said. "We've got some speed and we plan on using as best we can."
Senior quarterback David Miser (6-foot-4, 210 pounds) is back in command of the offense. Miser, who Kropka says possesses a strong arm, started much of the 2011 season because of an injury to Mitchell.
"David's progressed nicely," Kropka said. "He's been focused, practices hard, works on little things, and I think that's really helped him. We're happy with where David is. How many times do you get a new quarterback and you know what they can do?"
Other quarterbacks listed on the roster include sophomore Zach Arbogast (6-0, 150) and freshmen Corey Van Camp (5-8, 145) and Bobby Taylor (5-8, 140).
Though the Huskies plan on throwing a bit more, Kropka is by no means ready to fully abandon the running game.
Junior Nate Maykowski (6-0, 175) saw quality action a season ago and will be one of the featured backs along with sophomore Travis Stenson (6-1, 170), who Kropka said "had home-run hitter kind of speed."
The Huskies do return their every-down fullback from a season ago in senior Nico Williams (5-9, 220).
"We feel like we have a pretty good backfield," Kropka said.
Supplying depth are sophomores Bryson Porter (5-8, 165), Sam Hill (5-9, 160), Tison Johnson (5-8, 150) and Anthony Risley (5-8, 165), along with freshmen Grant Sproul (5-10, 165), Shaun Logsdon (5-11, 150), and Tyler Carter (5-9, 155).
Along with Kropka being excited about Miser, he's also quite pleased with his group of receivers.
Senior Nate Olmstead (5-10, 160), junior Kalub Mitchell (6-0, 165) and senior Dalton Rutter (5-9, 160) all had strong campaigns in 2012 and are looking for bigger roles.
Kropka also spoke highly of sophomore Gionvanni Rocchi (6-1, 170), senior Austin Thompson (5-10, 160), senior Cody Evans (5-10, 170) and sophomore Brandon Mitchell (5-8, 130).
"Those guys worked really hard on the weights during the offseason," Kropka said. "I really feel like there are six or seven kids who we can throw the ball to. We've got some depth at receiver."
Other receivers vying for playing time are senior Nekesov Nurgeldi (5-9, 135), sophomores Anthony Heavilin (5-6, 135), Austyn Porter (5-11, 145), Danier Hunt (5-10, 160), and freshmen Kyle Roberts (5-8, 145) and Jacob Giffin (5-7, 130).
Freshman Jesse Ball (6-0, 225) is set to replace Pelegreen as the tight end and Kropka is extremely high on him.
Other tight ends pushing Ball are sophomore Max Hall (6-0, 170) and freshman Jacob Barr (6-1, 180).
The Huskies also boast some experience in the trenches. Senior Cole Howes (6-1, 225) and Sean Donato (5-9, 250) both return as three-year starters.
Howes is shifting to tackle from guard this year.
Freshman Brenton Stull (5-11, 245) is penciled in for a starting tackle spot. Junior Zach Manbeck (6-0, 240) is shifting from a guard to the starting center spot, while classmate Casey Runevitch (5-9, 210) is set to start at a guard spot.
"Other than (Stull), our first five (linemen) aren't too, too green," Kropka said. "We've got decent size. Not great, but we've started smaller lines. We're really comfortable with the first group."
Kropka is also high on freshman Nevada Kuryn (5-10, 250), sophomore Deandre Claring (5-9, 165), senior Cyle Riedel (5-9, 175), sophomore Jake McPeak (6-2, 220) and junior Ean Moore (6-2, 215) as the top subs for the line.
The balance of the offensive line candidates include senior D.J. Jones (6-1, 215), junior Austin Sambuco (5-6, 170), sophomores Brian Heavilin (5-8, 155) and Jake Williams (5-10, 170) and freshmen Malcolm Boyer (5-7, 165), Clay Gilliam (5-10, 210), Shane Shook (5-10, 230), Logan Smith (5-10, 255) and Lance Smith (5-10, 255).
On defense, the Huskies will again employ a 4-4 allignment.
"You talk about a green group ... wow," Kropka said. "I think we return four or five starters, but most of those guys are defensive backs, so we're going to have to grow up in a hurry. The experience is what concerns me the most. I don't think I'd want to play us later in the year. I've had to learn patience. We've got young talent, so we can be scary at times."
Along with the defensive front, Howes has shifted to an end position. Barr is expected to hold down the other end spot while Hall will also be in the rotation at end.
Inside, the Huskies will go with Donato and Manbeck. Stull will also see quality time at the defensive tackle spot.
The linebackers will have a huge hole to fill with Pelegreen and his 134 tackles now playing baseball at Wheeling Jesuit.
"That's tough to replace that kind of production," Kropka said. "Nick was one of the best two-way players I've ever coached. You don't replace that kind of kid, you just have to fill in."
Williams, who had 70 tackles, will be asked to shoulder much of the load as a returning starter.
Runevitch, who saw spot duty, will assume one of the inside linebacker posts. Riedel and Risley are ticketed for the outside linebacker spots.
"We're extremely thin on depth at linebacker," Kropka said. "We'll be relying on those four guys to do a lot for us."
The defensive backfield features Olmstead as a returning starter at corner. Kalub Mitchell takes over at free safety for his older brother, Rashaen. Rutter is ticketed for the other corner spot and Rocchi and Porter are the top two backups.
"We've got guys who played and have been successful in other sports, so they won't be afraid of the Friday Night lights," Kropka said.
The addition of soccer at Harrison Central for this season has strengthened the special teams. Senior Geoff Pecar (5-9, 150) will handle the placements. Jonah Rodgers (5-8, 145) will also figure into the kicking mix.
The Huskies will play this season with heavy hearts. Jimmy Cameron, who passed away during the 2011 season, would have been a senior on this squad.
"I've not decided how we're going to honor Jimmy," Kropka said. "He was just a great kid and we miss him like crazy. He was just a Harrison Central kind of kid."
Miser will again handle the punting duties.
The OHSAA has assigned Harrison Central to Division V, Region 15. The Huskies were in Division IV a season ago, but the addition of a seventh division caused them to drop.
"Thing about the playoffs is either you're better or you're not and I can sleep at night," Kropka said. "If we're fortunate enough to get in, play someone and we get beat in the first round or fourth round, what's the difference? There is only one champion."
Harrison Central's schedule has one new opponent as perennial small-school playoff entrant Berlin Center Western Reserve will visit Cadiz in Week 3, replacing Caldwell.
Along with Central, the Huskies will also have a non-Buckeye 8 game at Weir before opening league play against Union Local in Week 4.
"The schedule is rough again," Kropka said. "Western Reserve is a really good team, obviously Wheeling Central is loaded and Weir should be much improved. And the Buckeye 8 is going to be tough again. You talk about putting a young team to the test, well, this schedule will do it."
To help prepare for the rigors of the season, the Huskies scrimmaged Wheeling Park and John Marshall.
Kropka's coaching staff has a relatively new look.
"Unfortunately in my time coaching, we've had a lot of turnover in the staff, but it's never been because of a falling out or someone got mad," Kropka said. "It's just circumstances. We don't have that pool of alumni just yet to the point where we're people's destination, but it's getting there."
Working with the varsity squad are Bryan Mays, Mike Valesko, Blake Allen, Cain Noble, Mike Palmer, Ian Watt, Nick Pecar and Anthony Hayes.
Valesko and Mays, both of whom are veterans of the staff, will run and offense and defense, respectively.
At the junior high level are Bill Bryant, Ty Kenny and Ian White.
Sean Donato, Cody Evans, Dusty Fulton, Cole Howes, D.J. Jones, David Miser, Nurgeldi Nekesov, Nate Olmstead, Geoff Pecar, Cyle Riedel, Jonah Rodgers, Austin Thompson, Dalton Rutter, Nico Williams.
Zach Manbeck, Nate Maykowski, Kalub Mitchell, Ean Moore, Casey Runevitch, Austin Sambuco.
Zach Arbogast, Denadre Claring, Max Hall, Anthony Heavilin, Brian Heavilin, Sam Hill, Danier Hunt, Tison Johnson, Jake McPeak, Brandon Mitchell, Austyn Porter, Bryson Porter, Anthony Risley, Gionvanni Rocchi, Travis Stenson, Jake Williams.
Jesse Ball, Jacob Barr, Malcom Boyer, Tyler Carter, Jacob Giffin, Clay Gilliam, Nevada Kuryn, Shaun Logsdon, Kyle Roberts, Shane Shook, Lance Smith, Logan Smith, Grant Sproul, Brenton Stull, Bobby Taylor, Corey Van Camp.