MARTINS FERRY - Highly successful high school football teams are normally laced with experience. If that holds true, it could be a very special season for the Martins Ferry Purple Riders.
Featuring a roster of 15 seniors, all of whom are past lettermen, veteran coach Dave Bruney is excited about what could lie ahead in his 36th season at the helm of his alma mater.
"We have veteran guys and kids we feel good about," Bruney said.
"Plus, they're high-character guys."
Above all of the experience and talent the Riders may boast, Bruney's favorite quality is the chemistry his team has shown throughout the summer and two-a-days.
"Our character has been good, we've had a great attitude and I think our kids genuinely like each other. Chemistry is always a key," Bruney said.
"If our guys are continually working hard, like they have, being great teammates to each other and enjoying the time they have here, I think we can be really successful."
The Riders are coming off an impressive 10-2 campaign in which they reached the Division V, Region 17 semifinal before falling to Wheelersburg. They also claimed the school's 12th OVAC title and a share of the Buckeye 8 crown.
"We'd hope we'd be good enough (this season) to get the chance to possibly play Wheelersburg again," Bruney said.
"They've been good and quite capable of being in the (state) semis or better."
As is the case each season, a quality senior class picked up its diplomas this past spring. Gone are All-Ohioans Robert Vargo, Marcus Sutton and Luke Straub. Also graduating were Brian Styles, JaVaughn Wade, Seth Scott, Daniel Dokes, Logan Kinney and Austin DeLeonardis.
Ferry will attempt to take the next step and though it's a new season and none of the 2013 accomplishments matter, Bruney wants his team to "draw from their experiences of a season ago."
"You always talk about not wanting every day to be the first day, so we want to continue to build on what we've done," Bruney said.
From all indications, Bruney believes his team has come into the season, which opens Friday at rival Buckeye Local, with a hunger and maybe a chip on its shoulder.
There's no signs of the Purple Riders resting on any prior accolades.
"We're happy with how the kids have embraced practice," Bruney said.
"I've seen them attempting to do the things we've asked them to do and getting better each day.
"Like I tell the kids, I am more concerned with how we play than who we play. If we take care of our business we're good enough to beat anyone we play, but we have to play that way because there are three or four teams definitely good enough to beat us. Hopefully, we (as coaches) are smart enough to put our kids in a position to be successful."
While the playoffs are the ultimate goal of every team in the state of Ohio, Bruney doesn't talk about it much with his players because plenty of work remains before anything of that nature deserves attention.
"If you have hopes of playing in Weeks 11, 12, 13 or beyond, it's very important that you practice like it's Week 11 or 12," Bruney said. "If you do that every day in practice, from the first day on, you have a chance to win. That's what other teams are doing and after the first round, there probably aren't any pretenders left, so you had better have been practicing at a high level throughout because they didn't get there by accident."
The Purple Riders have the makings of a squad that can hit the ground running. They went through the state maximum three scrimmages, squaring off against Meadowbrook, Barnesville and Shadyside.
"There are good teams on our schedule," Bruney said. "We'd like to think that we can come out of the gates strong."
The roster features 43 players in four grades. Of those, only five are juniors.
"Our numbers aren't what they've been, but I don't know that any (school) has really good numbers," Bruney said. "All of those five juniors can play and our sophomore class has 15. Plus, we have four or five pretty good freshmen, too."
In an ideal world the Riders would love to field a freshman team, but Bruney believes the extra time around the varsity unit and older players will pay dividends down the road.
"The downside is the numbers, but when you have to move your freshmen up, the ones who embrace (the move), end up being able to play sooner," Bruney said. "They've been practicing against better people sooner, but you have to watch them so they don't get banged around too much."
Case in point is the Riders' senior class, which was the first group that Bruney elected to move up with the varsity unit in 2011.
"I could tell then that there were seven or eight of them who would bite you, even as freshmen," Bruney said. "They might have gotten their rear end kicked at times, but they'd bite you. That's really helped this class because they jumped in there and weren't intimidated by it, so it's a pretty good senior class all around."
One thing Bruney is especially fond of about his team is that so many of the players the Riders will lean on are multi-sport athletes. Whether it's been in basketball, baseball or track and field, along with football, the Riders have experienced a lot of success and Bruney doesn't think there's any better preparation than formulating a competitive edge.
"I don't know how you get the competitive edge unless you compete and just competing in one sport, unless you're just off the charts athletically, doesn't allow you to do that," Bruney said. "You're not going to get that edge by bench pressing."
Along with the experience, the Riders boast talent, speed and size. Again, more necessary ingredients for success.
"We'd like to get all of our playmakers on the field at the same time and then try to figure out what two or three plays we can feature each kid on," Bruney said.
The Purple Riders' speed is something Bruney hopes they can utilize each week.
"We'd like to get the ball on the edge," Bruney said. "We're going to play from multiple sets and formations. You may even see us do some stuff that Auburn did with some unbalanced where we can get some mismatches, so we can get the opposition to adjust and maybe get some people out of position."
Slated to take over the quarterback job is junior James Edwards (6-foot, 165 pounds). He started the Indian Creek game last season and engineered a game-winning drive in the final minutes.
"That game was big for him, but I think that competitive edge he gained in basketball, particularly the last eight or 10 games of the year is even more important," Bruney said. "He's worked very hard, and I think he's ready."
Sophomore Dom Bell (5-9, 140) and freshman Austin Bassa (6-0, 165) are the other quarterbacks on the roster.
Though the Riders may open up the attack a bit more, Bruney doesn't plan on going away from a run-first system that's worked so well for his program for three decades.
Leading the way at the tailback spot is junior Arjay Burress (5-11, 198), who had a breakout season as a sophomore. He ran for 1,078 yards and averaged 11 yards per carry, while scoring 10 touchdowns.
Junior Andrew Hython (6-0, 170) is another player that's stood out during camp, according to Bruney. He will be a solid option at running back.
Other running backs vying for carries include sophomores Cory Miklas (6-0, 160), Jared Straub (5-10, 155) and freshman Jacob Johnson (5-9, 160).
The fullback position is also one where the Riders have depth and talent. Senior Bruce Burger (5-11, 202) ran for better than 400 yards and scored 10 touchdowns last season.
He'll be joined in the backfield by classmate Bryce Coleman (5-7, 176), who enjoyed a very solid junior season.
Other fullbacks trying to get into the mix are sophomore George Stan (5-9, 165) and freshman Dalton Hoover (5-10, 175).
The Riders' desire to get the ball on the edge should be greatly aided by a talented and deep corps of receivers.
Senior Jake Barritt (5-8, 158) is top returnee in terms of catches. He hauled in 20 for 223 yards and a score last season.
Classmate Jack Fitch (6-0, 162), who is one of the fastest players on the team, was on the receiving end of two touchdowns last season, including the game-winner from Edwards at Indian Creek.
Senior Andrew Watts (5-10, 175) - another speedy target - has been impressive and should take on a larger role. Bruney called him "probably the most improved player on the team."
Bruney also spoke highly of seniors Lucas Agnew (6-1, 171), T.J. Jacob (6-0, 183) and Shawon Manns (5-7, 140).
Providing depth at receiver are sophomores Ryan Fox (5-6, 130), Zac Selby (6-1, 168) and Sam Russell (5-9, 155), and freshmen Cory Bennett (5-7, 150) and Shaun Jeter (5-10, 155).
Bruney is also high on his tight ends.
Junior Matt Barbour (6-1, 232) is expected to take over the role vacated by Vargo's graduation.
Junior Emilio Appolloni (6-8, 260) is his top backup and will also see time. He's been slowed by a foot injury this summer.
"Matt's got a little bit of a mean streak in him and Emilio has improved about a thousand percent and is ready to contribute," Bruney said.
Senior R.J. Reed (5-9, 198) is pushing for action as well.
Other tight ends on the roster are sophomores Jack Davis (6-1, 185) and Logan Selby (6-0, 180).
Most teams can find options to run and catch the football, but when a high school team has some of its more veteran pieces in the trenches, it usually leads to good things. Martins Ferry's line returns four starters from a year ago and they are stronger.
"Our offensive line is certainly a strength," Bruney said. "Most of those guys played a lot last year and many played a good bit when they were sophomores."
Anchoring the line is senior center Jonathan Bodkin (5-8, 242). An OVAC wrestling champion, Bodkin has been the anchor of the line, but he missed some action last season with an injury.
Flanking him at the guard spots will be seniors Cody Beavers (6-2, 235) and Mark Douglas (5-10, 222).
At the tackle position, senior Nick Bain (6-1, 255) is penciled in at one spot with classmate Brian Sadosky (6-4, 232) on the opposite side.
Bruney is also very high on senior Kyle Staley (6-0, 277) and sophomore Dom Wallace (5-11, 295).
"We have a little bit of depth on the offensive line," Bruney said. "We have some depth at tight end."
Battling for action are sophomores Darren Clark (6-3, 265), Keegan Hupp (6-1, 202), Connor Pollock (5-11, 220), Drake Rice (5-11, 200) and Conner Patterson (5-10, 250).
Freshmen line candidates include are Hunter Bodkin (5-7, 235), Demetrius Dokes (5-11, 225) and Justin Husvar (5-11, 205).
The role of placekicker has been a battle between Burress, who connected on 29 PATs last season, and Barbour.
Fitch appears to be set to handle the punting duties.
On the defensive side, Bruney didn't hesitate when asked about things his team needed to improve on for the coming season.
"We have to tackle better," Bruney said. "We didn't tackle very well and we want to be a little bit more aggressive. Because of the experience we have, I've seen that we've improved. We've set the tone and did some contact, but we didn't want to get guys hurt in drills."
Hoping to utilize the speed and athleticism of his club, Bruney expects his team may play more man coverage in the secondary.
"We'd like to bring people and create some more negative plays," Bruney said. "We want to bring linebackers and people off the edge. I think we can get a pretty good push with our inside guys.
Barbour and Beavers are slated to take over the defensive end roles. Sadosky and Appolloni are also in the mix.
At the defensive tackles, Bodkin, Douglas and Bain are vying. Bruney also likes Wallace and Staley at those spots to provide depth.
In the second level, the linebacking corps is solid, but depth could be a concern. Agnew has shifted from the secondary to an outside linebacker where he's competing for time with Burress and Hython. Burger and Coleman are ticketed for the inside linebacker spots, while Reed is also in the mix.
"Like anything else, you're going to have some spots where you have some depth and some other spots where if a guy goes down you're going to struggle a little bit," Bruney said. "Sometimes you have to adjust on the fly. Injuries are always a great equalizer, so hopefully we can stay healthy."
Barritt and Fitch return to lead the secondary at safety and corner, respectively. Barritt was in on 30 tackles and had an interception, while Fitch picked off three passes and had 23 tackles.
Watts, who is expected to start at the other corner, and Jacob have also impressed the coaching staff with their play in the defensive backfield.
"We feel like we have four guys to play the three spots and Lucas (Agnew) could move back if we get into a bind," Bruney said.
Friday's trip to Yorkville is the first time in several years the Riders and Panthers opened against one another because of the re-structuring of the Buckeye 8 schedules.
The Purple Riders will only play at the friendly confines of the Dave Bruney Football Complex once in the first half of the season and that's a Week 3 date with Linsly. A lengthy trip to Wickliffe, which is 150 miles away in suburban Cleveland, is on the docket in Week 2.
"We know Wickliffe is talented and I hope we handle that trip well," Bruney said. "You don't know what you're going to get with Linsly, Buckeye Local is a rival game, so we'll have to be ready to play."
In the second half of the season, the Riders' lone road trip is another lengthy one. They'll head to Vincent Warren on Oct. 10, which is located south of Marietta, 105 miles away.
"Vincent Warren has some good athletes that have done well in basketball and baseball the last several years and they're a division above us," Bruney said.
The Riders will close the regular season with their annual meeting for SPARKY against ancient rival Bellaire on Halloween night.
Bruney's coaching staff, which features five former players, returns intact. Working with the varsity squad are Bill Bruney, Dirk Fitch, John Bennett, Jim Hoover, Rich Materkoski, Anthony Reasbeck, Gregg Bahen, Nick Stankovich, Chas Yoder, Taylor Yoder.
At the junior high level, Chad Ware, Derek Edwards, Robert Harris and John McFarland are back.
|Aug. 29: at Buckeye Local||7 p.m.|
|Sept. 5: at Wickliffe||7:30 p.m.|
|Sept. 12: Linsly||7 p.m.|
|Sept. 19: at St. Clairsville||7:30 p.m.|
|Sept. 26: at Harrison Central||7 p.m.|
|Oct. 3: Union Local||7 p.m.|
|Oct. 10: at Warren Local||7 p.m.|
|Oct. 17: Indian Creek||7 p.m.|
|Oct. 24: Edison||7 p.m.|
|Oct. 31: Bellaire||7 p.m.|
|WIN 8, LOSE 2|