Abundance of Talent Returns for St. Clairsville
By SETH STASKEY
ST. CLAIRSVILLE — Whether it’s a practice, an opponent or even as it pertains to evaluating itself, St. Clairsville doesn’t plan to leave a stone unturned.
Quite simply, for Brett McLean, the entire season boils down to the word “prepared.”
And by that, the veteran Red Devils coach doesn’t just mean studying extra film or going over an opposing team’s tendencies a few extra times during the course of a week.
To reach the levels at which St. Clairsville coaches, players and even fans have become accustomed again, McLean, who is preparing for his 17th season, approached each offseason workout, summer conditioning session and preseason practice with basically the same focus.
“It all starts with putting your best foot forward every day,” McLean said.
The Red Devils began this philosophy long before two-a-days started July 30.
“We had a few workouts before we left for Christmas break and we’ve talked about being prepared every day since,” McLean said. “We wanted the kids to come in, work out and give the best you can give with every workout. We do not want to leave the field after 48 minutes upset because we felt like we didn’t give everything we could either physically or mentally.”
The Red Devils return an abundance of talent and experience from a club that was maybe a season away in 2017. With many underclassmen playing, McLean and the Red Devils kind of pointed toward this season as the one.
“We came into last year not really knowing what to expect,” McLean said. “We were coming off an uncharacteristic season in which we struggled. Plus, we didn’t have a large group of seniors compared to our average, so we were somewhat inexperienced in places and our ego was hurting a bit. I thought we did a good job of finding ourselves and did a lot of good things.”
However, they pressed the fast forward button a bit. St. Clairsville finished 8-2, hosted an opening round playoff game in the Division IV, Region 15 tournament and edged out eventual state champion Steubenville on a tiebreaker for the OVAC Class 4A title.
While all of those are fond memories, the fact that the season ended with a 31-13 loss to Philo at Red Devil Stadium didn’t sit well with anyone.
“I hope that stung (the players) because I know it stung the coaching staff,” McLean said. “We realize coaching in the playoffs is tough because there are so many talented teams and coaches.”
Though many of the key cogs return, the Red Devils lost a class of 12 seniors, including three OVAC All-Stars in Matt Greenwood, John Hawley and Geno Drake. Others who picked up a diploma were Matt Butkus, Shane Tomlin, Luke Sorge, Tanner Younkins and Hunter Cook.
Despite so many returnees, McLean said nothing has been taken as a given for any ounce of playing time. Scrimmages and even each drill were evaluated, which created a competition in the Devils’ camp.
“No one came in here (for doubles) just expecting or thinking they had a job,” McLean said. “Every single day we lined up a guy had to win a job. In camp, we had competition to see who would be getting the first reps. Now, we’re competing for the actual right to start and play a lot on Fridays.”
Obviously, McLean would love to think that his team is going to make it through the campaign totally unscathed of injuries, illness or some other unforeseen circumstance. However, he’s a realist, too.
“Injuries and sicknesses are the additional opponents that we have to be prepared for,” McLean said. “Those things make each week its own season because it leads to so many extra decisions having to be made. You just can’t look into the crystal ball, however, and see what’s going to happen, so the fact that we’re able to prepare as many kids for game action as we can in a competitive camp is a nice luxury.”
One thing that’s certainly playing in the Red Devils favor is sheer volume of athletes. McLean and company have one of the biggest rosters in the area with more than 70 players, including freshmen, expected to suit up Friday night when Carrollton visits Red Devil Stadium in a 7:30 kickoff.
“There’s good and bad to a big number like that,” McLean cautioned. “Chemistry is a valuable thing and guys have to (understand) that not everyone can be a starter. But, every role on the team is important. Like someone’s role might be to be the best practice player he can be and the best teammate he can be and there’s a lot of importance in that.”
When the 2017 season opened, St. Clairsville had a high level of unknowns on the offensive side. It actually started the season without much significant experience and that was clear on the stat sheet.
The Red Devils developed an identity as a downhill, run-first club last season and it paid dividends. When McLean looked around in camp, many of those same faces, who played a key role in that running success are back.
Fourteen players carried the ball for an impressive 2,761 yards and 34 touchowns last season. Of those 14, only three are gone and all but 165 yards and three touchdowns return.
“When we break into position groups at practice, about 25 guys are in there,” McLean said. “It’s one of the most competitive spots on our team. We have some kids who return with some big stats, but we have about 18 other kids who are trying to get their hands on the ball, too. We hope our upperclass guys can stay healthy and our younger guys can earn their way into time.”
The Red Devils’ workhorse is expected to talented, physical senior Brady Kolb (5-foot-11, 245), who put together an All-Ohio season for the second straight year in 2017. He was an offensive pick after carrying the ball 271 times for 1,567 yards and 21 touchdowns. He was an all-state defensive player as a sophomore at linebacker.
“Brady had a great year, but we need hom to develop into a full-time player,” McLean said. “I know that’s been a big goal of his throughout the offseason and he’ prepared himself to be on the field constantly. He’s a great kid and his work ethic and attitude have rubbed off on younger players in our program.”
Seniors Justin Heatheringon (6-2, 170) and Kyle Storer (6-0, 175) are both in search of their fourth letters and coming off impressive junior seasons. Heatherington is a versatile player. He rushed for 472 yards and four touchowns. He also caught 19 passes for 429 yards and four more touchdowns.
Storer is another multi-purpose offensive player. He rushed 57 times for 331 yards and two touchdowns. He also caught six passes for 176 yards and two touchdowns.
“Justin and Kyle are very important to what we hope to do because they can fill so many roles,” McLean said. “They both saw significant carries last year and when they’re not in the backfield they’ll be split out this year.”
Senior Luke Watt (5-7, 155) has been a solid contributor and will look to continue to make an impact.
Depth is supplied by seniors J.T. Porter (5-1, 150), Declan Dombrowski (5-9, 165), juniors Jake Elerick (5-8, 155), Noah Trubiano (5-8, 175), Aaron Jordan (5-8, 155), Corey Naylor (5-6, 150) and sophomore Reese Skaggs (5-10, 165).
“Those backs are all going to have to understand we only have one football,” McLean said. “Spreading it around is the goal, but there are going to be times when we have to put our nose to the grindstone and only one guy can carry the ball, so it’ll have to be the ‘he scores, we all score’ mentality.”
Though the Red Devils will run the ball a lot, McLean knows they’ll have to throw the ball, too. Like nearly every coach, especially this time of year, he’s seeking as much balance as he can possibly attain.
A season ago, the Red Devils were breaking in a new quarterback. Dustin Carrothers had some growing pains, but he continued to evolve as the season went along. He finished with 1,178 yards and 16 touchdowns through the air and he threw the ball just 123 times in 11 games.
“Dustin was one of those guys we learned about during the season and what he could do,” McLean said. “He made a lot of progression last year and has continued that through camp. I really think the game has slowed down and he’s capable of not only managing a game, but also making plays for us.”
Sophomore Tyler Tonkovich (5-8, 165) is his primary understudy.
When the Red Devils call upon Carrothers to throw the ball, he has a plethora of capable targets.
The leader of the wide receiver group is senior standout Craig Bober (6-3, 175). After missing basically his entire sophomore season with a knee injury, Bober came back strong last fall. He caught 23 balls for 428 yards and nine touchdowns, including a few highlight-reel type catches.
His frame and abilities have caught the eye of college coaches. He owns an offer from FCS member Morehead State.
“Craig’s had an excellent summer and I believe he’s primed for a big year,” McLean said. “He means a lot to our team. He made some big, big catches at times. He’s a rangy target, who can catch the ball in traffic.”
Heatherington and Storer could also see time on the perimeter, but McLean is high on senior Greg Norman (6-3, 145), who saw spot duty last season and made four receptions.
Others working to get into the wide receiver mix are seniors Braedyn Mihalic (5-9, 155), David Mellema (5-10, 155), Caige Hepburn (5-8, 145), juniors Blake Gretchen (5-11, 150), Tyler Brookover (5-11, 185), Nate Fusco (5-8, 170), sophomores Domenic Panepucci (5-11, 150) and Austin Da’re (5-10, 140).
The tight end job has been one of the biggest competitions of the summer between senior Andrew Elerick (5-10, 200) and junior Derek Witsberger (5-10, 190). Sophomores Luke Jozwiak (6-1, 195) and Mark Benda (5-11, 120) are also vying for time.
When you have a successful offense — especially a running game — a lot of that credit deserve to go up front … to the offensive line.
St. Clairsville, which has a boatload of offensive skill, has a huge and talented front to open holes and protect Carrothers.
“We’ve not had this much size in the time I’ve been at St. Clairsville,” McLean said. “But, (size) doesn’t always translate into winning football games. You need toughness and technique, too. The size, though, is something we’re blessed with … in the skill spots, too.”
Though the Red Devils have key returnees and a talented incoming freshman in Avery Henry (6-7, 320), McLean points at holes left by Sorge and Hawley are critical to replace.
“We’re finding some guys,” McLean said. “We lost some guys, but because of injuries and such, we had to shuffle some linemen around and we have some quality and experienced kids back.”
Senior Chase Espen (6-0, 260) is expected to anchor the front at center. He saw time a season ago there due to injury.
The tackle spots are locked up with talented veterans. Senior Trey Delguzzo (6-3, 260) and junior Javon Lyons (6-2, 280) are back after taking nearly every snap at the position last season.
The guard spots have been a battle in camp between Henry, Isaak Myers (6-0, 195), junior Austin Angus (6-3, 265) and senior Luke Ewing (6-0, 170).
“We’re going to have some depth up front, and I’d like to see it get to the point where we don’t have to play many — if any — guys both ways,” McLean said.
Other linemen seeking to get into the rotation are seniors Brandon Biery (5-8, 235), Justice McCamick (5-11, 235), Colton Skukan (5-9, 210), juniors Anthony Ochoa (5-8, 240), Jeremeiah Burdyn (5-6, 165), Mason Thornton (5-5, 135), Colton Grimm (5-8, 240), sophomores Jaiden Springer (5-6, 180), Coleton VanDyne (5-7, 200) and Jalen McCall (6-2, 240).
While the Red Devils caught the attention of many, the defensive side of the ball was solid, too. St. C. yielded 237 yards of offense per game and 21 points.
“There’s truth to the cliche that the defensive coordinator’s best friend is a running offense,” McLean said. “When you’re able to run the ball and limit opposing team’s touches, it makes it nice. We’re not an offensive-minded team first. We start every practice with defense and special teams.”
McLean won’t paint himself — or defensive coordinator Ben Frye — into a corner by claiming the Devils are one defensive style or another.
“We’re multiple,” McLean said. “We use multiple looks based on who we’re playing and how the game’s going.”
Similar to the offensive side, the biggest key for the Red Devils lies up front.
“That’s where it starts and the kids are excited about that,” McLean said.
Skukan and McCamick are back at the defensive tackle spots after posting 28 and 37 tackles, respectively.
Andrew Elerick is set to take over a defensive end post. Myers and Ewing are vying to serve as the other end.
Storer returns at an outside linebacker after recording a team-best 92 tackles a season ago. Porter, Watt and Brookover are all “interchangeable part” according to their head coach and will all see time.
At inside linebacker, Kolb returns after an 86-tackle season. Trubiano also returns there. Witsberger will also see quality time.
In the secondary, Heatherington returns after posting 52 tackles. Mellema was a starter last season. Bober saw time back there and is expected to take on a larger role.
Other defensive back options are Fusco, Hepburn and Mihalic.
“We’ve tried to preach to these kids that there’s going to be a rotation of guys used at basically every spot (on defense),” McLean said. “There’s been real competition to be the first guys on the field and I get that. (Starting) is important to a kid, but hopefully they understand a lot of kids are going to play.”
Special teams is continually a focus. McLean indicated the Devils have spent nearly an hour a day in practice throughout the month on the special units. The grouping got a shot in the arm when Mike “Chops” Jacob agreed to re-join the staff in his prior role.
“Having Coach Chops back is great,” McLean said.
With a roster of so many kids, St. Clairsville is hoping to utilize as many different faces as possible on specialties. But, according to McLean, that’s not as simple as just picking guys out and throwing them into the fire.
“We have so many kids coming back and a lot of those kids held special teams positions for us, so we may be using a lot of those same guys,” McLean said. “We hold special teams in a high regard and believe it can be a strength for us this year.”
Sophomore Jake Bolyard (5-7, 130) is expected to handle the placekicking duties and could serve as the punter, too. Bolyard stepped in admirably when Greenwood went down with an injury last fall. He nailed 29 PATs a year ago.
“When Matt went down last year it was like replacing four different positions, which was tough, but Jake stepped in and handled the kicking duties very well,” McLean said. “He has a strong leg and we’ve been fortunate in my years here that we’ve had some kids who wanted to be kicker and worked hard at it.
When the offseason began, McLean and athletics director Kelly Rine didn’t worry about the schedule. Every opponent was going to be the same as last season except flipping the venue.
However, in the spring, East Liverpool called the Red Devils’ brass and informed it that it was getting out of its contract, leaving St. C. in a state of flux.
The Red Devils inked a one-year deal with Cleveland JFK to come to Belmont County in Week 10. St. C.’s other non Buckeye 8 encounters include meetings with two teams who it lost to a season ago in Carrollton and Canfield South Range. The latter is a road game in Week 9.
“Scheduling is becoming consistently a tough thing for everyone to do,” McLean said. “We scrambled and were fortunate to find a game late. After this season, though, we’ll go right back to the drawing board though.”
The Red Devils’ coaching staff remained the same at the varsity level and actually made a quality addition as Mike “Chops” Jacob is back to guide the special teams.
The balance of the St. C. high school staff includes: Donnie Giffin, Kevin Sacco, Ben Frye, Chris Patrone, Casey Callarik, Eric Gay, Gary Hull, Vern Ridgeway and Steve Hicks.