Injuries Behind, Hilltoppers Thinking Big Things
By DON CLEGG
WEST LIBERTY — A series of injuries short-circuited a promising start to West Liberty’s 2017 campaign but head coach Roger Waialae expects a brighter 2018 when the Hilltoppers return to West Family Stadium this fall.
“I like our talent level and I’ve been around this game long enough to know our starters can compete against anybody,” Waialae said. “Obviously, it presents challenges when you get into your twos and threes but we were 2-1 before the injuries hit last year and I’m an optimist. The game rewards preparation, effort and consistency. When you commit to doing those things, the bounces — and the injuries — even out over time.”
Now the dean of Mountain East Conference coaches in his 14th year as head coach and well into his third decade on the WLU staff, Waialae isn’t trusting to luck to propel the Hilltoppers back into the thick of the MEC chase.
In addition to the several mid-year transfers who joined the program in time to participate in spring drills, the 2018 season finds two new faces on the coaching staff. Waialae brought former Concord and Lenoir-Rhyne head man Mike Kellar on board as the new offensive coordinator and hired Brian Hill as defensive line coach. Both men bring more than two decades of college coaching experience.
“The best thing about adding Mike and Brian to the staff is that we found two veteran guys with great track records who know how to coach,” Waialae said. “Somebody asked me if I was worried about bringing in a former head coach to run the offense and I just shook my head. I hired Mike because I know he can make our team better. I want to win.”
The Hilltoppers return 15 starters and 40 lettermen from last year’s squad, which dropped seven of its last eight after that 2-1 start. Even with the injuries, four of those losses came by margins of 6 points or less and one was decided in overtime.
“We were all frustrated by the close losses,” Waialae said, “but the guys I really felt for were the starters who couldn’t contribute due to injury. They were starting for a reason so as competitors it’s hard for them to stand on the sideline unable to help. A lot of those guys are back and the frustration really fueled their off-season conditioning.”
West Liberty kicks off the 2018 season Aug. 30 with a Thursday night game at Urbana. Here’s a look at how the Hilltoppers shaped up when camp kicked off earlier this month.
Seniors Brenton Colabella (Steubenville Catholic Central) and Lukas O’Connor each gained significant starting experience a year ago while junior transfer Zach Phillips (Wheeling Park) was the starting QB at Gannon (Pa.). Colabella completed nearly 60 percent of his passes for 1,116 yards and 10 TDs before going down with a season-ending injury. O’Connor played in 8 games with 3 starts, completing 62 of 129 passes for 821 yards and nine TDs. Phillips missed most of last year due to injury but racked up more than 3,000 yards of total offense in two seasons at Gannon. Redshirt freshman Austin Mayfield from East Liverpool continues to develop.
“We have three quarterbacks on the roster who have won games as a starter at the collegiate level,” Waialae said. “That’s pretty rare in Division II. Colabella sat out the spring after surgery but came back ready to go while O’Connor and Phillips showed they can move the team in the spring. Mayfield’s a really talented guy who’s still learning. It’s the most difficult position in sports but these guys are unbelievably smart. It’s not just the best passer or the best runner. Who’s going to make better decisions; who’s going to get us out of bad plays at the line; who’s going to take care of the football? We’ll play the guy who gives us the best chance to win.”
With the graduation of 1,000-yard rusher Jeremiah Ortiz and key returners coming off surgery, there’s uncertainty at running back but the talent is there to turn those question marks into exclamation points. Senior Charles Westbrook and sophomore Savion Johnson (Wheeling Park) are NCAA Division I transfers who were bitten by the injury bug a year ago. Rising sophomore Bryan Milligan had a strong spring and senior WR Osman Kargbo also impressed after moving into the backfield. Juco transfers Dewayne Lykes and Damonte Frisby joined the competition this month.
“Westbrook can be one of the best backs in Division II,” Waialae said, “and I’d say the same thing for Savion once he gets back to 100 percent. All four guys are potential feature backs. Milligan made big strides in the spring and Kargbo’s an explosive guy who was a running back in high school. Lykes and Frisby give us even more quality options.”
The “Swiss Army Knife” of the Hilltoppers offense also absorbed some graduation losses but still features plenty of experienced and versatile talent. Sophomores Ridge Durbin and Chalmer Moffett (Wheeling Park) have starting experience while fellow soph Kyle Ritz (Magnolia) impressed in the spring. Sophomore transfer Nate Swart played in six games at NCAA Division I Toledo last fall.
“This is our strongest position coming into camp,” Waialae said. “Durbin’s probably the most well-rounded but Moffett’s really coming on after missing almost two years due to injury and Ritz is really good in the middle of the field. Swart is a guy who can put his hand on the ground and block and still contribute in the passing game. We have some guys to look at in August, as well.”
The wide receiver spots remain a work in progress but several players stepped up in the spring. Kargbo is the top returning WR with 33 catches for 411 yards and will still be utilized here when he’s not in the backfield. Isaiah Robinson will have a major role after grabbing 21 throws for 312 yards and three TDs as a true freshman last fall. Also back are rangy seniors Mike McLean and Shane Phillips, juniors Quinton Jones, Aaron Farmer and L.J. Sutton, sophomore Wisdom Jenkins and redshirt freshman Mazei Mosby (Wheeling Park). Promising transfers Christian Rita and Darien Mitchell arrived in August along with several freshmen, including all-staters Ethan Secrist (Brooke) and Nate Phillips (Wheeling Park).
“We need to identify the “home run” guys who can take the top off a defense and the possession guys who work the seams,” Waialae said. “We’ve seen flashes but the goal in camp will be establishing consistency. There is talent but it’s young talent, not so much in age as in experience. Some of the new guys will be factors here, as well.”
After being decimated by injuries the past two years, the offensive line features loads of veterans with starting experience. Senior Austin Yackey is a three-year starter at center with fellow senior Austin Whipkey (Linsly) and junior Chance Rucker (Caldwell) back at guard and tackle, respectively. Zeke May, another senior and part-time starter, might have the inside track at left tackle with several candidates at the other guard spot. Senior Gavin Harrell, junior Keirs Gloady, sophomore T.J. Lew and redshirt freshmen Austyn Todd and Quinton Williams have all thrown their helmets in the ring. Waialae has also been impressed by several freshmen.
“If we can keep our starters on the field, we’ll be as good as anybody up front,” Waialae said. “Yackey’s our anchor and is coming off a great spring. With Whipkey, Rucker and May that gives us four of five returning starters. Lew, Harrell and Todd give us a nice mix of youth and experience. The freshmen we brought in are all physically ready. It’s just a matter of how quickly they catch on mentally.”
Graduation losses and injury issues stripped the defensive line but this still shapes up as an impact group. At the ends, sophomore Kenyon Felder and redshirt freshman Trevor Hoosier are already proven playmakers. Senior LB William McKenzie-Baker impressed after moving to DE in the spring while sophomore Zach Haught (Magnolia) also played well and redshirt freshman Anthony Gamble flashed plenty of potential. Junior Cody Rine (Brooke) is an all-region candidate on the interior. Transfer Stephen Bundy made an impact in the spring and sophomore Cody Enrietti (Weir) made his presence felt. Sophomore Zach Heasley (Paden City) returns from injury and redshirt freshman Trevor Cherry will push for time.
“Cody Rine is a big key,” Waialae said. “He’s as good as any defensive lineman we’ve had. Felder and Hoosier can be big impact guys at the ends. Hoosier started Game One as a true freshman and went down with a season-ending injury before halftime while Felder had 3.5 TFLs and a pair of sacks at Fairmont in his first start. We have enough depth and talent at the ends that we can move some of those guys inside plus we brought in a few transfers and think several freshmen have the potential to contribute right away.”
Senior Cliff Clark (Cambridge) is a two-time All-MEC linebacker coming off an All-American season that saw him lead the MEC and rank among the national leaders with 107 tackles. Gannon transfer Clay McDonald (Wheeling Park) is in the mix for the other starting spot along with returning lettermen Dylan Anderson (Morgantown), Zach Connor (Indian Creek), Patrick Frey (McGuffey) and Zahir Hicks (Weir). Junior Joey Ierulli and the redshirt freshman tandem of David Gilcreast and Jack Davis (Martins Ferry) are in the mix. Waialae will also be auditioning some promising newcomers in camp.
“Cliff is a rangy guy who makes plays sideline to sideline,” Waialae said. “The key will be finding a guy to play next to him but we have a lot of good choices. Anderson missed spring ball but has game experience. Connor and Frey had good springs and also have game experience while McDonald’s an interesting combination of size and speed. Several other guys stepped up in the spring and we have some really good freshmen coming in, as well.”
Junior Josh Ojo returns at one corner but three-year starter Terrance Baldwin will be tough to replace on the other side. Converted WR Jaquan McCullough took most of the snaps in the spring but safeties like Larry Fontilisse and Ty Holmes can also play here. Junior Brandon Morrison is back after sitting out last season due to surgery. A late transfer or impressive freshman — there are several — could play his way into the picture this month.
“Ojo had the best spring of the corners,” Waialae said, “but McCullough improved with every practice after making the initial switch. We have some options here thanks to the depth we have at safety. Our goal is to put the best 11 on the field so Holmes and Fontilisse could see time here, along with Morrison if he’s 100 percent.”
West Liberty returns all three starting safeties in two-time All-MEC junior Logan Deri, fellow junior Holmes and senior Brandon Gaither. Fontilisse and Morrison have starting experience and junior Nate Salomon is a proven playmaker. Redshirt freshmen Isiah Claytor and Coty Hutson (Brooke) had big springs while fellow redshirt freshmen Branzen Grodhaus (Wellsville) and Billy Honaker will also challenge. Don’t be surprised if some new faces play their way into the mix.
“The versatility is as important as the experience factor,” Waialae said. “All the veterans can play multiple positions because they’ve been forced into it due to injuries in the past. Claytor and Hudson really impressed in the spring and we think we have some impact freshmen coming in.”
Senior P/PK Christian Morris returns after averaging a WLU record 43.5 yards per punt last fall. He’ll handle all kicking duties and split the punting chores with Farmer. Freshman soccer player Owen Rozanc adds another option after earning All-Ohio kicker/punter honors in high school. Yackey is back for his fourth season as long snapper and backup kicker and Hoosier can also snap. Kargbo and Farmer are the primary return men with Robinson also seeing time. Several incoming freshmen will get looks in August.
“Special teams are a big part of the game,” Waialae said. “Having a weapon like Morris who can flip field position with a punt is a major plus. We can also use Farmer depending on game situation. Yackey is a quality long snapper while Kargbo and Farmer are our most experienced return guys. Robinson can fly and we think there are some freshmen who could help us here, as well.”
Aug. 30: at Urbana 7 p.m.
Sept. 6: W.Va. Wesleyan 7 p.m.
Sept. 13: at Charleston 7 p.m.
Sept. 22: UVa-Wise 1 p.m.
Sept. 29: at Notre Dame Noon
Oct. 6: Shepherd Noon
Oct. 13: at Glenville State 1 p.m.
Oct. 20: W.Va. State 1 p.m.
Oct. 27: at Concord Noon
Nov. 3: Bloomsburg (Pa.) 1 p.m.
Nov. 8: Fairmont State 7 p.m.
Win 6, Lose 5