Madonna Looks To Return to Playoffs
By RALPH COX
WEIRTON — After returning Madonna football to the playoffs for the first time since 2013, Darrin Hicks hopes the culture of playoff football is again something that is expected at the small Catholic school on Weirton Heights.
Hicks has nine lettermen but only four seniors returning from the 8-3 Blue Dons of 2017. However, there are two Madonna lettermen that played huge roles in the playoff season that are no longer wearing the blue and silver after transferring to Weir. They are Donavan Kirby and Rob Valenti.
Kirby was the leading rusher in West Virginia with 2,554 yards gained, while Valenti did a lot of the blocking for him at.
They will obviously be missed, but Hicks said, “We are keeping our focus on the people that are here. We wish them well, but we are committed to the 25-30 boys here. We’re ready to move forward into the 2018 season.
“We are focusing on the positives. We had another great offseason program, and we’re focusing on how much better the players have gotten in the offseason. There are increases in strength, size and speed. We want to stay with the positive parts and stay away from negative people.”
The Blue Dons finished eighth in the state Class A ranks last year with an 8-2 record. They rolled to victories in the first eight games before suffering losses in the final two games. They still earned home-field advantage for the first playoff game, a 30-20 loss to Sherman.
“We had 11 seniors off that team that graduated,” said Hicks, who is beginning his third year as the Blue Dons head coach. “They were really good seniors, good leaders, guys that worked hard to get this program on solid ground. We have replaced them with 11 freshmen, so we have gone from a big senior class to being very young. That’s not a bad thing.
“We have 11 very capable, talented freshmen who are committed to this program and the future of Madonna football.
“Most have come from our Junior Dons program and were in our system at either St. Paul or St. Joseph middle schools. They have sacrificed a lot of free time to make themselves better. They all understand what we expect from them and what we want the Madonna program to be. All are also good citizens and good students. We’re happy with where we are headed.”
Hicks is counting on the 10 lettermen to be a good nucleus for 2018.
“We were fortunate last year to have about half of our games where we were able to play our entire roster,” Hicks said. “Normally, you don’t get that type of quality time for the underclass guys. That is something that will help us moving forward.”
Gavin Dietrich returns with a full season of experience as the starting quarterback.
“Gavin is our best athlete, and he made tremendous strides as the season went along last year,” Hicks said. “He just got better each week. We didn’t pass a lot last season, but his passing ability kept getting better. He just has a knack for the big play and wants the ball in his hands when the game is on the line.”
Freshman Santino Arlia, whose brother, Connor, was an all-stater at Madonna earlier in the decade and whose father, Mike, is Madonna’s athletics director, is expected to make an impact as Dietrich’s backup.
“Santino has a huge up side,” Hicks said. “He’s more of a pocket passer than Gavin. Like a lot of our young guys, he had a very good summer. Santino can do a lot of things and he gives us a one-two punch at quarterback.”
Ty Ingram, a sophomore who got some varsity playing time and was a starter at defensive back, inherits the running back spot. Trey Kush, an athlete Hicks describes as being extremely fast with an extra gear and allusiveness, is the backup.
Another sophomore, Evan Daniels, returns at halfback. Hicks said he started some last year at halfback, which in Hicks’ offense does a lot of blocking. A pair of freshmen, Lennon Dietrich, Gavin’s brother, and Cameron Gray are in the mix.
Joe Soos, one of the bigger players on the Madonna squad, will be the tight end with Mark Pietranton and Evan Bone, a pair of freshmen, backing him.
Tom Sessi, who saw a lot of playing time last season on special teams and occasionally at wingback, will get the chance to start this year with junior Antonio Daddario and freshman Korey Kakacick looking for playing time as well.
Senior Dylan Austin returns at wide receiver with Evan Quering and Mitch Sagan in backup roles.
All-State senior Garrett Cook returns to lead the offensive line.
“Garrett is ready to have a tremendous season,” Hicks said. “He’s an excellent football player, and I’m excited about him.”
Also on the offensive line will be senior Luke Beatty, who transferred last winter from Brooke. The offensive line will also include Josh Gasvoda, Nate Zanieski and Jacob McCombs, all juniors, along with sophomores Jacob Bonner and Mason Smith, and freshmen twins Nate and Nick Elias.
Cook also leads the defensive line where he starred last year at defensive end. Most of the offensive linemen will see double duty on the defensive front along with Soos and Pietranton.
Gasvoda, a two-year starter, leads the linebacker corps. He’s joined by Daniels and Daddario with Lennon Dietrich, Bone and Gray expected to get playing time.
Gavin Dietrich will be back for his third year at cornerback. Ty Ingram gets the call at safety and Austin will be on the other corner. Others vying for playing time in the defensive backfield are Sessi, Arlia, Sagan, Quering, Kush and Kakacick.
“We have a lot of talented freshmen that will get playing time this year, but we had some get time last year,” Hicks said. “They are building the foundation of what Madonna football can be, and it doesn’t end there. We are focusing on the improvements of where our program is.
Hicks added that his program made a foundation. Although this year’s squad is different in many aspects, he’s confident they have the commitment, talent and desire needed to build on that foundation.
“We won’t sneak up on anybody this year like we may have early last year,” he said. “We have a challenging schedule, but our goal every year is to be in the playoffs. Our main goal, though, every day and every week is to be 1-0 after that week’s game. We can’t move forward unless we are 1-0 one more time. Our long term goals are to be in the playoffs and be state champions.
“Last year, we had that good group of seniors to lead us. We’ll be younger this year but with more size and athleticism. We’ll be different schematically both offensively and defensively. The approach is the same but adapted to fit what our kids can do.”
Dylan Austin, Luke Beatty, Garrett Cook, Gavin Dietrich
Antonio Daddario, Josh Gasvoda, Jakob McCombs, Mark Pietranton
Jacob Bonner, Evan Daniels, Ty Ingram, Ethan Rowing, Thomas Sessi, Mason Smith, Joe Soos
Santino Arlia, Evan Bone, Michael Burdine, Lennon Dietrich, Nate Elias, Nick Elias, Cameron Gray, Korey Kakascik, Trey Kush, Mark Pietranton, Evan Quering