Zeps Eye Return Trip to Playoffs
By MIKE MORRISON
SARAHSVILLE — Heading into the 2017 prep football campaign, the Shenandoah Zeps felt “It Was Time” for their team to take the next step forward after back-to-back 4-6 seasons.
The Jesse Wells-led Zeps indeed took a giant step forward as they qualified for the playoffs for the first time in 14 seasons finishing with an 8-3 record.
After falling in a heartbreaker to Coal Grove in the first round of the Division VI, Region 23 playoffs by a 7-6 margin, Shenandoah will look to “Finish” what it started in 2018.
“Last year we came really close to accomplishing a lot of our goals but maybe some adversity and some injuries and stuff like that kind of set us back,” said Wells, who will be in his fourth season as head coach of his alma mater. “We were a couple of plays away from playing for a regional title and we finished second in the OVAC and the PVC to Fort Frye. If we want to become the type of team we want to be we are going to have to figure out a way to beat them.”
The Zeps graduated seven players from last years team including three who have advanced on to play collegiate sports in Nick Miller, Austin McPeek and Cash Presnell, but still start the season with a four-year starter in All-Ohio quarterback Boone Jones.
Jones passed for more than 1,000 yards and 16 touchdowns in his junior season, while carrying the ball for nearly 500 yards and three more scores.
“Any time you have a four-year starter at any position, it’s huge but having a four-year starter who was All-Ohio last year at quarterback is vitally important,” Wells said of Jones. “Last year he showed the ability to take over a football game and we are really excited to see what he can do with his arm and his legs this year.”
The Zeps will need to find a replacement in the backfield for Miller, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards last year despite missing several games to injury.
Senior Ethan Wiley (5-foot-9, 170 pounds) and junior Kendal Sherman (5-9, 175) both are experienced backs that will get plenty of carries while juniors Luke Rataiczak (5-10,160) and Wesley Guy (5-6, 140) are in the mix as well.
Junior Aden Laipply (6-2, 155) figures to be the starting tight end while Jones will have a plethora of targets to throw to including junior Kade Varhola (5-11, 145), and sophomores Cade Denius (5-7, 145) and Dayton Hill (6-1, 160).
The biggest strength of all for the Zeps may well be their offensive line which has size and experience.
Five players with significant experience return including a pair of three-year letter winners in seniors Dalton Rice (6-1, 235) and Tanner Brown (6-4, 275).
Junior Easton Hitchens (6-3, 300) lettered in each of his two seasons while classmates Logan Waers (5-11, 220) and Branson Van Sleet (6-0, 270) lettered last season.
Also in the mix on the line for the Zeps will be senior Chase Chicwak (6-1, 200), who has unselfishly moved form a skill-level position to the line for the good of the team.
“Chase is a super kid who has won a lot of accolades on the defensive side of the football,” Wells said of Chicwak. “He has played fullback and tight end in the past for us but is going to kind of shore up our line depth… at least for now.”
On the other side of the line, Chicwak is no doubt the leader of a Shenandoah defense that limited their opponents to less than 10 points per game.
The Zeps limited their rivals to seven points or less six times including three shutouts.
Chicwak led the team in tackles for the third consecutive season and was rewarded by being named All-Ohio at linebacker for the second consecutive season as well as earning Eastern District Defensive Player of the Year.
The Zeps appear poised to switch to a three-man front, featuring many of the same kids who make up the offensive line with the likes of freshman transfer Preston Mackie (6-0, 260) and junior Briggs Schafer (6-1, 170) vying to join the rotation.
Chicwak is joined at inside linebacker by Wiley and Jones, giving the Zeps three backers who will be starting for the fourth year in a row.
Rataiczak and Laipply figure to man the outside linebacker positions with support from senior Jayden Porter (5-11, 160).
Sherman, an Honorable-Mention All-Ohio selection last year, leads a strong secondary that also consists of Guy, Denius, and Varhola.
The confidence level could well be at an all-time high for the Zeps who will also be the home team this season for seven of their team’s 10 games.
“We just have to keep improving on what we have been doing. This is our fourth year in the program and I think we have shown improvement every year,” said Wells whose team will open at home against Frontier. “Last year we were a two-point conversion or a stalled drive inside the five of winning our first playoff game and perhaps playing for a regional title. That has been our motivation and we are very excited about the upcoming season.”