WEIRTON — Frank Sisinni’s Red Riders have a lot of underclassmen.
However, several of his 17 sophomores saw time as freshmen a year ago and contributed in a season-ending victory over rival Brooke.
This year, the second-year coach is hoping the growing pains of last year and the momentum of that big win can carry over and propel the Red Riders to a solid 2021.
“Last year was a bit of a roller-coaster ride,” Sisinni said. “We had a lot of kids who normally would have cut their teeth in JV games in varsity games.”
Weir High wrapped up 2-6 in Sisinni’s first year, dealing with all of the protocols and unorthodox procedures due to the COVID-19 pandemic on top of having a young squad.
“It was an extreme challenge,” he said of dealing with the pandemic as a first-year head coach. “Losing the connection time with the kids was tough. The day-to-day operations were tough. It’s great to be back to some normalcy with how we operate and in terms of offseason stuff.”
A 29-12 victory on the road at arch-rival Brooke to close the campaign, during which about seven freshmen were pressed into key roles, however, has been the team’s confidence booster through the offseason.
“It really was up and down. We would take a beating then play well,” he said, noting he saw his team starting to come together in a 37-26 loss at Frankfort. “The big, double-overtime win against Martins Ferry (47-46) was big for us. We had a little letdown against Wheeling Central but came right back and ended on a high note beating Brooke. When you win the Brooke game, that is a big thing. For us to end on that high note is something we could hang our hat on going into the offseason to build for this year.
“We had about seven freshmen on the field in that game in big roles. That’s the premis of it, trying to get them to turn the corner and get to where we need to be, but it’s going to be a challenge again.”
Sisinni is a graduate and former coach at Brooke.
Of the 36 players on the roster, 14 of them are returning letterwinners.
Departed from the 2020 squad are Jordan Bruek, Anthony DiMatteis, Gage Reitter, Kasper Morera, Levi Hostuttler and Ethan Cummins.
“Those guys were all multi-year letterwinners and played well for us throughout their years,” Sisinni said.
The first, biggest hole Sisinni and company have to fill is at quarterback to replace all-area selection DeMatteis.
The preseason saw a three-man fight for the top spot on the depth chart between Malachi Stromile, Corey Lyons and Carson Yobaggy.
“Through 7-on-7s, they have seen some things and identified some things, but it’s different on a Friday night when the bulls start flying and rush is coming at you,” Sisinni said. “The competition makes them push each other.
“I strive to have competition at every position. They all have that taste of wanting to be the man here.”
Up front, there also are holes to fill with two returning linemen in Myles Rice and Cam Jones. In the mix for the other three starting spots are Jayson Long, Alias Pugh, Anthony Zorbini, Aiden DeStefano and Mason Klink.
On the outside, Yobaggy was a playmaker a year ago, and the Red Riders will look for him to be one again — assuming he’s not taking the snaps at QB.
Also on the outside, Max Maley, Devan Colson, Damir Mowder, Josh Boffman, Jayson Nasko and Jacob Taylor will be in the mix for time at wide receiver.
Gage Hawkins, Sisinni said, put in a lot of work in the offseason and will move from the line to a fullback/tight end role.
Expect the Red Riders to run the football and use that to set up some play action and pro-style looks out of a two-back pistol set.
Getting the rock in that run-heavy offense will be Jamari Bass, who is back after suffering an injury early on last season. Also at running back are Lyons, who started to come into his own late last season, and Boffman.
“I think we’re very solid at running back,” Sisinni said.
The offensive coordinator is Tom Taylor.
On defense, Weir High will run a 4-2-5 defense, allowing the Red Riders and defensive coordinator John Leary to adapt to opposing offenses.
Up front, Jones is the lone returning starter on the defensive front, while Zorbini, Long and Pugh — all of whom saw some time as freshmen a year ago — will be battling it out for time.
At linebacker, Hawkins is back, with MoMo Prentice also getting reps. Youngsters Shawn Young and Bobby Shuble, along with a cast of freshmen, are in the mix, as well.
The defensive backfield will be led by Stromile, who moves to safety from linebacker, and corner Yobaggy. The other corner will be Colson.
Also in the mix are Kayne Green, Mowder, Taylor, Boffman and Nosko. Lyons will move around as a rover.
The Red Riders’ five seniors are Rice, Yobaggy, Baker, Nosko and Boffman.
East Liverpool is back on the schedule in Week 9, and added to the schedule is Indian Creek, in the Red Riders’ Week 3 home opener. It will be the first time the Red Riders square off with the Redskins in at least four years.
“For (Indian Creek) being so close and them being a AA school (based on enrollment for points in the playoff standings), it’s great competition. We’re going to get a nice draw at the gate, it made a lot of sense to play them,” Sisinni said. “With them, and Martins Ferry and the Valley teams on the schedule, playing them is going to make us better because those are top programs.”
Adding to the intrigue of adding local opponents Sisinni pointed out is how social media and competition in other sports and travel leagues mean the kids have competed against and know one another more so than in the past.
Weir is away from home three of the first four weeks.
“That’s going to be a challenge,” Sisinni said.
Things end as they customarily do, hosting rival Brooke, though of course, Sisinni and company hope there is at least one more game after that in the Class AA playoffs.