WEIRTON — As unconventional of a first year as a head coach as one could possibly have, Dan Rovira is optimistic for a more normal season in 2021.
Rovira is hopeful that the work put in by his group since last season’s 7-3 campaign leads to clearing the hurdle that has tripped up the Blue Dons of late — getting past the first round of the Class A playoffs.
“I got the job and, two days later, COVID started. It was tough,” Rovira said. “We got through it, the kids did a great job. Knock on wood none of our kids got COVID the whole year. Our team wasn’t affected, the coaches weren’t affected. We ended up 7-2, we had to scramble with the schedule, but overall, I thought it was a great first year even with starting late. Our kids responded.
“I wanted to be a head coach for 20 years. I’ve been applying for jobs, running around. I finally get one and am all excited and boom, I get notified we have to shut down the weight room, you have to talk to the kids on Zoom. I had to figure out the technology stuff.
“Our kids were great. We were happy to get 10 games in with the playoff game.”
Last year, after that solid regular season showing, the Blue Dons bowed out of the opening round of the playoffs with a 58-0 loss at Greenbrier West. The year before, the Blue Dons met a similar ending in the opening round, 57-7.
This year, Rovira is putting the pressure on to get in the top half of the bracket and avoid the long trip to face a high seed.
“We have to win. We have to go 9-1 or 8-2 because 7-3 puts you down in the bracket, and you have to play a big boy in the playoffs,” he said. “You have to get up in the top of the bracket. Our goal is we want to win that first playoff game. The last two years, we got beat bad. With this group, we need to win a playoff game. To do that, we have to take care of the regular season first so we can get a high enough seed.
“It’s time to get over the hump. Class A is a packed field. It’s no secret around here Wheeling Central is the top dog … they have a great program. I think everyone else around here is on a pretty even playing field.”
Thomas Sessi and Lucky Pulice’s departures to graduation, as well as some key pieces on the line, leave Rovira and company with some holes to fill, but he’s optimistic about the group coming back.
“I’m always optimistic, but I think we have a pretty good team,” he said. “I wish I had these guys as freshmen. We have great skill. You can tell the COVID restrictions are gone. We had great participation in the weight room, and our kids are bigger and stronger.
“Those seniors last year helped our kids (this year). Our captains were leaders. Those seniors carried us, and our seniors now benefited from them.”
When discussing this year’s team, none of the 25 players come into the season with more expectations than senior quarterback Santino Arlia, who will be the Blue Dons’ starting signal caller for a third consecutive season.
If the Blue Dons are going to clear that hurdle and get back to the playoff glory the school once was accustomed to, Arlia certainly will be a big part of the reason why.
Last year, Arlia passed for more than 2,000 yards and tossed 26 touchdowns.
“It’s no secret it starts with him,” Rovira said. “He’s been the quarterback since sixth grade. He’s come all the way up, and what an improvement he’s made. I said last year he was allergic to weights … this year, what a turnaround. I called him while I was on vacation. I asked him what he was doing, and he told me they worked out at school and he was at the gym doing more. He’s just a different player now.
“He went to a couple quarterback camps, and it’s really helped him. All the work he’s put in, I can’t see him not taking another step forward. He understands the offense better, he’s able to tell guys where to go, he sees the whole picture. We’re going to go as far as he goes — it’s as simple as that.”
Backing up the standout are freshman Lucas McAllister and sophomore Chase Littleton.
On the outside, his targets have changed a little, losing a couple of his favorite targets to graduation. However, Rovira feels there is still a heap of talent in the group.
“We have a lot of depth at receiver,” Rovira said. “Santino is going to have some good targets.”
Senior Michael Burdine is back after an injury cut his season short last year. Senior Coleton Littleton will play receiver and running back. Senior Evan Quering, who Rovira said has taken a big step forward, is also back. Seniors Seth Humberson and Trey Kush will see time on the outside.
Added to the group, listed at tight end are seniors Lennon Dietrich and Mason Thompson, who did not play last year.
Taking handoffs when the Blue Dons go to the ground will be Humberson, Coleton Littleton and Nico Connell.
Overall, Rovira feels the skill positions will be the strength.
“Don’t get me wrong, I love our linemen, but our skill is going to be our strength,” he said. “Ever since these guys have been in sixth or seventh grade, they’ve been throwing the ball. (Arlia) has been their quarterback.”
Up front, the Blue Dons have freshman Dominic Maple joining seniors Nick and Nate Elias, junior Harry Norman and brothers Scott and Logan Brown. Junior Anthony Gross also is in the mix.
“Winning games comes down to up front,” Rovira said. “We have to be able to block. We are much bigger from last year. We’ve got to stay healthy.”
On the defensive side, the Elias and Brown brothers will be up front, while junior Anthony Gross and Humberson are returning starters at linebacker.
The secondary has a lot of returning pieces, as well, with Burdine, Quering, Kush and Coleton and Chase Littleton.
“As a Class A school with 25 guys, we don’t have many one-way players,” Rovira said. “We have seven guys back on both sides of the ball, which is great. I really expect a bigger and better year this year.”