SHADYSIDE — Though he seemed reluctant to do so because he’s not a fan of it, Mark Holenka threw out the ‘P’ word when he began talking about his 2021 Shadyside football team.
That word — “potential” — popped up early and often from the head coach, who is entering his 13th season at his alma mater. Considering the way the Tigers finished the 2020 season, the returning roster, who can blame him?
“I don’t like the word potential because I would prefer to just be good,” Holenka said. “But, honestly, the potential is there for us to have a successful season, but it’s still early and we need to keep working if we’re going to reach that potential.”
One area where Holenka is excited is about is the offseason and pre-season his team has had. The ability to have a normal preseason has been beneficial.
Coach Mark Holenka discusses the upcoming campaign
And even without a whole lot of normalcy last fall, the Tigers still made the most of their situation. Neither a pandemic, a shortened regular season nor a brief summer shutdown, in 2020, was going to deny the Tigers from another outstanding campaign, which saw them finish 6-4.
That record is quite misleading, though, because they played in the Division VII, Region 27 championship game where they fell to Newark Catholic, 10-7.
“I hope these guys are fueled by that 10-7 loss,” Holenka said. “It was a fun run getting there, but it was a tough ending having the carpet pulled out from under us.”
Shadyside finished the regular season at 3-3, and that was after a 0-2 start that saw it fall to Martins Ferry and Bellaire.
Holenka believes it was the week five win over East Hardy when it finally clicked for his club, which was junior heavy.
“It was probably the second half of that (East Hardy) game,” Holenka said. “It felt like we busted through the gates and were having success consistently rather than just now and then and it really snowballed.”
The Tigers, however, lost a handful of key pieces from that squad, including OVAC All-Stars Jacob Visnic and Jordan Joseph as well as Alec Shepherd, Mason Geraud, Jalob Honeywell, Cam Brown and Ethan Olack.
“It wasn’t a big senior class, but the guys we lost played a key role for us, so replacing them won’t be easy,” Holenka said.
Shadyside’s cupboard is far from bare. The Tigers boast a roster of 35 players, who are well balanced among the four grades and feature seniors in several key positions.
Holenka, who owns a 104-40 record, five OVAC titles, a regional title, state runner-up finish and six regional final appearances, knows what kinds of expectations surround the Tigers year in and year out.
“I think tradition breeds success and success breeds success,” Holenka said. “Being able to have extended playoff runs really helps because of the extra practices. Even after the six-month layoff, kids come back still ahead of the curve because throughout the postseason you’ve pounded so much into their brains they have a much better understanding of schemes.”
One of the key areas where Shadyside wants to improve — and it could be paramount for whether their full potential is reached — is in the chemistry department. Thus far, Holenka has liked what he’s seen.
“We have a pretty close group, and we have some seniors who aren’t satisfied just going through the motions and still being among the better players in the area,” Holenka said. “These guys truly want to make something out of the short time they can play (high school) football and have been pushing beyond what you’d usually see.”
Part of the question surrounding potential is the fact that it’s “a totally different year.”
Though Holenka was quite pleased with how his team played — especially late — last season, he realizes that it was “a totally different year.”
“Playing through a pandemic was tough, especially when you’re the first ones to do it,” Holenka said. “But, we can’t afford to get off to slow start like we did, either. That’s part of it as much as the pandemic stuff we dealt with. We started to hit our stride midseason to the postseason and it made it exciting. So, if we can come out somewhere close to where we left off and not have to go back and restart, we can be pretty good out of the gate.”
One concern that’s been a focal point during camp is health. Shadyside has 35 players on the roster, but Holenka cautioned that “an injury or two in the wrong place could put a cringe” into the Tigers’ plans.
Offensively, Shadyside looks to have a solid mix of running and passing options, especially considering that they have seniors littered in the backfield and at wide receiver.
Senior quarterback Rhys Francis (6-0, 175) returns for his third season at the Tigers’ controls. He’s coming off a season in which he completed 65-of-148 passes for 1,234 yards and eight touchdowns. He was picked off six times. He logged 192 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.
“Decision-making and consistency are the two areas where Rhys needs to continue to improve,” Holenka said. “I think he’s a guy who could have benefited from 7 on 7s and scrimmages last season. But, from what I have seen so far, I think he’s made strides and is ready to take the next step.”
Should Francis get hurt, sophomore Ben Wach (5-6, 135) is the top backup. However, Wach will be in the mix at wide receiver, too.
Two other freshmen quarterbacks dot the roster in Anthony Forgacs (5-8, 155) and Caden Nippert (5-4, 101).
At running back, the Tigers have a luxury with the return of two-time First Team All-Ohioan Wyatt Reiman. He’s coming off a season in which he rushed for 995 yards and 13 touchdowns on 185 carries. He also caught eight passes for 149 yards.
“Wyatt has definitely been special for us,” Holenka said. “We’re hopeful that that continues. We’re going to use him a lot again, but we want to be balanced, but we’re going to let the game situations guide us in that.”
Set to take over at the fullback job, to replace Visnic, is sophomore Andrew Osman (5-9, 155). A full-time defensive starter last fall, Osman will be a two-way player. He earned All-Ohio in the pole vault during the spring.
Supplying depth at fullback are senior Ethan Stanley (5-11, 170), sophomore Mark Waggoner (5-10, 155), freshmen Kaiden Baker (5-2, 105) and Nathan Booth (5-10, 152).
Wide receiver is probably the Tigers’ position of greatest depth.
Senior Mason VanNest (6-1, 170) is the top-returning target. En route to All-Ohio acclaim, VanNest caught 27 passes for 599 yards and scored five touchdowns. His reception total was three times as many as the next Tiger target.
Junior Elijah Brock (6-3, 195) is a capable target who will be used either at wide receiver or could be the tight end.
Senior Korey Beckett (6-0, 160) returns to the gridiron after taking two years off and he will be among the rotation on the flanks. The aforementioned Wach will play a key role as will speedy junior Kooper Chimley (5-11, 132) and sophomore Colton Gorby (6-0, 190).
Others supplying wide receiver depth are junior Grant Miller (5-10, 145), sophomore Alex Olack (5-11, 166), freshmen Dylan Bachie (6-0, 155), Cole Micker (5-7, 128), Ean Weatherson (5-6, 127) and Dylan Booth (5-10, 156).
“This is a very solid group,” Holenka said. “They’re all quality athletes and we probably have the best team speed we’ve had in a long time.”
Up front, Shadyside is also experienced with basically the entire offensive line back.
“We have pretty good size, and those kids are all athletic and have good foot speed,” Holenka said.
Senior All-Ohioan Logan Crozier (6-0, 288) is back to anchor the line at center. He’s embarking on his third season as the starter.
At the guard spots, senior Gage Joseph (6-0, 250) and Jacob Brown (5-9, 195) are expected to get the call. The projected starting tackles are senior Ryan Florence (6-1, 195) and classmate Kris Tsoras (6-1, 235).
Holenka indicated that junior William Robinson (5-11, 196) and junior Andrew Brown (5-8, 180) are “capable backups.”
Other linemen vying to get into the rotation are senior Zach Heslep (6-4, 235), junior Josh Harris (5-8, 165), sophomores Landon Prickett (5-11, 205), Chris Stillion (5-6, 187), freshmen Brayden Morris (5-11, 235), Derrick Russell (5-7, 155) and Gavin Bommer (5-2, 130).
“We’re waiting to find out where we’ll hang our hats offensively,” Holenka said. “I think we can score some points because we’re going to have experience in most of the positions. We have backs who are capable of helping us win games and our receivers are talented, too. Plus, we have a quarterback who can deliver the ball well.”
Holenka, who is a defensive minded coach, has concerns about the Tigers stop troops. Many of the same names will be returning, but filling in the gaps is the key.
“Whether or not we can stop teams is where I am concerned,” Holenka said. “If we can’t, we better be really good on offense. We’re ahead of the game offensively, but we had to find where we were defensively during our scrimmages.”
Three of four starters return along the defensive line with Andrew Brown and Florence at the ends. Gage Joseph will man one of the tackles once again.
The other defensive tackle is a battle between Tsoras, Robinson and Andrew Brown.
“We may have the ability to platoon a little bit there,” Holenka said.
At linebacker, Reiman and Osman are returning starters. Brock has shifted to this group, but could see time at end as well. Also in the mix at backer are Harris and Waggoner. They also have the skill set to drop into a strong safety role if needed.
Speaking of the secondary, Francis returns at corner after a season in which he picked off six passes and deflected four others.
VanNest is preparing for his third season as a starter at safety.
The battle for the other corner has been between Beckett and Chimley, while Wach and Miller have vied for the free safety job.
“If our hopes pan out, we’ll be able to have a triangle of guys we can use and rotate in the secondary,” Holenka said. “We’re able to keep guys fresh and there are times we’d like to take our quarterback out of the defensive scheme.”
Overall, Holenka loves the speed on the defensive side, which he believes could offset being a bit smaller.
“We’re not the biggest team and we’re not going to just knock people backward, but I do think we’ll be able to pursue the ball,” Holenka explained.
On special teams, Shadyside appears solid with VanNest back as the punter once again, and he will also handle the bulk of the placekicking. Beckett could also be in the mix for place-kicking duties.
Because the 2020 season was disjointed in many ways, including restricted attendance because of the pandemic, the Tigers are excited to welcome a full complement of fans back to Fleming Field on Friday. For many, it’ll be the first time they’ve seen a game on the turf, which is set for its second season.
“It’s always nice to have all of the fans at our facility,” Holenka said. “If the field can hear, I am sure it’s going to feel good about itself. It was community funded, and now it can provide that wow factor to the community, which they may not have gotten last year because of the regulations.”
Though the Tigers played their entire season on the turf last season, this is the first pre-season they’ve had it because the project didn’t wrap up until just a few days prior to the season starting.
According to Holenka, it’s made the summer much easier.
“Our practices have been much better because the field is such a blessing,” Holenka said. “It’s like working on freshly cut grass every morning, and you never have to worry about moving a practice or canceling one because of the weather.”
The Tigers are to set to line up against a formidable slate comprised of all OVAC member schools.
Interestingly, after Shadyside’s opener on Friday, it will go on the road for a month before coming home for a month and then finishing on the road at Monroe Central.
“It’s an odd schedule with how it shakes out in terms of home and away,” Holenka said. “But, it’s nice to have all local teams that we can relate to. I think that helps to really fire everyone up.”
Newcomers to the schedule include Shenandoah, Buckeye Local and Barnesville, which returns after a several-year absence.
“It’s nice to solidify the schedule with teams that we’ve played year in and year out,” Holenka said. “Barnesville was always a steady opponent, and appears that it will be that way once again. Excited to have Buckeye Local on the schedule, but we realize they’re up the upswing and are out to shell shock some teams they’re playing.”
Holenka’s coaching staff has undergone some changes.
Departing the staff were Sean Grinch, who has accepted a teaching and coaching position in Central Ohio; Michael Coyne, who is now the Tigers cross country coach, and B.A. Holloway.
Returnees to the sidelines are Michael Kernik (offensive coordinator), Chase Grinch, who is assuming the defensive coordinator role; John Grinch; James Edwards; Alex Krupa and Chase Kinemond, who is being elevated to the varsity staff after working at the junior high level.
The lone true newcomer to the staff is former West Liberty University offensive coordinator and Bridgeport head coach Gary Krol.
Nick Ongley and Jayson Johnson work with the eighth grade, while Jacob Spencer and Zeke Merryman handle the seventh-graders.
Korey Beckett, Logan Crozier, Ryan Florence, Rhys Francis, Zach Heslep, Gage Joseph, Wyatt Reiman, Ethan Stanley, Kris Tsoras, Mason VanNest.
Elijah Brock, Andrew Brown, Kooper Chimley, Josh Harris, Grant Miller, William Robinson.
Jacob Brown, Colton Gorby, Alex Olack, Andrew Osman, Landon Prickett, Chris Stillion, Ben Wach, Mark Waggoner.
Dylan Bachie, Kaiden Baker, Gavin Bommer, Dylan Booth, Nathan Booth, Anthony Forgacs, Cole Micker, Brayden Morris, Caden Nippert, Derrick Russell, Ean Weatherson,