ST. CLAIRSVILLE — Consistency and stability have been two key ingredients for the success of the St. Clairsville football program.
When you consider head coach Brett McLean has 84 players out for football, including a large senior class that’s coming off a 9-1 season in which they advanced to the Division IV, Region 15 championship game, there’s no reason to believe anything’s going to change this season.
However, while there may be chatter around the Ohio Valley or even on Main Street in St. Clairsville about the prospects of another big season of Red Devil football, McLean and his veteran cast of coaches won’t get caught up in it. And they will not permit their players to, either.
“If you let expectations get into your head, they’ll crush you quickly,” McLean said. “Our kids have competed for jobs all summer. Every move these kids made was critical for us in getting better as a team.”
Coach Bret McLean discusses the upcoming campaign
The Red Devils, who open Friday at Carrollton, have worked to challenge themselves all summer. With that many players on the roster, competition for starting jobs and the right to be in the rotation has been high throughout camp. On top of that, they took part in scrimmages against Loudonville and Garaway to further prepare for what lies ahead.
“Those scrimmages allowed us to learn about ourselves quickly, and we have work to do,” McLean said. “We wanted to put them in as many (tough) predicaments and adverse conditions as we could within the rules. We’ve been fortunate to have kids who are being pushed by their teammates. We went into camp and no one had any (position) sewn up.”
The tough circumstances and adverse conditions weren’t hard to find last season. Actually, they helped to begin to lay the foundation.
Last season was different to say the least. Obviously, dealing with the COVID-19 issues, a shortened regular season and expanded postseason presented different challenges.
“Everyone was in the same boat (in terms of the COVID-19 issues), but I am just so proud of our kids for how they handled it,” McLean noted.
The Red Devils, who experienced a huge amount of success, finished with a bitter taste in their mouths thanks to a 40-0 loss to Bloom-Carroll in the regional final.
“It was a successful season, no doubt,” McLean said. “We won (the OVAC) championship and played for a regional championship. I am just so proud of my entire staff and our kids, especially that group of seniors for dealing with that stack of cards like they did.”
That senior class only measured eight deep, but four of them — Tyler Tonkovich, Will Balgo, Luke Jozwiak and Reese Skaggs — all played in last month’s OVAC All-Star Football Game. Others to collect their sheepskin were Austin DaRe, Jake Bolyard, Jalen McCall and Domenic Panepucci.
“That senior class led us to be successful because their leadership had us keeping our eyes on the prize each week,” McLean said. “It’s definitely hard to lose those guys, but I would like to hope that their impression is left on these seniors and that’ll serve as a springboard in that way. On top of that, there are some quality football players in that group, including some all-state players, three-year lettermen and scholarship (college) players. It was a talented group.”
The returning cast certainly isn’t devoid of talent. It has plenty of quality depth, which is one of the most important ingredients for success.
“I don’t know if we have any superstars, but we’ve got kids who can hopefully step up in the game and bring some energy and we’re able to keep a lot of kids fresh,” McLean said. “But, I say that and a month from now we could be in a battle for attrition that football can be. We have to practice smart and stay healthy.”
One area where St. Clairsville has always been strong is its ability to adapt to its personnel. McLean and his offensive staff have never been locked into an offensive system. They evaluate their players and adjust.
As he surveys this team, McLean believes his team can be balanced between run and pass. But, he did leave the door open to adjust.
“Being balanced is always the goal, but there have been times when I’ve guessed and even made some educated decisions and then we get into the season and sometimes those educated decisions aren’t so educated. Until we really get into the games, I am not sure what our true (offensive) identity will be.”
The Red Devils offense was quite impressive last season. Interestingly, St. Clairsville trailed in every game it played last season but never blinked. A big reason for that was an offense that averaged more than 30 points a game.
Of that group, its top three scorers, top receiver and rusher all return.
Taking over the reins from Tonkovich, who threw for 1,406 yards and 15 touchdowns while rushing for 538 yards and five touchdowns, is expected be senior Drew Sefsick (5-11, 170).
Sefsick has “waited his turn” but he’s not totally green. When Tonkovich was battling some injuries last season, Sefsick was thrust into duty and responded by throwing for 279 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed for a score.
“That (playing) time that Drew got certainly benefited him in the competition (to be the starter),” McLean said. “He’s a leader and a three-sport kid. He played a whale of a game against East Liverpool when Tonk was hurt, and we saw a lot of great things from him.”
Pushing for time have been junior Andrew Vera (6-0, 180) and sophomore Hunter Hoffman (5-9, 165).
The primary tailback job is expected to be split between seniors Jacob Jordan (5-7, 170) and Logan Shields (5-8, 170).
Both were impressive last season. Jordan rushed for 837 yards and nine touchdowns, while Shields accumulated 388 yards and scored eight touchdowns.
“Jacob and Logan are both unselfish kids who root for each other,” McLean said. “They know they will be a tandem (in the backfield). They’ve handled everything in a mature way. It’s exciting to have two guys like that to spread the ball between.”
Pushing to get into the mix are junior Jacob Walker (5-10, 185), junior Zachary Vickers (5-10, 180) and even Hoffman is a viable candidate.
The balance of running backs who are providing depth include: senior Mason McCort (5-9, 185), juniors Jaiden Zebbs (6-1, 215), Alex Wood (5-7, 155), Landon Zollace (5-8, 160), sophomores Kaleb Walz (5-8, 130) and Civin Murray (5-9, 120).
The fullback spot, which was held down by Balgo a season ago, is expected to be occupied by senior Carson Woodford (6-0, 180).
Similar to other spots, he has plenty of capable players pushing him for action. Included are sophomore Brennan Stout (5-9, 165), sophomore Marcus Bush (5-7, 175) and senior Kade Kiser (6-0, 215). Juniors Luke D. Porter (6-0, 190) and Chryon Fillon (5-9, 180) are others to keep an eye on.
At tight end, a battle between senior Austin Porter (6-3, 210) and junior Drue Jozwiak (6-0, 190) has ensued most of the month. Senior Taylor Lane (6-1, 160) is also a strong candidate to see time.
“Rotation is the word we use,” McLean said. “We’re hoping to be two and three deep at tailback, fullback and tight end.”
Other tight ends vying for time are senior Clay Espen (5-10, 170), juniors Nathan Witsberger (5-9, 130), Ryan Newton (6-0, 155) and sophomore Jordan Clemons (5-8, 160).
While the Red Devils certainly have the pieces to be a ground-and-pound offense, they also have one of the area’s top returning wide receivers in senior Colin Oberdick (6-0, 165), who is coming off an All-Ohio season in 2020. He caught 38 passes for 892 yards and 11 touchdowns last season.
“Collin definitely made some big plays and did a lot of things for us,” McLean said.
Senior Jaren Starks (5-8, 135) is expected to get the call at the other receiver spot. He hauled in seven passes for 122 yards and scored once.
Sophomore Colt Westlake (6-1, 160), who could also be a quarterback option, is expected to see significant action at receiver. Classmate Cole Thoburn (5-8, 135) is another who will be heavily in the mix along with junior Grant Swider (5-11, 145), Walz and Vera.
Other receivers supplying depth include: junior Jahleel Sears (6-0, 170), sophomores Tearyn Dukes (5-8, 120), Tristan Borkoski (5-11, 135) and Harrison Kazmirski (5-8, 130).
Similar to most teams, the key to any offense is the play of the offensive line, and the Red Devils have an experienced and talented crew in the trenches. But, McLean has stressed to the group that it must be ready to go immediately.
“I am excited about our line, but I am not blowing any smoke at them,” McLean said. “They have to come out and be ready to go. I know the knowledge is there. The chemistry, effort and having the correct attitude needs to be there, too.”
Leading the way up front is senior Avery Henry (6-7, 320) at tackle. During the offseason, Henry has dropped a significant amount of weight and also committed to Iowa State University after visiting in June.
“Avery has blossomed into what we always thought he would and could be,” McLean said. “He’s grown, matured and he’s a positive leader on the team. He has his eyes set on his senior season.”
Senior William Smith (6-1, 270) is a returning starter at center. He’ll be flanked by senior Joey Balgo (6-1, 280) and senior Jason Davenport (6-1, 240).
The battle for the tackle opposite of Henry has been between junior Jamarcus Webster (6-3, 275), junior Marcus Rector (6-5, 215) and junior Logan Fry (6-3, 250).
Versatile sophomore Perry Patrone (5-10, 220) could see time at center or guard and senior Nate Nguyen (5-7, 225) is another who can supply depth at a bevy of spots. Sophomore J.R. Adams (6-2, 220) is one to watch as a possible tackle.
“We have some ideas who will be out there in that tackle spot we have to fill, but it could change,” McLean said. “We’ll probably rotate some kids in there.”
Line depth is suppled by senior Jacob Saffell (6-1, 230), juniors Vin Roach (6-0, 175), George Harrison (5-10, 160), sophomores Sammy Phillips (5-8, 175), Chris Sommerville (6-1, 220), Toby Miller (6-0, 210), Cody Stecyk (5-10, 200), David Gordon (5-6, 190), Griffin Fogle (5-9, 190), Jacob Thornton (5-11, 210) and Kevin Costlow (5-10, 220).
On the defensive side of the ball, St. C. will once again utilize the 4-4 front.
“I am excited about the veterans we have on defense,” McLean said. “We have some speed, so I hope we fly to the ball and these guys want to be physical to get to the ball the way they’re capable.”
Up front is where the Red Devils possess the most depth. Jozwiak is ticketed for one of the defensive spots, while the other side, where Skaggs earned First Team All-Ohio, has been a battle between Rector, Roach, Kiser and Lane, all of whom have had strong summers.
The defensive tackle spot is the Devils’ “deepest position,” according to the head coach.
McCort is a returning starter after an impressive campaign.
Balgo and Henry will be in the mix along with Adams, Smith, Davenport, Patrone, Nguyen, Webster and Fry.
“We’re going to work it out to where we rotate and have fresh guys in there basically all the time,” McLean said. “We still have to find the alphas, though. Who are the guys who will be out there when the money is on the line?”
Woodford returns to lead the linebacking corps. He posted 75 tackles and two sacks last season. Shields will move into an inside backer role after a brilliant season in 2020 in which he had 48 stops.
Porter, Vickers, Walker, Stout, Bush, Fillon and Hoffman are all vying for time and will be part of the rotation, too.
“We’ll play some odd fronts and move guys around, so we need to have ‘different’ types of linebackers at times and we have a lot of guys we can shuffle,” McLean explained.
In the secondary, Sefsick is a returning starter, but as he transitions to quarterback, McLean isn’t sure he will see as much action on the other side of the ball.
Walz gained experience when a player was quarantined last season due to COVID-19 protocols in the postseason, so he’s expected to take on a larger role. Oberdick will roam at safety, while Westlake, Thoburn, Vera and Kazmirski are also in the mix in the secondary.
St. Clairsville’s special teams appear to be in good hands. The Red Devils have an embarrassment of riches at the kicking and punting spot.
Sefsick is a multiple-time All-Ohioan as a punter and returns.
As for the place-kicking duties, the Red Devils feature three players in the upper three grades who are listed as kicker only on the roster.
“We actually have four on the roster,” McLean said. “We’re definitely blessed in that regard. I think these kids have seen some of the kids who have come before them and it’s created this desire (to kick). I also give their families credit for encouraging them to put the time into it.”
Vying to take over the job that’s been held for the last four years by Jake Bolyard, who is now at Marietta, are senior Lucas Otto (6-0, 155), sophomores Jacob Meager (5-9, 160) and Makenna Booth (5-7, 165).
Included on the Red Devils’ 84-player roster is a large freshman class that measures 22 deep.
Though he believes some of those players may see some time at the varsity level, even if it’s on special teams, McLean would prefer to allow the majority of those players to gain seasoning at the freshmen and junior varsity levels. Currently, the Red Devils have four freshmen games scheduled.
“We’re hopeful that we don’t have big depth issues (in terms of injuries) where we need to start these freshmen, but some of these kids are talented and could see the field on a Friday night,” McLean said. “It’s a talented group, but it’s a group that I’ve had to knock their heads down at times.”
The freshmen class consists of quarterback Brady Schafer (5-11, 135), running back Gavin Schoolcraft (5-9, 155), fullback Kambell Sall (5-6, 145), running back Braylon Leiffer (5-4, 130), tight end Brody Saunders (5-9, 140), running back Julian Kingery (5-4, 125), running back Max Fogle (5-11, 155), running back Jakob Brannan (5-5, 120), kicker Brady Blacker (5-7, 110), wide receiver Tyson Pastor (6-2, 155), wide receiver Drew Gasber (6-0, 155), running back Dino Burk (5-8, 160), tight end Ethan Saffell (5-10, 135), lineman Micky Balgo (5-8, 175), lineman Ryan Ivey (5-8, 175), lineman Cole Cannon (5-4, 120), lineman Liam Tomlin (5-7, 145), Troy Neal (6-3, 215), lineman Wyatt Toothman (5-11, 85), lineman Easton Conway (5-10, 220), wide receiver Kyle Rankin (6-0, 150), Shyne Christain (5-11, 135), tight end Daniel Kyer (5-8, 150) and wide receiver Gage Wolfe (5-7, 115).
The aforementioned roster size is something that McLean doesn’t take for granted. But, at the same time, it’s something that’s he’s extremely proud of, too.
“We’ve worked hard as a staff to keep kids involved with our program,” McLean admitted. “We know kids who win the jobs are 100% committed and all in. The numbers have helped us keep complacency out of our locker room. But, we always want it to be fun and we want to teach some life lessons. We want to keep all of those kids around. Each kid brings something beneficial to the program.”
St. Clairsville has found scheduling to be one of its biggest challenges in recent memory. It was early summer before the Devils finalized a 10-game slate.
“We’re thankful to have 10 games, obviously,” McLean said. “You’re only promised so many chances to play.”
Wheeling Central committed to play in Week Nine on a Thursday night to complete the slate. All told, the Devils feature seven home games this season. After Friday’s trip to Carrollton, St. Clairsville will make short jaunts to Bellaire and Martins Ferry.
The only two newcomers to the slate are a visit from South Allegheny from the WPIAL in Week 3 and Cambridge, the newest member of the Buckeye 8, will come calling in the regular season finale.
“We dug as deep as we could into our resources to find South Allegheny,” McLean revealed. “It’s a one-year contract, and we were fortunate because oftentimes the WPIAL doesn’t have open dates and the teams can’t always play out-of-state teams, but we’re looking forward to finding out what kind of team and program they have.”
What’s down the road, however, really hasn’t crossed McLean’s mind. He’s been dialed in on a Carrollton squad that finished 7-3 and advanced to the third round of the Region 15 tournament before being blanked by the same Bloom-Carroll squad that took out St. C.
“The game with Carrollton has always been a good, competitive game between the two schools,” McLean said. “Both teams have won in the series. We expect it’s going to be another good game when we go up there (Friday).”
McLean could hardly believe it when he pointed out this is going to be his 20th season at the helm of the Red Devils. It’s been two highly successful decades, too. Included are a state finals appearance, a regional championship and six OVAC titles, including last season’s when the Devils finished 6-0 in the regular season.
“There are a lot of times during my rides home that I think I am crazy (for doing it this long),” McLean laughed. “But, I truly love and enjoy it. I am getting to the point where my sons will be (playing for) me. But, to have done this for 20 years is tough to believe. Actually, my mom sent me a picture the other day from my first season and I couldn’t grow facial hair when I started.”
The Red Devils coaching staff returns intact at the varsity level.
“One of the keys to our success the last 20 years has been because our coaching staff has been together for so long,” McLean said. “I have four guys who have been with me since I took over and another one or two have been with me 12 years or more. I think we’ve had 65 guys, counting all levels, who have coached with us during my career, so we’ve had some turnover. But, we have five guys (on the staff) who played for me in the past, and that’s huge to bring in someone who already has a feel for the system.”
It consists of Donnie Giffin (offensive coordinator), Ben Frye (defensive coordinator), Kevin Sacco, Chris Patrone, Eric Gay, Gary Hull, Vern Ridgeway, Mike Jacob, Steve Hicks, Chris Balog, Jeremy Schafer, Chris Fogle, John Kutcher, Abbey Maroon, Matt Krupa and Zuke Jacob.
Joey Balgo, Jason Davenport, Clay Espen, Avery Henry, Jacob Jordan, Kade Kiser, Taylor Lane, Mason McCort, Nate Nguyen, Colin Oberdick, Lucas Otto, Austin Porter, Jacob Saffell, Drew Sefsick, Logan Shields, William Smith, Jaren Starks, Carson Woodford.
Chyron Fillon, Logan Fry, George Harrison, Drue Jozwiak, Ryan Newton, Luke D. Porter, Marcus Rector, Vin Roach, Jahleel Sears, Grant Swider, Andrew Vera, Jacob Walker, Jamarcus Webster, Nathan Witsberger, Alex Wood, Jaiden Zebbs, Landon Zollace.
Makenna Booth, Tristan Boroski, Marcus Bush, Kevin Costlow, Jordan Cleamons, Tearyn Dukes, Griffin Fogle, David Gordon, Hunter Hoffman, Harrison Kazmirski, Jacob Meager, Toby Miller, Civin Murray, Perry Patrone, Sammy Phillips, Chris Sommerville, Cody Stecyk, Brennan Stout, Cole Thoburn, Jacob Thornton, Kaleb Walz, Colt Westlake.
Micky Balgo, Brady Blacker, Jakob Brannan, Dino Burk, Cole Cannon, Shine Christain, Easton Conaway, Max Fogle, Drew Gasber, Ryan Ivey, Julian Kingery, Daniel Kyer, Braylon Leiffer, Troy Neal, Tyson Pastor, Kyle Rankin, Ethan Saffell, Kambel Sall, Brody Saunders, Brady Schafer, Gavin Schoolcraft, Liam Tomlin, Wyatt Toothman, Gage Wolfe.