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Steubenville High School

Saccoccia: We’ve been very up and down so far

STEUBENVILLE — Reno Saccoccia will have his Steubenville football team focusing on eliminating the negative as it prepares for a challenging 2021 season.

“We’ve been very up and down so far,” said Saccoccia, who is entering his 51st season of coaching and 39th at the helm of the Big Red, prior to the start of two-a-day practices. “We have had two or three really good days followed by a not-so-good day. We need to be consistent.

“That comes with youth and inexperience. Our team this year is going to be predominantly juniors. Right now we have everything in, but we need to improve tremendously. We were allowed to do a little extra this summer thanks to the OHSAA. So, we did get a little more work in, but now we have to start eliminating some things we are not doing right.”

Steubenville did manage to take the field eight times during the COVID-impacted season of 2020, posting a 5-3 record and falling in the second round of the Division III Region 9 playoffs to Dover. Big Red did record the program’s 22nd straight winning season and participated in the playoffs for a 20th consecutive year. The eight-game season was Big Red’s first since 1938.

Saccoccia lost a load of talent from that squad including Nasari Jackson, Cade Kernahan, Andrew Gresko, Aaron Ferguson, Jared Roberts, Isaiah McCartney, Caesen Sutton, Cian Montgomery and All-Ohioan Eli Burgey. Jackson has moved on to Akron University, while Burgey is continuing his career at Fairmont State. McCartney and Montgomery are looking to play at Otterbein University.

In his lone season as Big Red’s quarterback, Kernahan threw for 860 yards and 10 touchdowns. Looking to replace him are juniors Phaeton Hill and Zach Smith, along with sophomores Ayden Manning and Sabron Felton. Heading into camp, Hill had the edge on his competition.

“Hill is working there right now, along with Smith and Manning,” Saccoccia said. “They all have been pretty consistent. Hill has been doing a good job of improving, and his attitude has been second to none.

“The thing about a quarterback is he gets a lot of credit, there are times when it’s too much and sometimes the quarterback is not responsible for defeats as some might believe. When a play is called in the huddle, say a play-action pass, the quarterback has to separate from the center, get a good running fake, get his feet set and then hit a moving target with guys rushing at him that want to rip his head off. Quarterback is a very important position when it comes to getting things done offensively.”

Coach Reno Saccoccia on the upcoming campaign

Big Red’s offense will feature a solid stable of running backs led by senior Rodney James and junior Spencer Ostovich. In five games as a junior, James compiled 596 rushing yards and found the end zone seven times. Ostovich led Steubenville in rushing with 630 yards and scored nine times. He was a first-team All-Eastern District pick, while James earned special mention.

Also in the mix for carries is junior Tylik Sims, who averaged 6.2 yards a tote as a sophomore, and junior Gavin Bozica. Savier Foulks, a sophomore, also is pressing for time. Sophomores Elijah Mullins and Deshjuan Smith are other possibilities.

Juniors Kyjhaun Hopkins and Dorian Thorn, who both ran for more than 100 yards in 2020, return at fullback. Juniors Cooper Blackburn and Aliquan Harris, along with sophomores Timmy Christian and Camden Vein, also are candidates.

“In a way, our situation with running backs last year was a strength and a weakness,” Saccoccia said. “Most of our injuries were at that position, and we went into a couple of games with just half a tailback. Right now, we have a senior, two juniors and two sophomores working there, and we feel we are receiving a good effort from all of them.

“Overall, I think we have a good mixture in the backfield. Of the candidates there, only one is a senior, but Rodney is a good senior to have. Ostovich is behind him, and he played a lot last year because of Rodney’s injury, so we have good balance.

Senior Brandon Kinney, a first-team All-Eastern District choice as a linebacker, leads the tight end candidates. He caught three passes last year, and all three produced touchdowns. Seniors Kye Fleming and Chad Gardner are vying to see time, along with junior Caden Montgomery and sophomores Jace Kernahan and Richard George.

Brenton Jones, a senior, returns at receiver. He was second on the team in receptions with 11 for 180 yards and two scores. Jones also earned special mention on the Eastern District team.

Juniors Ivan Buggs (seven catches) and Hakim Edwards (five grabs) are back, as is senior Niko Suriano.

Other receiving candidates are senior Chris Schiappa, junior Ty Pierce, junior Micah Mitchell and sophomores Avonte Hall, Josh Schoonover, Lawson Lewis, Lee Anthony Sewell, Carlo Schiappa and Isaac Hill.

Senior Greg Mamula will again anchor the offensive line from his center spot. Junior Camden Daley, who earned special mention on the all-district team, returns at tackle. Senior Peyton Tuttle, a starter until suffering an injury, also is back.

Seniors Jaylin Harris, Jaylin Gray and Blaze Wile are battling for time along the offensive front, as well as juniors Kellen Marshall and Bryce Huff. Sophomore candidates are Brandon Ensell, Peyton Gorby, Matt Walenciej, Isaac Morris, Demetrius Lease, Noah Frey, Jiazeric Birden, Javin Harper and Antonio Dawson.

“Up front, our center is back as is our right tackle,” Saccoccia said. “We are working with 10 offensive linemen for five positions. We also have three strong tight end candidates. We are hoping we get good enough so we don’t have a lot of line going both ways. That’s our goal — now whether we can get there or not is yet to be determined.

“We are very young at some positions, but a lot of our younger guys had some playing time last year. On the line, we have a good mix between seniors, juniors and sophomores. Sometimes, you end up playing sophomores, but going into the season, you hope to be junior- and senior-dominated.”

Junior Austyn Roberts and sophomore Kaynen Brown are listed on Saccoccia’s roster as kickers.

Kinney, James and Hopkins all were starters at linebacker a year ago. Others looking for playing time there are Montgomery, Foulks, Mullins, Christian, Smith, Vein, Harris, Blackburn and Gardner. Sophomore Liam O’Brien also is listed as a linebacker and will see duty as a long snapper.

Ostovich was a regular at defensive end, while Fleming started at tackle.

Defensive line candidates include Bozica, Thorn, Ensell, Gorby, Tuttle, Walenciej, Morris, Lease, Harris, Frey, Birden, Mamula, Marshall, Gary, Daley, Harper, Wile, Huff, Dawson, Isaac Hill, J. Kernahan and George.

Vying for time in the defensive secondary are Suriano, Jones, Schoonover, Manning, Edwards, Smith, Phaeton Hill, Felton, Buggs, Pierce, Sims, Hays, Lewis, Mitchell, Chris Schiappa, Carlo Schiappa and Sewell,

“We have three linebackers returning from last season, and they are followed by three sophomores,” Saccoccia said. “On the defensive line, we have an end returning, as well as a tackle. We also have some returnees in the secondary.

“Heading into camp, we have a lot of open spots to fill, but the positive thing is we have guys back who have some good playing time under their belts.”

Big Red opens its season Friday at home against newcomer Olentangy Liberty, which reached the semifinals of the Ohio Division I playoffs a season ago. Due to all the scheduling changes made in 2020, Saccoccia’s crew will have nine home games.

“We have a very tough schedule,” the Hall of Fame coach said. “The reason we have so many home games is we were willing to travel last year, and those opponents are coming here this season. We were scheduled to host Columbus DeSales last year, but that game was canceled because of COVID, so they will travel here.

“Originally, we were scheduled to open against a team from Pennsylvania, but we are starting a week before other states, so we had to fill that date with Olentangy Liberty. The schedule is very competitive. Our first five games are against Liberty, New Philadelphia, Wheeling Park, Pittsburgh Obama and Dover. We will know what kind of team we will have after the fifth game.”

As he prepares for his 51st season, Saccoccia admits coaching remains “something I love to do.”

“I talked to a couple of players before the season started and told them if they don’t want an old man coaching them, speak up now,” he said. “I think I have their confidence. Coaching is something I love to do. When I don’t love it anymore, I might hang it up. Hopefully, we can step it up this season and be a little more successful than we have been the last two years.

“We played a lot of underclassmen last year because of injuries, and there are a couple of ways to look at that. With youth comes a lot of enthusiasm and great things come from enthusiasm. On the other hand, when veterans are around, they know what’s up and you can count on them for leadership. I have seen situations where guys who started as sophomores get bored by the time they are seniors. Hopefully, that doesn’t happen to us.”

When it comes to the 2021 season, Saccoccia said the primary goal is pretty simple.

“We need to get better on every snap,” he said. “We want our players to go as hard as they can for every snap. Hopefully, by the time our opener rolls around, we will have 28 to 29 kids ready to play a football game because we will be going against a team that has nobody going both ways.

“We have to be the most well-conditioned team we can be going into that first game. We will need to use our timeouts wisely and be in tip-top shape just to be around in that fourth quarter — that’s all we want to do, get it done in the fourth quarter. Of our last nine losses, six have come in the fourth quarter or overtime, so conditioning is going to be a big part of our practices leading up to our first game.”