Healthy Hilltoppers Ready to Turn Up the Heat
By DON CLEGG
WEST LIBERTY — A West Liberty University team that suffered third-degree burns from injuries a year ago is ready to turn up the heat on its Mountain East Conference opponents this fall.
Coach Roger Waialae welcomes back 15 starters and 42 lettermen from his 2015 Hilltoppers squad that opened with a victory against a Top-10 opponent only to see its season derailed by mounting injuries along the offensive line and in the defensive secondary.
Despite the adversity, the Black and Gold still finished with a 5-6 mark, 5-5 in the MEC. Adding to the frustration was the fact three of the Hilltoppers’ five conference losses came by a touchdown or less.
Waialae, who brings a 67-55 (.549) record into his 12th year at the WLU helm, said there was a silver lining to last season’s struggles.
“Sure, we had to play some kids we wanted to redshirt and we struggled in some games where they were overmatched,” Waialae said, “but they hung with it, got acclimated to the speed of the game and competed, which accelerated their development process.
“As a result — and this was very apparent to the coaches and the players in the spring — we are a better football team this year because of what we went through last year.”
With two assistants leaving for high school head coaching jobs, Waialae brought former WLU standout Johnny Bonar on board to coach the wide receivers and altered some other coaching assignments.
Waialae will serve as his own offensive coordinator and coach the tight ends while defensive coordinator Jeff Monteroso coaches the linebackers. Associate head coach Brad Forshey handles the defensive line with strength and conditioning coordinator Dan Hopkins running the offensive line. Curtis McGhee works with the corners, Chuck Haggerty coaches the running backs and Angel Estrada is in charge of the safeties. Zach Amedro coaches the quarterbacks and shares special-teams duties with Estrada.
“We know we’re as talented as anybody,” Waialae said. “Our kids are experienced and battle-tested. We don’t have many unknowns. We’re counting on kids who have established themselves.
“Do we need the stars to align so we can keep our guys on the field and off the operating table? Yes, but that’s football. After the spring we had, our coaches and players can’t wait to get back on the field.”
Two-time All-MEC quarterback Dakota Conwell is regarded as one of the premier run-pass threats in the region heading into his senior season. The Arizona transfer has thrown 46 TD passes and racked up more than 5,300 yards of total offense in the last two years. Sophomore Brenton Colabella, a Steubenville Catholic product, saw action in five games last year and is coming off a strong spring as is redshirt freshman Cody Long. Newcomers here include juco transfer Jake Kalama and two freshmen, Ohio Division 7 Player of the Year Ridge Durban and Ryan Smith out of Washington, D.C.
“Dakota’s leadership is off the charts,” Waialae said. “He willed us to a couple of wins last year. He can take over games throwing and running but the biggest thing he does is get us into the right play. Dakota was our most improved player in the spring but Colabella keeps getting better and Cody Long’s skill set is unbelievable. Consistency is the key for those guys but they can move the team. I like the potential with our new kids. If they can play, I’ll find a way to get them on the field.”
Junior Jeremiah Ortiz is back after starting all 11 games last year. He ran for a team-high 720 yards and four TDs on 167 carries, highlighted by a 217-yard rushing game at Fairmont State. Ortiz was limited in the spring after minor offseason surgery, giving Waialae a good look at the rest of the backs. Senior Ty Peterson, juniors Braxton Gamble and Devone Penick and the sophomore duo of Devan Wade and Ronald Jefferson split most of the spring carries with transfer Tyriq Dorsett also in the mix. Junior Raleigh Mason, a Brooke graduate, impressed at fullback.
“We had great production from Jeremiah last year,” Waialae said, “and the other backs ran well in the spring. Wade and Peterson may have had a bit of an edge but nobody really separated themselves. I hate rotating backs so we’ll take a long look at it again in August. Don’t count any of them out.”
The graduation of All-American TE/WR Daree Goodwin leaves a hole in the rotation but Waialae and his coaches have worked hard to fill it. Senior Dan Monteroso, son of Jeff Monteroso, graduated early from Purdue after three years with the Boilermakers and will play his final season here while attending graduate school. Two more transfers — Shane Phillips and Mike McLean — bolster a strong returning cast led by two-time All-MEC WR Anton McCallum, who had 41 catches for 732 yards and eight TDs last fall. Also back are juniors Max Kapron and Teddy Mayo along with explosive sophomore Osman Kargbo and redshirt freshmen Quinton Jones and L.J. Sutton. Freshman Nick Haynes may also get a look here.
“We’re very excited about Anton,” Waialae said. “He made a jump in the spring I haven’t seen in a long time. If he maintains that level, he has a chance to be one of the best who have ever played here. We expect our transfers to be impact players. Monteroso, Phillips and McLean are big, athletic targets who can make things happen after the catch and we have experienced guys like Kargbo, Kapron and Mayo who have all made plays for us in the past. We like the depth and talent at this spot.”
Ian Kelly impressed in his debut season with 36 catches for 455 yards and four TDs while versatile junior Trevor Hardesty, a John Marshall grad, saw action in 10 games at multiple positions and on special teams. Sophomores Marcus Malara and Joey Staffileno, who played at Brooke, should see more time at tight end while redshirt freshman Chalmer Moffett (Wheeling Park) awaits medical clearance. Newcomers Durban and Kalama could also work their way into the mix.
“Kelly had a big year at H-Back and inside slot while Hardesty can line up anywhere so we’re pretty comfortable with them,” Waialae said. “Malara and Staffileno are solid and we’ll give Durban and Kalama a look in August. The main thing is we have depth and options. We don’t have to be four-wide on every snap and that makes us much harder to defend.”
With everybody healthy heading into preseason, Waialae has more returning starters than spots on the offensive line. Junior All-MEC guard Corey Ernest heads into his third year as a starter. The St. Clairsville product is joined by returning starters Mike Berardi (John Marshall), Avery Goff, Hunter Steel and Zeke May — all of whom were sidelined at some point last fall. Austin Yackey was forced into duty at center but was showing All-MEC potential by the end of the year and Austin Whipkey, a Linsly graduate also made strides. New to the mix are redshirt freshmen Keirs Gloady and Dominique Hudson, Fairmont State transfer Mike Kuheleloa and talented true freshmen Mike Poplowski, Chance Rucker and Brian Fleming.
“The team with the best offensive line wins this league every year,” Waialae said. “We’re very optimistic. The experience these guys gained last year will be invaluable plus we brought in some freshmen we expect to compete right away. We have a chance to be really good up front.”
Three-time All-MEC defensive tackle Darnell Vickers leads four senior starters on this deep and experienced unit. Vickers is joined inside by senior Demarlow Moses and junior Jevon Fripp, who each have starting experience. Juco transfer Jamil Raymore and Charleston transfer Cody Rine (Brooke) will challenge immediately along with true freshman Cam Englehart while Marquee Johnson returns after helping out on the offensive line last fall. Senior Zach Barnes is back at defensive end while senior Tim Moody started two years ago before sitting out last year with an injury as did junior Kelechi Adoma. Junior Mohammed Sankoh made big strides and sophomore Ben Berkovitz played in every game but one. Tom Wangler battled injuries but can play inside or outside while Kyle Ritz (Magnolia) and Anthony Gamble are two of this year’s top recruits.
“We have experienced depth with a lot of guys who have played at a high level,” Waialae said. “We’re in great shape inside with Vickers, Fripp and Moses but they’ll be pushed by Johnson and the new guys. Barnes and Moody are returning starters at defensive end and Sankoh might have been our most improved defensive guy last year. Adoma, Berkovitz and Wangler can all play and we really like the new kids.”
All-MEC senior Garrett Vulcano led the team in tackles and returns for his second season as a starter while sophomore Cliff Clark (Cambridge) made an immediate impact in his first season. There’s plenty of support behind the starters with senior vet Kevin Melder and a horde of redshirt freshman – Zahir Hicks (Weir), Zach Connor (Indian Creek), Dylan Anderson and Nate Burkes – all expected to see the field. Joey Ierulli, another promising redshirt freshman, and sophomore Josh Figurski are bouncing back from injury.
“Vulcano got better every game last year and carried that over into the spring,” Waialae said. “We need him to be the leader of our defense and he can fill that role. Clark has really stepped up and the redshirt freshmen can all play. We’ll see a lot of these guys on special teams, as well.”
After last year’s injury-riddled campaign, there’s great versatility here with several players capable of playing all three safety spots. Returning safeties with starting experience include former All-MEC senior Miles Young along with Charles Simons, Parrish McKnight, Jerimy Mask and Cordell Felder. Redshirt freshmen Logan Deri, Ty Holmes, Larry Fontilisse and Nate Salomon are also in the mix along with highly touted juco transfer Brandon Gaither. True freshmen Tyler Anderson (Magnolia), Austin Skrzyneki (John Marshall) and Nick Haynes could also see the field.
“We were very pleased with what we saw from this group in the spring,” Waialae said. “Heading into camp, we’re looking at Deri at weak safety, Simons or Mask at free and Gaither at strong safety but this is a great mix of guys who have made plays for us in the past along with guys who have tremendous upside for the future. I’m really looking forward to see how it all shakes out.”
Senior Solomon Dixon is back at 100 percent after playing through injury last year while junior Terrance Baldwin and sophomore Brandon Morrison gained starting experience and are coming off strong springs. Redshirt freshmen Josh Ojo and Mohamed Barry will push for time along with safeties Simons, Holmes and Fontilisse. True freshman Tyler Anderson will also get a look.
“It’s the most experienced cornerback group we’ve had,” Waialae said. “After basically playing on one leg last year, Dixon was a completely different guy in the spring. Baldwin and Morrison played a lot and have great potential and Ojo probably could have played last year. Fontilisse and Holmes had great springs and Simons has played corner before. We’re pretty happy here.”
All-MEC sophomore Christian Morris will handle the punting and kicking chores again after an impressive freshman year. The Florida native drilled a last-minute field goal to beat No. 9 Concord in his collegiate debut and set a school single-season punting record. Austin Yackey is back at long snapper with Kuheleloa, Ierulli, Fleming and Rucker also available. Colabella and Hardesty will hold while McCallum leads a dynamic group of returners that includes Monteroso, Kargbo, Wade, Fontilisse, Holmes and Peterson.
“Morris can be as good as anyone we’ve had,” Waialae said, “He’s a very talented kicker who can also kick off and is a great punter. We’re very fortunate to have Yackey back as the long snapper and we’re excited about our return game. McCallum is one of the most explosive returners in the MEC, Monteroso did some returning at Purdue and there’s good depth behind them.”
Sept. 3: at Concord Noon
Sept. 10: at McKendree (IL) 2 p.m.
Sept. 15: Fairmont State 7 p.m.
Sept. 24: at Urbana 1 p.m.
Sept. 29: W.Va. Wesleyan 7 p.m.
Oct. 8: at Charleston 1 p.m.
Oct. 15: UVA-Wise Noon
Oct. 22: at Notre Dame (OH) Noon
Oct. 29: Shepherd Noon
Nov. 3: at Glenville State 7 p.m.
Nov. 12: W.Va. State Noon
Win 7, Lose 4