After a 6-4 season in 2011, Ridgway football comes into the new season hopeful after losing 15 seniors to graduation last year.
To offset the loss of 15 seniors, Ridgway has 16 sophomores coming up to the team this year.
“It’s a great group of kids and we lost a lot last year with our 15 seniors that we graduated,” Ridgway coach Mark Heindl said. “We definitely have a great group of sophomores coming up through the system. The future looks bright for the football program.”
Heindl said there was concern heading into the season about how to replace so many players, including starters at quarterback, running back and many of the offensive and defensive line positions.
“It’s a tough thing especially for as talented as they were and for the leadership the senior class showed,” Heindl said. “You try to look at it like you restock the shelves. With this sophomore class that’s coming up through, they’ve definitely fit in very well. Over time, good things are going to happen if they keep working hard.”
Before Ridgway’s second scrimmage against Cameron County, Heindl said he had a 3-way battle at quarterback between sophomores Ben MacDonald and John Paul Cerroni and senior JoJo Jaques. Assistant coach Mickey Delhunty is working with the quarterbacks in his return to the team this season.
“He’s very excited about what he has to work with because they’re so competitive,” Heindl said. “All three have brought three different types of play to the game but all that in a positive atmosphere that all three have built off of each other."
Heindl said the decision on the starting quarterback will likely come down to just before the season starts which is Friday, Aug. 31 at Otto-Eldred.
“With the knowledge that coach Delhunty brings on board, it makes them better quarterbacks,” Heindl said. “The three of them had an outstanding camp. We’re very excited going into the regular season because any guy at any given time can step up and make a play for us.”
Whoever is not going to be the starting quarterback will likely see time at the wide receiver position.
Ridgway is flush at the running back position with seniors Zac McKnight, John Wildnauer and Logan Wickett will be joined by junior Sam Delhunty and Mike Popson. Junior Adam Gardner is a player Heindl said has come along well since training camp started. Sophomores Josh Lineberger and Luke Pierce could also see playing time either at running back or wide receiver.
“Coach (Ray) Kelly has done a fantastic job with this combination,” Heindl said. “One guy is one play away from being the starter. All of them have competed bigtime against each other and it’s shown not only in our practices but in our scrimmages as well.”
Wickett has been a mainstay on the Elkers since 2010 at the running back position. Wickett was inserted into the lineup as a sophomore. As a junior, an injury ended his season in Week 4.
“To see how he’s progressed not only as a player but as a team leader, he’s really set the tone for the program this season,” Heindl said.
At wide receiver, look for Tony Leithner, Cody Delhunty, Phillip Waddell and Mason Stark to be in the mix as well as the two quarterbacks not under center during the game and potentially some running back split out.
“Running backs could rotate in because we have an abundance at the skill position,” Heindl said. “Competition amongst them has brought out the best in them.”
Heindl said line play is where the inexperience factor will be tested. Senior Cortland Smith is the lone returning offensive line player.
“As a team, we’re going to win and lose with our offensive and defensive lines,” Heindl said. “Last year, we lost five of the six starters on the line including the tight end. That’s opened things for our sophomores. Our lone returner Cortland Smith has had a great offseason, great camp. Junior D.J. Pontious saw some playing time toward the latter part of the season. Other than that, you’re going to see a lot of fresh faces in there. It could range from a senior to some sophomores.”
In addition to Smith and Pontious, Heindl looks for players such as Evan Nourse, Zac Ross, Andy Wolff, Dalton Feldbauer, Ryan Geyer, J.J. Klase, Johnny Mitchell, Troy Quail and Nate Steis to fill out the line.
“In our first scrimmage, we rotated as many as those guys in to give them as much game experience as possible,” Heindl said. “As the year unfolds, we’re going to go as our offensive line goes. We think they’ll do a good job for us.”
Senior Brett Himes transitions from fullback to tight end this season.
“He’s really worked hard to get some reps in at tight end as well,” Heindl said. “Even though we’re young we have a lot of bodies in there that we’re trying to train.”
Defensively, Ridgway loses most of their front seven from last year from a defense which shut out its opponent five times and allowed just 12.4 points per game. On the defensive line, players such as Chad Quail, Jared Casolo and Alex Oknefski are gone, leaving the spots open for those 10 players vying for offensive line playing time.
At linebacker, Jake Himes, Kyle Caggiano and Big 30 player Steve Mitchell have graduated. Brett Himes, Wickett, Wildnauer, Delhunty, Gardner, Pontious, Popson, Lineberger, Sorge and Jack Toncich are among those listed under the linebacker position.
The experience on defense will be in the secondary with McKnight, Jaques and Leithner returning. Heindl said Stark looks to be a strong candidate for starting time as well along with MacDonald at safety. Cerroni, Delhunty, Pierce and Waddell could also see playing time in the back four.
Coming off a 6-win season, Heindl said the chemistry on the team is again a strong point.
“Since we as coaches took over the program five years ago we’re trying to get it team-centered,” Heindl said. “The last couple years have really set the tone for us. They’re a very close-knit group. As time goes on, it’s going to pay dividends for them.”
With Week 1 and a trip to Otto-Eldred rapidly approaching, Heindl said the Terror are not a team to overlook. Otto-Eldred was 2-8 last season.
“Going to Otto-Eldred will be a scary feat because that’s not a typical Otto team this year,” Heindl said. “They return a lot of key players, a lot of starters on the offensive line. That experience alone is dangerous especially when you go on the road, an hour and a half away to Otto. It’s going to be a great test to start off the season, especally for our kids but we’re looking forward to it.”
Heindl said last year’s opener, a 46-35 loss to eventual D-9 champion Port Allegany set the tone for the season as did the leadership shown by the 2011 seniors. Heindl said this year’s opener has the same feel to it going in.
“We had some new faces in some places that hadn’t played in some time,” Heindl said. “Once they figured out that you work together as one, anything can happen. We never looked back from the second half of that Port Allegany game. It’s a great group of kids and that senior class set the tone for what’s yet to come for the program.”