July 24, 2016

Partly cloudy

High school football players return to gridiron

Veteran Black River coach Al Young is looking at life without leading rusher Andrew Vaughn, left, as a welcome challenge. Today, is the first day of high school football practice. RON SCHWANE / GAZETTE

Veteran Black River coach Al Young is looking at life without leading rusher Andrew Vaughn, left, as a welcome challenge. Today, is the first day of high school football practice. RON SCHWANE / GAZETTE

This week’s weather has high school football faithful excited for the lights of Friday night again. By this time next week, that enthusiasm will be at a fevered pitch when teams across the state are in full pads.

This morning, schools were able to meet as a team, put away the 7-on-7 playbooks and actually practice. The anticipation in Medina County is almost palpable as the area will try to equal or surpass the achievement it had on the gridiron last year.

“I think sometimes doing 7-on-7 can be too much,” Highland coach Tom Lombardo said. “Quarterbacks can get too comfortable. I want efficient practices. I want four or five guys rushing where you have to make quick decisions. We want the full aspect of it.”

Success followed Lombardo last season as the Hornets became the third team in area history to reach the state semifinals — Brunswick reached the state final in 1995 and the final four in 2007 — before losing to eventual Division II state runner-up Glenville.

Accolades and the county went hand-in-hand last year as Black River, Buckeye, Wadsworth and Brunswick made the playoffs as well.

Today, 2013 becomes a memory and the 2014 season becomes reality.

“Sometimes a player might not look that great in shorts and a helmet, but once the pads come on, those guys really shine,” Blue Devils coach Luke Beal said. “I know the guys get frustrated because we’ve used those 10 days in the summer and then the first few days are like that in practice.

“But this is what you look forward to. Once you get to practice, you look forward to getting everything together and finding out what you really have.”

Those questions are everywhere.

While some look at losing players to graduation as a negative, teams are excited to find the answers to questions like, “What will Highland be like without All-Ohio quarterback Bruce Kinsey?” Or, “What happens to Black River now that Andrew Vaughn, the county’s all-time leading rusher, has graduated?”

Vaughn exited with 6,097 yards rushing and holds county records in career points (530), points in a season (218), career TDs (82), career rushing TDs (72) and longest interception return (102 yards).

Pirates coach Al Young is looking at life without Vaughn as a welcomed challenge.

“It’s nice for the kids because they have something to look forward to,” Young said. “They’ve seen that we’ve had success here and now it’s their turn. At the same, there’s also that looking over their shoulders because it is their turn.

“These are my favorite years. When everyone expects you to not be any good, these are the teams I like to coach because there’s no pressure. You come out and do what you do and play as hard as you can. As soon as I can get them to realize they are talented, I think we’ll be pretty good. We’re just young right now.”

Lombardo faces a challenge to make 2014 as successful as 2013. While that task is huge, the air around Granger Township smells a little different as student-athletes have congregated on the gridiron to try and repeat the feat.

“Our numbers are the biggest they’ve ever been. We’ll have 70 or more 10th- through 12th-graders,” Lombardo said. “The numbers are outstanding and I think it’s because of (2013). The kids got a taste of it. We got to see the teams with great tradition like Massillon and Glenville. They loved to play against them, not to mention Avon and Avon Lake.

“Our kids are eager. In a way, they’re self-motivated. They know what it takes and what to do to get there. I think they’re open to that challenge.”

The challenge to build off Beal’s first playoff appearance at Brunswick is there as well, and he has a solid quarterback returning in Steven Ficyk. Add to that an abundance of returning starters on both sides of the ball and the Blue Devils look ready to return to the glory of days past.

“There’s definitely been an air of excitement in the spring and the summer,” Beal said. “We’ll have 40 or 41 seniors, including the quarterback, and six starters returning on both sides of the ball.

“The guys got that taste of the playoffs. They’d like to go further. We understand we’ll have to play every week. It’ll be a challenge, but the kids are looking forward to that challenge.”

Cloverleaf and Medina will also look forward to putting 2013 in the rearview mirror while starting a new tradition in 2014.

Where the Colts and Bees end up remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure: Blow the whistle. Football started in Medina County today.

Contact Brad Bournival at sports@medina-gazette.com.