A 7-3 regular season and opening round playoff win in 2016 has whetted the appetite of the Black River Pirates for even more success this season.
After defeating Grand Valley High School 48-26, the Pirates were handed a 30-0 shutout by eventual Division V state champion Canton Central Catholic.
“We have numerous guys coming back who we feel good about and who’ve played a lot of football for us,” said longtime Pirates coach Al Young, who’s guided the squad to a 45-31 record since 2010. “We have to replace a lot of kids who graduated but our JV team played very well last year and we’re comfortable with who we have coming up.”
The team will do without key contributors such as running back Corey Bartolic, linebacker Curtis Roupe, quarterback Mike Hazlett, defensive end Nick Wagner, and tight end Cory Hamilton.
However, most components of a rushing attack that regularly notched more than 300 yards per contest last year will return, including Jacob Campbell (1,300 yards), Riley Gibbs (1,100 yards), and Travis Sexton (950 yards).
Junior Riley Bartolic will take over quarterback duties and is set to take the field with other prominent returning Pirates such as linebacker Alex Vormelker, lineman Cole Haswell, center Trevor Scott, tight end Brennan Scheck, and defensive end Jeff Owen.
“We have 60-plus kids on the roster, and those pure numbers are a strength,” Young said. “We’ve always had good numbers. We played great football at the end of last year and that’s a product of this group’s collective experience. Our level of play continued to rise the entire season last year.”
Including its playoff games, Black River scored 431 points and gave up just 259 in 2016. Over the course of a four-game winning streak that led up to the season-ending loss, the team outscored opponents 194-70.
“Last year we gave up too much pass yardage across the board,” said senior defensive back Garrett Hord, who registered 50 tackles, 15 passes defended, and two interceptions last season. “Our front seven did a great job and we want to match that level this year. We want to turn our defense into a complete shutdown unit.”
A five-man pass rush out of a 4-3 alignment is generally favored by the team, but Hord said that can change depending on situation and opponent.
“Our coaches do a really good job game planning and keeping people on their toes,” he said. “We like to play zone most of the time but you never really know. If we play a pass-happy team we might zone it up a little more but against a run heavy team it could be more man-to-man.”
Young said he likes his chances of improving on the team’s second place finish in the the Patriot Athletic Conference Stars division.
“We can’t get ahead of ourselves,” he said. “I think we’ve done a good job establishing ourselves with where we made it to last year and and now trying to get past that. We want to be a little more diverse offensively and defensively, adding a few new wrinkles. It’s now the third year for these kids being in the same system on both sides of the ball and they’ve become more comfortable. I really think we’ll be able to take it to a new level this year.”
Jonathan Delozier can be reached at 440-647-3171 or @DelozierNews on Twitter.