Top returnees for the Springfield football team, from left, are: Tyler Long, Adam Beale, A.J. Gucciardo, Lakeith Jackson, and Cade Chapetta. THE BLADE/ANDY MORRISON
Springfield went from worst to first in just a few short years, and the Blue Devils are expected to stay on top of the Northern Lakes League once again this season.
Last fall, Springfield (10-1 overall, 7-0 NLL) secured the school’s first outright conference championship since 1970 and completed the first undefeated regular season since 1960.
Coach Pat Gucciardo enters his fifth season, having led the Blue Devils to a steady rise.
Springfield was winless in the NLL the season before he took charge, then went 1-6 in the NLL in his first season in 2012. Since then, the Blue Devils have gone 3-4, 4-3, 6-1, and 7-0 in league play.
“When you sit back and look at what our kids have done in such a short time in going from worst to first, it is pretty remarkable,” Gucciardo said.
“Springfield always has had great tradition. We brought some excitement with new offensive and defensive schemes, as well as a work ethic and time commitment.”
Springfield received five of the eight first-place votes in the preseason NLL coaches poll and are predicted to repeat as champions.
“We are very honored to be picked as the preseason favorite. It’s been a long time since that has happened at Springfield High School,” Gucciardo said. “It is so great for our kids to be recognized like this for all their hard work and effort throughout the past five seasons.
“The NLL is a an excellent league with a deep history of great teams, and just to be in the conversation with the league favorites is a tremendous compliment.”
Anthony Wayne (7-3, 5-2) earned two first-place votes and Perrysburg (6-4, 4-3) had one. The teams tied for the second most points in the poll.
“Every year, the NLL is tough top to bottom,” second-year Anthony Wayne coach Andy Brungard said. “There are always teams that surprise you. Whoever the defending champs are, that is who you have to beat. Springfield is the champions until someone knocks them off.”
Bowling Green (7-3, 5-2) tied AW for second in the league in 2016. The Bobcats were picked to finish fourth, followed by Maumee, Northview, Napoleon, and Southview.
“This may be the most balanced NLL in quite some time,” Napoleon coach Tory Strock said. “I truly believe that there are six teams that could contend for the title. The quality of coaching in the NLL is as good as any conference in the state. The quality of athlete cannot be understated either.”
The Blue Devils have plenty of experience returning with 19 seniors, seven starters back on offense, and six returning on defense.
Junior quarterback A.J. Gucciardo, an All-Ohioan who threw for 2,506 yards and 29 touchdowns, will be protected by linemen Tyler Long and Cade Chappetta. Long, a 6-foot-4, 295-pound senior, has committed to play at the University of Toledo. Chappetta earned All-NLL first team honors last year. Senior receiver Lakeith Jackson, who earned Division II all-district honors, is back after catching 46 passes for 705 yards and six touchdowns.
Gucciardo said his team is physically stronger and faster.
“Once again, the kids have worked very hard since December to prepare for the upcoming season and defending our title,” Gucciardo said.
Although the Blue Devils had climbed up to No. 4 in the Associated Press Division II state poll last season, they suffered an improbable 48-41 loss in overtime to Westlake in a first-round playoff game. Springfield saw a 27-point lead disappear in the fourth quarter.
“That loss has not effected us at all. Our coaches and players have always had exceptional preparation techniques that begin in December,” Gucciardo said. “I am very proud of their discipline, motivation, and work ethic within our program.”
The team that has won the NLL each of the past seven seasons has done it in unbeaten fashion. Perrysburg won three consecutive titles from 2013-15, each time with a 7-0 record.
Anthony Wayne (10-4, 5-2 NLL) is coming off the deepest postseason run in program history. In his first season at the helm, Brungard led the Generals to a Division II state semifinal.
Brungard, who was a longtime assistant and defensive coordinator during his time at Perrysburg before taking over at AW, got off to a 6-1 start with the Generals last year.
Anthony Wayne looked to earn a split with Springfield but fell 35-28 in the regular-season finale to finish at 5-2 in league play. The Generals, who last won the NLL in 1988, have large and experienced lines on both sides of the ball.
“We look to build on our success from last year by getting better day by day,” Brungard said.
Brungard lost star running back Evan Brown to graduation, but the Generals’ offensive line will be anchored by 6-1, 270-pound tackle Cole Ragan, who has committed to play at Air Force. Senior running back Nick Schneider rushed for 938 yards and scored 10 touchdowns, with most of his production coming in the postseason.
“The expectations are clear and present: Give everything you have every second,” Brungard said.
After dominating the NLL for four years, Perrysburg (6-4, 4-3) took a step back with a young team last season.
The Yellow Jackets won 27 regular-season games in a row from 2013-15 and in 2015, earned the No. 1 ranking in the state in reaching a Division II state semifinal.
Veteran coach Matt Kregel enters his 12th season with an 89-31 record.
However, Perrysburg failed to qualify for the playoffs last year. At one point, the Yellow Jackets started four sophomores on the line and a freshman at quarterback.
Eleven letterwinners return led by sophomore quarterback Drew Sims and senior receiver Ty Bezek. Sims threw for 1,125 yards and 14 touchdowns in five games as a freshman. Bezek caught 32 passes for 503 yards and three touchdowns.
There are 58 players on the varsity, and Kregel thinks last year’s growing pains will pay dividends.
“We battled through inexperience and injuries on the offensive line. We’ll be much bigger and stronger,” he said. “After losing four games in a row in mid season we gained enough experience to win our last four.”
Bowling Green (7-4, 5-2) is seeking its first league title since 2000. The Bobcats earned a playoff berth for the third consecutive season and second in a row under coach Dirk Conner, who enters his third season with a 15-7 overall record.
Connor said 17 seniors provide good leadership and his team is strong at the offensive skill positions, but lacks experience along the lines. Seniors Brian Dible (WR/CB/KR), Nick Jackson (WR/OLB/PR), Patrick Freeworth (ILB), and Jonathan Baker (DE/TE) will lead the attack.
“We are looking forward to competing for NLL championships and playoffs once again,” Conner said. “In order to get to that point, our offensive and defensive lines have to get up to speed physically and mentally in a hurry. Guys who have waited their turn at positions over the past couple of years need to step up.”
Maumee (4-6, 2-5) looks to make a push up the standings with an experienced group, led by senior tight end Mike Haney, who has committed to Eastern Michigan University. Haney, who is 6-4 and 270 pounds, is among 14 seniors and is one of nine players that return with at least two years of experience.
The Panthers, who last won an NLL title in 2009 when they shared it with Southview, will be physically strong as a team, according to fifth-year coach Marc Gibson.
“We are a highly experienced team with many seniors who’ve started or lettered over the past three or four seasons. They are tired of being average and have worked to exceed past performances,” Gibson said. “I love the team’s work ethic, demeanor, and attitude.”
Northview (5-5, 2-5) looks to gain ground in the standings behind 17 seniors, including quarterback Brandon Leach and receiver Dane Hullibarger.
Leach, who is 6-7 and 225 pounds, finished third in the league in passing yards with 900. Hullibarger, who earned All-NLL second team honors on offense and defense and as a punter, finished fifth in the league in receiving with 28 catches for 510 yards.
Fourth-year coach Doug Downing said the Wildcats have experience and talent at the skill positions. He also said the team has a solid defensive secondary and defensive ends.
“On offense, our ability to execute in the throwing game and convert on third downs will be the key to our success,” Downing said.
In 2012, Napoleon (5-5, 3-4) went undefeated in the regular season and won the NLL title in just the second year competing in the league. The Wildcats have posted a 24-18 record since joining the league in 2011. They have 20 seniors and seven starters back on offense and four returning on defense.
Senior running back Dylan Unverferth finished sixth in the league in rushing with 656 yards on 136 carries. He will be running behind a good, experienced offensive line. There is depth among the receiving corps, as well as the offensive backfield.
“There are no weeks off in the NLL,” Strock said. “We are poised to contend for a title this fall. I firmly believe that.”
Southview (0-10, 0-7) was the league’s perennial powerhouse from 2003-11, as the Cougars won eight titles in a nine-year span. Southview last won back-to-back titles in 2010 and ’11 with consecutive 7-0 seasons.
Jim Mayzes, the dean of NLL coaches, thinks his team is ready to turn the corner. Mayzes, who enters his 24th season with a career record of 165-87, has his quarterback (junior Brayton Schmidt) and receiver (senior Zech Miller) back among 26 letter winners.
“This team has great potential,” Mayzes said. “Many younger players got valuable experience last year. We must avoid injuries and develop confidence to have success.”
■ Coach: Pat Gucciardo, sixth year
■ Last season: 10-1, 7-0 NLL
■ Returning letter winners: 16
■ Returning starters: Offense 7, defense 6
■ Schemes: Fun-n-Gun/Multiple 3-4
■ Top players: Seniors Tyler Long, 6-4, 295, OL-DE; Cade Chappetta, 6-2, 255, DL-DE; A.J. Gucciardo, 6-1, 170, QB; Lakeith Jackson, 5-9, 175, WR; Adam Beale, 5-9, 160, WR; Alex Legeza, 5-9, 170, RB; Nate Stuckey, 6-1, 215, TE; Shawn Olivier, 6-0, 210, ILB; Brett Keeler, 6-0, 205, ILB. Juniors Michael Key, 6-4, 235, OLB; Daevion Arnold, 6-0, 180, DB. Sophomore J.T. Hale, 6-3, 225, OLB.
■ Outlook: The Blue Devils look to be in good position to match last year's stellar regular-season — the best in program history.
Gucciardo, who is 32-19 at Springfield, has 72 varsity players with 19 seniors.
“Our players fully understand the magnitude of strength and conditioning and how it translates to Friday nights,” he said. “I also know that the relationships and bonds that are formed between players and staff members are extremely instrumental to our success.”
Long, who has committed to play at the University of Toledo, earned all-league and all-district honors as a junior. Chappetta also was named to the All-NLL first team honors.
A.J. Gucciardo completed 153 of 233 passes for 2,506 yards and 29 touchdowns to earn all-league and all-district first team honors.
Jackson (46 receptions for 705 yards and 6 scores) also earned All-NLL and all-district first team honors. Beale also is a top target as he had 25 receptions for 361 yards and three scores. Stuckey is a formidable target at tight end and earned All-NLL honors in 2016. Keeler and Key also were named all-leaguers.
“It is a true honor to coach them,” he said.
Gucciardo said probable team strengths are the Blue Devils’ returning experience, strength, and speed.
“The kids have worked very hard since December to prepare for the upcoming season and defending our title,” he said. “I am very proud of their discipline, motivation, and work ethic within our program.”
2. ANTHONY WAYNE
■ Coach: Andy Brungard, second year
■ Last season: 10-4, 5-2 NLL
■ Returning letter winners: 17
■ Returning starters: Offense 7, defense 6
■ Schemes: Spread/4-3
■ Top players: Seniors Cole Ragan, 6-1, 270, OT/-DT; Nick Schneider, 5-10, 175, RB-DB; Ralph Burdo, 6-2, 215, TE-DE; Nolan Anderson, 6-0, 205, TE-LB; Dawson Zaleksi, 6-2, 250, OG-DT; Nathan Barney, 6-1, 250, OT; Max Guitteau, 5-11, 180, RB-LB.
■ Outlook: The Generals got out of the gate slowly with a 31-0 loss to Findlay in Brungard’s first game at the helm, then made the deepest playoff run in school history, reaching the Division II Final Four.
The unranked Generals knocked off Glenville (21-7), Avon Lake (14-6), and Olmsted Falls (38-31). In the regional title game, Anthony Wayne ultimately fell 35-0 to power Cincinnati La Salle, which went on to win its third consecutive state title.
Under Brungard, a longtime assistant coach and defensive coordinator at Perrysburg before taking over at AW, the Generals won six games in a row to improve to 6-1, then won four of their final six games.
Ragan, who has committed to play at Air Force, is among a number of players returning that benefited from the playoff run.
Anthony Wayne has good overall numbers (72 players) and experience (18 returning seniors). Schneider rushed for 938 yards and scored 10 touchdowns with most of his production coming in the postseason. Burdo had 13 catches for 146 yards and two scores. Guitteau rushed for 365 yards. Anderson is back after making 103 tackles. Zaleksi had 60 overall stops and five sacks.
Brungard said the offensive and defensive lines should be stout. But he said developing depth at the skill positions is a top priority.
The Generals got a boost to their coaching staff with the addition of University of Toledo and NFL quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, who is volunteering with the program as quarterbacks coach.
“We will be strong up front,” he said. “Filling spots vacated by a strong senior class will be key.”
■ Coach: Matt Kregel, 12th year
■ Last season: 6-4, 4-3 NLL
■ Returning letter winners: 11
■ Returning starters: Offense 5, defense 4
■ Schemes: Spread/4-2
■ Top players: Senior Ty Bezek ,6-0, 200, WR. Juniors Tyler Detterman 6-0, 275, OT; Carson Gulgin, 6-1, 226, OG; Ian Riddle, 6-0, 185, WR/C. Sophomore Drew Sims, 5-9, 160, QB.
■ Outlook: The Yellow Jackets look to rebound from a down year behind the arm of Sims, who threw for 1,125 yards and 14 touchdowns in five games as a freshman. Bezek will be one of his main targets, after catching 32 passes for 503 yards and three touchdowns.
Perrysburg has compiled an 89-31 record under longtime coach Kregel, who will have good numbers with 58 players on the varsity roster.
Detterman and Gulgin both started in all 10 games last season. Riddle had eight interceptions last year.
“We battled through inexperience and injuries on the offensive line in 2016,” Kregel said. “This year we return four offensive linemen. We’ll be much bigger and stronger in 2017.”
But with only 12 seniors, the team is relatively inexperienced. The Yellow Jackets are particularly young at at receiver and in the defensive backfield.
“We battled injuries and inexperience in 2016. At one point we were starting four sophomore linemen and a freshman quarterback,” Kregel said. “After losing four games in a row in midseason, we gained enough experience to win our last four. The Jackets return 11 letter winners and will be much bigger and stronger in 2017.”
4. BOWLING GREEN
■ Coach: Dirk Conner, third year
■ Last season: 7-4, 5-2 NLL
■ Returning letter winners: 15
■ Returning starters: Offense 5, defense 4
■ Schemes: Flexbone Option/4-4
■ Top players: Seniors Brian Dible, 6-1, 180, WR-CB-KR; Nick Jackson, 5-11,170, WR-OLB-PR; Patrick Freeworth, 5-11, 205, ILB; Jonathan Baker, 6-2, 200, TE-DE; Spencer Rader, 6-2, 195, QB; Sam Steffen, 6-3, 175, WR-CB. Junior Jayden Barton, 6-1,255, OL-DL.
■ Outlook: The Bobcats have compiled a 15-7 record under Conner.
Among 60 on the varsity, there are 17 seniors.
Dible carried the ball 54 times for 405 yards (7.5 per carry) with seven touchdowns during the regular season. He must help fill the void of the loss of quarterback Dylan Dohanos, who led the team in passing and was second in rushing, and leading rusher Darius Calhoun.
Conner said BG should be strong at the offensive skill positions and have good senior leadership. He said athleticism on defense and experience at key positions also are areas of strength.
But he said the Bobcats are young in the trenches with only one starter on the offensive and defensive lines.
“We are looking forward to competing for the NLL championship and playoffs once again,” Conner said. “In order to get to that point, our offensive and defensive lines have to get up to speed physically and mentally in a hurry.
“Guys who have waited their turn at positions over the past couple of years need to step up for us early while we are breaking in new players. We have to learn how to battle for four quarters against a very competitive schedule.”
■ Coach: Marc Gibson, fifth year
■ Last season: 4-6, 2-5 NLL
■ Returning letter winners: 17
■ Returning starters: Offense 7, defense 8
■ Schemes: Double Wing/3-4
■ Top players: Seniors Mikey Haney, 6-4, 270, OT-DE; Brandon Phillips, 6-0, 225, G-DE; Caleb Brown, 5-10, 180, RB-S; Devon Cleghorn, 5-3, 155, RB-LB; Justin Schneider, 5-9, 165, RB-S; Ryan Haas, 5-11, 200, TE-LB; Robert Caeser, 5-9, 170, RB-LB; Mason Haas, 5-7, 160, RB-LB; Matt Dalton, 6-0, 255, OT-DT.
■ Outlook: Among 45 players on the varsity, there are 14 seniors
Gibson has a 11-29 record at Maumee after a highly successful stint at Clyde.
Haney, who is 6 feet, 4 inches and 270 pounds, will play Division I college football at Eastern Michigan. The four-year starter earned All-NLL second team honors on offense and defense.
Phillips and Brown also are four-year starters. Brown earned all-league honors as both a sophomore and junior.
Cleghorn, Caeser, and Schneider are three-year starters. Schneider earned All-NLL honors after leading the Panthers with five interceptions as a junior.
Ryan and Mason Haas have started on the varsity for two seasons along with Dalton.
Gibson said that experience should be the Panthers’ biggest asset. He also said overall team strength should be a positive.
“We are a highly experienced team with many seniors who have started or lettered over the past three or four seasons. They are tired of being average and have worked to exceed past performances,” Gibson said. “I love the team’s work ethic, demeanor, and attitude.”
■ Coach: Doug Downing, fourth year
■ Last season: 5-5, 2-5 NLL
■ Returning letter winners: 23
■ Returning starters: Offense 6, defense 5
■ Schemes: One back open/4-2
■ Top players: Seniors Dane Hullibarger, 6-1, 205, WR-FS; Brandon Leach, 6-7, 225, QB; Alex Sample, 6-4, 230, DE: Jeffrey Blanks, 5-10, 190, RB-OLB; Ryan Rempe, 5-8, 165, WR-OLB; Cam Corron, 6-0, 170, WR/DB; Jarrett Batanian, 6-1, 180, WR-DB.
■ Outlook: The Wildcats are in search of the program’s first title since 2005 when they shared it with rival Southview.
Downing, who has a record of 13-17, will be counting on 38 varsity players and 17 seniors.
Hullibarger, who earned All-NLL second team honors on both offense and defense and as a punter, finished fifth in the league in receiving with 28 catches for 510 yards and five TDs.
Leach finished third in the league in passing yards with 900. The tall signal caller (6-7) completed 61 of 122 passes with nine touchdowns.
Downing said the team’s offensive skill positions, especially the passing game, should be solid. He also said the defensive secondary and edge rushers are going to be strong.
“Our kicking game will be in good hands with the return of both specialists,” Downing said.
However, he also said inexperience up front on the offensive line and defensive lines, and the linebackers are areas of concern.
“On offense, our ability to execute in the throwing game and convert on third downs will be the key to our success,” Downing said. “Defensively, the keys are our ability to tackle well and get stops on third down.”
■ Coach: Tory Strock, 10th year
■ Last season: 5-5, 3-4 NLL
■ Returning letter winners: 12
■ Returning starters: Offense 7, defense 4
■ Schemes: Pistol Wing-T/3-4
■ Top players: Seniors Grant Strock, 6-1, 195, QB; Brennan Druhot, 6-1,197, WR-S; Dylan Unverferth, 5-8, 190, FB-LB; Caleb Lyons, 6-3, 239, C-DT; Grayson Anderson, 6-3, 294, OT-DT; Zach Altman, 5-8, 174, HB-LB,
■ Outlook: Since joining the NLL in 2011, the Wildcats have compiled a 24-18 record in league play.
Strock has 62 varsity players, including 20 seniors.
Unverferth finished sixth in the league in total rushing with 656 yards on 136 carries.
Grant Strock, who completed 20 of 39 passes for 241 yards and four touchdowns, started five games last season. Druhot started on both offense and defense last year.
Lyons and Anderson anchored the lines last year. Altman was a two-way starter at running back and linebacker.
Strock said good overall numbers continue to be a strength.
“Napoleon football is alive and well,” he said.
Having 20 seniors must be considered a strength, Strock said. The offensive line has good experience. There is quality depth among the receiving corps, as well as the offensive backfield.
“The biggest key for us will be the growth of our offensive line from last season to this season,” Strock said. “If they reach their potential, success will follow.”
The Wildcats also play three rivalry games to kickoff the season, against Defiance, Liberty Center, and Wauseon.
“We are poised to contend for a title this fall. I firmly believe that,” Strock said.
■ Coach: Jim Mayzes, 24th year
■ Last season: 0-10, 0-7 NLL
■ Returning letter winners: 26
■ Returning starters: Offense 8, defense 9
■ Schemes: Multiple/4-3
■ Top players: Seniors Zech Miller, 6-2, 190, WR-S; Devan Singleton, 5-9, 165, WR-DB; Caiden Rieger, 6-0, 240, C-DE. Juniors Tyler Joseph, 6-2, 250, TE-DE; Alex Yarrito, 5-10, 235, FB-MLB; Brayton Schmidt, 6-0, 190, QB; Gage Stoler, 5-8, 185, RB-OLB.
■ Outlook: With 43 varsity players, including 13 seniors, Mayzes is optimistic his team will turn the corner this season.
“This team has great potential,” Mayzes said.
Mayzes, who enters his 24th season with a career record of 165-87, said he likes this team’s experience.
Miller, who earned All-NLL second team honors, had 29 catches for 568 yards (19.6 yards per reception) and three touchdowns.
Schmidt completed 67 of 137 passes for 719 yards and four touchdowns.
Joseph will be a third-year starter, while Singleton possesses great speed.
But Mayzes said low overall numbers provide little depth, so that his Cougars must avoid injuries.
“Many younger players got valuable experience last year,” Mayzes said. “We must avoid injuries and develop confidence to have success.”
Anthony Wayne's Nick Schneider delivers a pass during the team's state semifinal game a year ago. THE BLADE
Northview's Dane Hullibarger was a second-team all-conference pick a season ago. THE BLADE
Bowling Green's Brian Dible ran for seven touchdowns a season ago. THE BLADE