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Irish picked to win TRAC, reload once again

08/22/2017, 1:27pm EDT
By By STEVE JUNGA BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Central Catholic loses Warren, Hudson; Whitmer brings back experience to contend


From left, Central Catholic players Domonique Kimble, Jase Bowen, Dallas Fields, Sean Blue, and DeMarko Craig return as the Fighting Irish will attempt to win their fifth consecutive TRAC crown. THE BLADE/ANDY MORRISON

Central Catholic has graduated two of the top players in the history of its football program, with 2016 Ohio Mr. Football Michael Warren now at the University of Cincinnati, and All-Ohio lineman James Hudson at the University of Michigan.

But ever since 18th-year Fighting Irish coach Greg Dempsey (168-43 overall record) took the reins, Central seems to simply reload each fall and resume the business of chasing league and state championships.

That is precisely what coaches in the Three Rivers Athletic Conference were thinking when they again made the Irish the favorite in their preseason poll.

Riding a string of 28 straight conference victories, the four-time defending champion Central Catholic is projected to make it five TRAC titles in a row this season.

RELATED: The Blade’s 2017 high school football preview

“You lose some great players every year, but here you’re talking about some high-profile, once-in-a-lifetime-type players that we lost from last year’s team,” Dempsey said. “We’ve had some great success at our younger [freshman and JV] levels, and we have a decent amount of lettermen and returning starters

“As coaches, we have to make sure we’re evaluating our talent well and evaluating our scheme well, and that we’re getting our current kids in positions where they can succeed. We will need some players to step up. It’s 2017, and it’s this team’s time to put their mark on the tradition of Central Catholic football.”

Central, which ended 13-1 overall and ranked No. 1 among Ohio’s Division III teams in 2016, received six of the eight first-place votes from TRAC coaches, and 60 of a possible 64 voting points to top the preseason poll.

Central, the smallest school in terms of enrollment in the TRAC, was 7-0 in conference play for the fourth consecutive season last fall.

“It’s always an honor when people place those kinds of expectations on you, even if it is based on past results,” Dempsey said of Central being picked to win a fifth straight title. 

“But I definitely think that it’s a wide-open league this year with some great competition, and we’re one of the teams. If we take care of our business, we should hopefully be in the hunt for the league title. I expect that of our kids, and I’m sure they do of themselves. It’s always good to have expectations in your program. 

“We’re blessed to have the success we’ve had the last five years, and that makes it even more difficult because everyone wants to knock you off. It’s been a great experience for the kids.”

Central’s last TRAC loss came in the 2012 regular-season finale, a humbling 42-0 home defeat at the hands of Whitmer, which was 14-1 and the Division I state runner-up that season.

Central also ended up 14-1 in 2012, winning a D-II state championship.

Coach Ken Winters’ Whitmer Panthers, who finished 8-3 overall and 6-1 in the TRAC, received one first-place vote and was second in the poll with 57 points.

St. John’s Jesuit (6-4, 3-4), under new head coach Larry McDaniel, received 42 points for third, and Lima Senior (6-4, 4-3) picked up one first-place nod and was fourth with 41 points.

“Whitmer is always at the top of the list when you’re discussing the toughest teams in the league,” Dempsey said. “They’ve had a great program for a long period of time, and it seems like our game with them has always decided the league title, going back over most of the last 10 years.

“They have a great program with great coaches and great players. They have a lot coming back and have a lot of expectations themselves.”

Despite its significant losses to graduation, which also included quarterback Torrin Campbell, the cupboard is far from bare for Central. The Irish have 25 letter winners, and seven starters return on defense, plus four on offense. This from a team in the midst of the greatest stretch in program history.

In the past five seasons, the Irish have posted a 64-8 record overall (34-1 in TRAC) and won two state titles (D-II in 2012 and D-III in 2014).

Central Catholic was also the D-III state runner-up in 2015, reached the D-III state semifinals last season, and advanced to the D-III regional final in 2013. The Irish are 19-3 in postseason games alone since 2013.

This year’s team will be led by senior linebacker/​running back Dallas Fields, who has committed to Miami (Ohio) University, junior receiver/​defensive back Jase Bowen, who has committed to Notre Dame for baseball, imposing senior two-way linemen Domonique Kimble (6-1, 285 pounds) and DeMarko Craig (6-1, 275), and speedy running back Sean Blue.

Whitmer also brings back plenty, with 34 seniors on a 90-player roster, and seven starters back on both offense and defense.

Leading the way for the Panthers will be seniors Sam Stickels (safety), Jasean Rader (receiver) and Luke Beadle (linebacker), juniors Cavon Butler (defensive end) and Kobe Myers (running back), and sophomore quarterback Riley Keller, who is regarded as one of Ohio’s top quarterbacks in the Class of 2020.

Whitmer has made 8 consecutive Division I playoff appearances under the coaching tenures of Joe Palka (2006-11, 58-17 record), Jerry Bell (2012-15, 36-13), and Winters, with four straight league titles (City League 2009-10, TRAC 2011-12), a state runner-up finish in 2012, and state semifinal advancements in 2010-11 during that span.

St. John’s makes the transition from longtime coach Doug Pearson (2002-16, 98-66 record) to McDaniel, whose trail as a college assistant includes stops at Toledo, Bowling Green, and Indiana.

The Titans, who are led by Big Ten commits Dallas Gant (linebacker, Ohio State) and Austin Beier (lineman, Minnesota), look to make their first playoff appearance since 2010. St. John’s also seeks its first league championship since 1996 in the City League.

Lima Senior, in its second season under head coach Andre Griffin — the son of Ohio State legend Archie Griffin — looks to retain the momentum created by the masterful rebuilding job done by former coach Mike Fell.

The Spartans’ program had basically imploded not long after their Division I state championship season of 1996 under coach Leonard Rush. They had won a total of 20 games in the 12 seasons before Fell — a 1979 Lima Senior graduate — took over in 2013. Lima was 0-10 in 2012.

Fell’s teams went 22-11 from 2013-15 and made the first two playoff appearances for the school since the 1996 title. His talented 2015 team nearly ended Central’s TRAC winning streak before the Irish rallied from a 27-point deficit at home in a 49-48 win against the Spartans.

Griffin’s team has 21 seniors on a 60-player roster, with 23 letter winners and starters returning to 13 of 22 positions, led by 6-foot-7, 230-pound senior tight end Keaton Upshaw (48 catches in 2016). The Spartans lost a tight 35-34 battle to visiting Central in week 10 last season.

The TRAC alignment includes two other new coaches, as John Galyas succeeds Mike Lee at Clay (3-7, 2-7), and Dan Chipka replaces Scott Knisely at St. Francis de Sales (0-10, 0-7). Both coaches are in rebuilding modes.

Clay is 8-32 overall since 2013, and St. Francis — once Toledo’s most prominent football power under Ohio Hall of Fame coach Dick Cromwell (state titles in 1984 and 2001, 10 City League titles) — has gone 3-27 the past three years.

Findlay (6-4, 4-3), which has competed most often in the upper half of the TRAC in the conference’s first six seasons under coach Mark Ritzler, has only eight letter winners back and returning starters at only six of 22 positions.

Fremont Ross (3-7, 2-5) has better prospects for a climb in the TRAC standings, with 17 letter winners back and starters returning to 18 of 22 positions for second-year coach Chad Long.

CAPSULE PREVIEWS

1. CENTRAL CATHOLIC

■ Coach: Greg Dempsey, 18th year

■ Last season: 13-1, 7-0 TRAC

■ Returning letter winners: 25

■ Returning starters: Offense 4, defense 7

■ Schemes: Multiple sets/​3-3

■ Top players: Seniors Dallas Fields, 6-1, 220, RB-LB; Devon Rivers, 6-0, 210, RB-LB; De’Marko Craig, 6-1, 275, OL-DL; Domonique Kimble, 6-1, 285, OL-DL; Sean Blue, 5-11 175, WR-DB. Juniors Jase Bowen, 6-1, 180, WR-DB; Victor Copeland, 6-2, 220, WR-LB; Justin Schiets, 6-0, 220, LB.

■ Outlook: The Fighting Irish begin their quest for a fifth straight TRAC championship riding a 28-game conference winning streak. They have 20 seniors on their 92-player roster, and return starters to 11 of 22 positions. Central has good athleticism and solid depth, especially at the skill positions. Dempsey’s top concerns include inexperience at the quarterback position, and on the offensive line, which might lead to a slow start offensively until these areas begin to click. Bowen, a first team All-TRAC receiver, might see some time at QB to provide a boost, if necessary. Fields, Craig, and Kimble were first team All-TRAC on defense.

“The kids have had a great offseason and preseason,” said Dempsey (168-43 career record). “We have good athletes that have some good game experience. If the new players continue to develop, provide depth, and replace graduating players, we can compete for a league title.

“They’re predicted to be No. 1, and it’s going to take a great effort every day. Every game we’re going to get everybody’s best shot.”

2. WHITMER

■ Coach: Ken Winters, second year

■ Last season: 8-3, 6-1

■ Returning letter winners: 17

■ Returning starters: Offense 7, defense 7

■ Schemes: Spread/​4-3

■ Top players: Seniors Sam Stickels, 5-10, 175, FS; Luke Beadle, 5-9, 195, LB; Jasean Rader, 5-7, 155, WR; Josh Close, 6-3, 220, TE; Kaleb Breitner, 6-2, 186, LB; Dylan Houghtlen, 6-1, 220, DE. Juniors Cavon Butler, 6-3, 267, DE; Kobe Myers, 5-10, 200, RB. Sophomore Riley Keller, 6-1, 195, QB.

■ Outlook: The Panthers should provide a serious challenge for the TRAC title this season with starters back at 14 of 22 positions from a Division I playoff team. As a freshman starter, Keller, one of Ohio’s top QBs in his class, passed for 1,892 yards and 21 TDs, and was named first-team All-TRAC. Close was a first-team All-TRAC tight end, and Stickels and Breitner were each first-team All-TRAC on defense.

The Panthers’ biggest losses to graduation were first-team All-TRAC selections Nick Witcher (WR, 31 catches, 890 yards, 11 TDs in regular season), Lance Hale (OL), Kyle Walsh (DL), and Zach Kubicki (DB).

Whitmer’s defense will likely be the team’s strength, at least early in the season, as new personnel on offense gains experience and seeks to find a rhythm.

Over the past 12 seasons, since 2005, the winner of the Whitmer-Central game has gone on to win the league championship (Central 2005-08 in City League, 2013-16 TRAC; Whitmer 2009-10 CL, 2011-12 TRAC). The two teams will meet at Central this season in week 6 on Sept. 29.

“With seven starters returning on both sides of the ball, we have the potential to be a very good football team,” Winters said. “Now, we just have to put in the work to accomplish our goals.”

3. ST. JOHN’S

■ Coach: Larry McDaniel, first year

■ Last season: 6-4, 3-4

■ Returning letter winners: 24

■ Returning starters: Offense 5, defense 5

■ Schemes: Pro style/​4-2-5

■ Top players: Seniors Dallas Gant, 6-3, 225, TE-LB; Austin Beier, 6-4, 275, OL-DL; Brian Dooley, 6-5, 270, OL; Alex Gayle, 5-8, 175, RB. Junior Marcus Jarrett, 5-6, 165, WR-DB.

■ Outlook: The Titans are a team transitioning from a long-time head coach (Doug Pearson, 15 seasons) to his successor, McDaniel, who has spent his coaching career as a college assistant.

If that adjustment works well, St. John’s should be able to contend near the top of the TRAC, although knocking off well-stocked, experienced favorites like Central and Whitmer would be a tall order.

The Titans will be led by a trio of Division I college recruits, including two future Big Ten players — Gant (Ohio State) and Beier (Minnesota) — and Dooley, who recently committed to Eastern Michigan.

St. John’s biggest graduation losses were All-TRAC first-team selections Tycen Anderson (DB), who is now at the University of Toledo, and Tyler Turner (RB). Projected 2016 team leader Pete McIntyre, now at Northwestern in the Big Ten, was lost for most of his senior season after a leg fracture early on. His absence muted the Titans’ prospects of contending a year ago.

McDaniel sees this year’s offensive line as a probable team strength. His top concern is the team’s overall youth and inexperience.

“Our goal is to reach our full potential, whatever that may be,” McDaniel said. “We will go as our offensive line goes. They are the most experienced group we have and we have challenged them to lead our team.”

4. LIMA SENIOR

■ Coach: Andre Griffin, second year

■ Last season: 6-4, 4-3

■ Returning letter winners: 23

■ Returning starters: Offense 8, defense 5

■ Schemes: Spread/​4-2-5

■ Top players: Seniors Keaton Upshaw, 6-7, 230, TE-DE; Kevontae Tyson, 6-1, 165, WR-DB; Daneille Lowe, Jr., 6-0, 215, TE-LB; Jaleel King, 6-4, 170, WR.

■ Outlook: The Spartans look to continue their momentum of the past three seasons, with 21 seniors on their 60-player roster. With eight starters back, the offense should be the team’s strong suit. Griffin sees good leadership from the veterans, but he is concerned with the Spartans’ overall depth.

The biggest void from graduation was running back Jaden Walker, who rushed for 1,512 yards and scored 22 TDs a year ago. Another key loss is quarterback Adrine Mitchell, whose combined passing and rushing yardage was 1,969 yards in 2016.

Upshaw is back after recording 48 catches for 758 yards and five touchdowns. Lowe had 55 tackles in just five games last season, Tyson made six interceptions, and King had 28 catches for 385 yards.

“Our team potential is high,” Griffin said, “if we keep improving in our system and play with great effort.”

5. FINDLAY

■ Coach: Mark Ritzler, 12th year

■ Last season: 7-4, 4-3

■ Returning letter winners: 8

■ Returning starters: Offense 5, defense 1

■ Schemes: Multiple spread/​4-4

■ Top players: Seniors Cam Dillon, 6-3, 218, WR-LB; Chase Wilcox, 5-11, 159, PK; Matt Lichtinger, 6-2, 222, OL; Steven Gerdemann, 6-3, 245, OL; Alex Miller, 6-1, 205, OL; Jon Arthur, 6-2, 234, OL; Adam Gutting, 6-3, 210, WR.

■ Outlook: The Trojans were hit extremely hard by graduation, and return starters to just 6 of 22 positions, including just one on defense. There are 25 seniors on the 68-player roster, but with just eight letter winners returning, the experience level is low.

Ritzler knows his defense is “raw,” and sees the Trojans having to shift positions for a while offensively until an untested group can gain some experience.

Dillon was a first-team All-TRAC linebacker a year ago, and Wilcox was the conference’s first-team placekicker.

“We graduated a big senior class that left many big holes to fill,” Ritzler said. “Players from successful JV and freshman teams will have plenty of opportunities to earn Friday night playing time.

“The defense, especially, will be raw. There is young talent, but in the TRAC, the learning curve will have to move quickly.”

6. FREMONT ROSS

■ Coach: Chad Long, second year

■ Last season: 3-7, 2-5

■ Returning letter winners: 19

■ Returning starters: Offense 8, defense 10

■ Schemes: Spread/​3-4 and 4-3

■ Top players: Seniors Shawn Newsome, 6-0, 230, TE-DE; Roger Burling, 6-1, 175, WR-DB; Shawndrae Koch, 6-4, 315, OL-DL; Michael Contreras, 6-0, 165, PK. Juniors Noah Hotz, 5-11, 170, WR-DB-PU; Hayden Lehmann, 6-2, 190, QB; Mike Thomas, 6-1, 266, OL-DL.

■ Outlook: The Little Giants appear destined for a climb in the TRAC standings with starters back at 18 of 22 positions. The only question is, how far can they climb? Long likes his team’s leadership, and is optimistic about an experienced defense. His top concerns are on offense, where the personnel must adjust to a new coordinator.

Newsome was first-team All-TRAC on defense last season, and Hotz was the first-team punter in the conference.

“We want to compete in the TRAC this year,” Long said. “We have to take baby steps with the program to get kids to believe how talented they can be, and play at their potential. We have to win the fourth quarter and play Fremont football.”

7. ST. FRANCIS

■ Coach: Dan Chipka, first year

■ Last season: 0-10, 0-7

■ Returning letter winners: 25

■ Returning starters: Offense 6, defense 5

■ Schemes: Multiple spread/​4-2-5

■ Top players: Seniors Ethan Hertzfeld, 6-0, 175, QB; Lonnie Wyse, 5-10, 170, WR; Liam Moyer, 6-1, 210, TE-DE; Keith Holmes, 6-1, 220, RB-LB; Chris Syeh, 5-9, 170, WR-RB-CB; Jefferson Edwards, 6-0, 330, DL; Keishawn Flowers, 6-4, 340, DL. Junior Joey Carroll, 6-6, 235, TE-DE.

■ Outlook: As the energetic Chipka takes the reins after moving over from Waite in the City League, there is nowhere for the Knights to go but up after the first winless season ever at St. Francis, and a three-year stretch that has seen the Knights go 3-27 overall.

The first order of business will be re-establishing some confidence in the players, who have grown accustomed to losing during their careers in the program.

Chipka has 22 seniors on his 65-player roster, and 25 players return as letter winners, so leadership is not lacking. Quality depth may be an issue.

“We feel that we have made a tremendous amount of progress through our off-season program, mini-camp, as well as training camp,” Chipka said. “The critical factors for our program will always be attitude, effort, and enthusiasm.

“We need to continue to develop our attention to detail and fundamentals, but we are very excited about our opportunity and potential for the upcoming season.”

8. CLAY

■ Coach: John Galyas, first year

■ Last season: 3-7, 2-5

■ Returning letter winners: 28

■ Returning starters: Offense 6, defense 4

■ Schemes: Spread/​3-4

■ Top players: Seniors Michael Halka, 5-11, 190, RB, LB; Devin Lunsford, 5-11, 205, C-LB; Robert Nelson, 6-4, 260, OT; Matt Reed, 6-6, 325, OT. Juniors Jacob Novak, 6-3, 185, WR; Trey Reddick, 6-2, 160, WR-CB; Adam Ummel, 6-0, 170, WR-CB; Reese Wamer, 5-11, 170, QB-FS.

■ Outlook: The Eagles approach the 2017 season in transition to a new head coach with a new system, and an optimism for improvement in the TRAC. The 55-player varsity roster includes 13 seniors. Galyas sees team chemistry, work ethic, size on the front lines, and talent at the skill positions as positives, but also recognizes that an overall lack of experience and depth might present a hurdle to competing in the conference.

“We are extremely happy with the effort and enthusiasm of our guys,” Galyas said. “Leaders are emerging, and we are coming together as a team.

“We have focused on fundamentals with the goal of competing at a higher level. If we can stay healthy we may be able to accomplish this.”

Contact Steve Junga at sjunga@theblade.com419-724-6461 or on Twitter @JungaBlade.

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