Nobody wants to be accelerating through the finish line but still lose the race.
When a winless Chagrin Falls team upset undefeated rival Orange, 29-21, in week-six gridiron action last year, the triumphant Tigers hit a turning point in their season, winning four of their final five games against Chagrin Valley Conference opponents.
But when November came, the Chagrin Falls boys had hung up their pads following a 4-6 campaign, while the Lions of Pepper Pike were gearing for the playoffs.
Surely the Tigers had a more difficult schedule, taking on a pair of eventual state champions in their non-conference lineup, but the fact remained that Chagrin Falls had hit the gas pedal in the second half of the season and simply ran out of track.
And while coaches like to downplay the fact that certain victories are more meaningful than others, in an attempt to keep their players even-keeled, a week-one triumph for the 2019 Tiger gridders could go a long way.
“Obviously, getting off to a good start is really important,” said 25th-year head coach Mark Iammarino, who owns a 175-92 record at the helm, just one win shy of becoming the Tigers’ all-time winningest coach. John Piai racked up 175 wins between 1962 and 1990.
“Understanding what our philosophy is going to be and putting our best players into situations where they can be successful for us has really been our focus in scrimmages,” Iammarino said. “Starting off with Streetsboro will be a good challenge for us, and then going on to Kenston and Woodridge, those are notorious playoff teams. So, it’s going to be important that we’re hitting on all cylinders and that we remain healthy so we can play to our best.”
The Tigers will be chasing their first triumph in a season opener since 2013 when they hit the road to take on Division III Streetsboro at 7 p.m. Friday at Quinn Field. That 2013 campaign was also the last time the Tigers made the playoffs.
Chagrin Falls’ past four seasons have started with losses against small-school powerhouse Kirtland, including a 43-0 thumping last year, but the 2019 Tigers return with 14 veteran starters compared to just five at this point last season.
“We have a nice mix, I think, of guys coming back with experience and some new guys to hopefully inject some new life,” Iammarino said. “And, so, we’ll see how that all plays out.”
The Tigers return six veterans on offense, but the big question remains at quarterback entering the first week.
Six-foot-2, 225-pound junior Dawson Pierce played extended varsity minutes as a reserve quarterback when the Tigers needed to implement a run-first offense last season. He finished with 39 carries for 114 yards and four touchdowns.
And 5-foot-8, 160-pound senior Cam Owen also got reps at quarterback this preseason, after starting in the defensive backfield last year, but both he and Pierce are a little banged up entering the Streetsboro game, so availability could determine who gets the nod, Iammarino said.
Meanwhile, the Tigers return a trio of veteran playmakers in 5-foot-11, 165-pound junior running back Xavier Perez, who had 156 yards rushing and 227 yards receiving last year; 5-foot-9, 180-pound senior running back Will O’Brien, who averaged 5.2 yards per carry for 201 yards last season; and 5-foot-11, 180-pound receiver Lucas Gaizutis, who finished with 10 catches for 112 yards in 2018.
“I think the combination of those guys really could be the crux of where we’ll go offensively,” Iammarino said. “And we look for other guys to contribute as well. But those are three guys who have done it before and are coming back with experience.”
Will Richmond, a 5-foot-7, 165-pound senior will also fit into the mix at receiver this year, while 6-foot, 185-pound junior Owen McClintock returns with experience at tight end.
Chagrin’s offensive line, however, features 6-foot, 195-pound senior Bryce Sellars as the lone returning starter, but coach Iammarino noted 5-foot-11, 215-pound junior center Jackson Chinnici as a key piece to that unit.
Other top prospects for starting roles on the offensive line include, 5-foot-11, 200-pound sophomore guard Andrew Bazzone, 6-foot, 210-pound junior tackle Ben Streicher and 6-foot-4, 225-pound sophomore tackle Nick Dalessandro.
Sellars and McClintock will double up on the defensive line of scrimmage. Sellars, in particular, returns as a second-team all-CVC selection with 33 tackles and two sacks from a year ago.
Also a returning starter on defense, 6-foot, 190-senior Drew Zimmer will move up to the line after recording 60 tackles with a pair of sacks as an honorable-mention all-CVC linebacker in 2018. And 5-foot-8, 170-pound senior Trenton Kruse could see some time at nose tackle.
Overall, Chagrin Falls returns eight defensive veterans who recorded shutouts against West Geauga and Beachwood last season.
“There’s some good experience on the perimeter and in the secondary,” Iammarino said. “It’s certainly encouraging when you have guys that have done it before, because right off the bat we’re going to face some good teams. So, to have some experience in those situations, I think, is going to be important of us.”
Retuning starters at linebacker include Pierce, a second-team all-CVC selection with 66 tackles and a sack from last season; Gaizutis, who tallied 38 tackles with a sack; and O’Brien, who had 69 tackles and will be in the rover position this fall. Top prospects to take on linebacker roles are 190-pound senior Adam Melham and 175-pound senior Adam Munday.
In the secondary, the Tigers return Owen, who had 78 tackles as a second-team all-CVC selection last year; Perez, who had 51 tackles as a second-team all-CVC and honorable-mention all-district honoree; and 5-foot-9, 160-pound senior Paul Fierman, who recorded 33 tackles.
And taking over some kicking duties will be 6-foot-4, 200-pound sophomore Andrew Kirkpatrick.
In addition to non-league opponent Woodridge, Chagrin Falls adds Division II Lakeside and Division IV Edgewood, both of Ashtabula County, to its CVC schedule this fall.