Traditionally, the title of “World’s Greatest Athlete” has been given to the winner of the Olympic decathlon, but, in any one of the 10 given track and field disciplines, that winner is not the best.
Versatile athletes are often a commodity, but being a generalist has its perks, as well as its disadvantages. A jack-of-all-trades, master of none, just doesn’t cut it in Division I high school football.
This fall season at Stewart Field in Solon, the 2019 Comet gridders are focused on being specialists at their positions and nothing more, said 17th-year head coach Jim McQuaide, who owns a 133-50 record at the helm.
“I think every position, both the coach of the position and the player at those positions, we have to really focus on mastering the technique to play that position,” he said. “You know, what do I have to do to be a good offensive guard, a good quarterback, etc.? And that’s really the most important thing for us going into the first week of the season.”
But with a roster full of multi-sport athletes, dropping the handyman mentality is easier said than done.
“I think it’s become evident just from watching film, sometimes guys are trying to do all different kinds of things, and I think we maybe make the game a little too complicated sometimes,” McQuaide said. “And for us to have a good team, and we think we could have a good team, we have to do things better individually in order to make the whole team function correctly. Eleven guys doing 11 different things the way they’re supposed to, that’s how we can be successful.”
The Comets return to the gridiron on the heels of an 8-3 campaign that was highlighted by a 6-0 start, as well as a 29-28 overtime victory against then-AP No. 2-ranked Mentor in week eight, before losing a regular season finale against Medina, 27-24, and a round-one playoff upset from Canton McKinley, 28-15.
The McKinley defeat was the Comets’ first postseason loss at Stewart Field. They were previously 11-0 in first-round games they hosted.
Despite losing the final two games of their season, quarterback Pat McQuaide had season-best performances in the pass game, completing 19-of-34 tosses for 201 yards against Medina and then 17-of-31 tosses for 204 yards against McKinley.
Now a 5-foot-11, 170-pound junior, McQuaide returns for his third season of varsity football as a team captain with first-team all-Greater Cleveland Conference accolades from a year ago, when he completed 49 percent of his passes for 1,144 yards with 12 touchdowns and six interceptions.
But Solon’s offense, which averaged 266.6 yards and 25.8 points per game last season, returns with experience in every position.
“We lost some tremendous players to graduation, and, if you have a good program, that should happen every year,” coach McQuaide said. “But I think offensively we have a lot of guys that have a lot of experience, at quarterback, running back, receivers and linemen. You would think that we should be able to do things, both running and passing, to move the ball and put points on the board. So, that’s what we’re excited about.”
At running back, Solon returns 5-foot-10, 205-pound junior Khalil Eichelberger, who averaged 4.6 yards per carry for 894 yards with 15 touchdowns last season as an honorable-mention all-GCC selection.
At receiver, the Comets are projected to start three seniors: 6-foot-1 Ethan Wong, who collected 10 catches for 153 yards and four touchdowns last year; 5-foot-9 Greg Parries, who is no doubt one of the fastest guys in Ohio, finishing on the state podium in the 100- and 200-yard dashes this past spring; and 5-foot-10 Grant McCurry, a pure athlete who is committed to the University of Michigan for lacrosse.
“I think one of the things that makes our team good is we have a lot of multi-sport athletes,” McQuaide said. “So, they’re used to being in competition in a lot of different areas and levels. And those three guys give us a lot of versatility, both playing in the slot and on the outside.”
On the offensive line, Solon returns 6-foot-1, 235-pound senior center Will Zsigrai, 6-foot, 243-pound senior guard Tommy Lucarelli and 6-foot-4, 250-pound senior guard Ethan Pitzel, a team captain who committed to Bucknell University on Aug. 20. All three guys started last year.
Meanwhile, 6-foot-4, 235-pound junior Najee Story, primarily a defensive lineman before breaking his leg against Euclid last year, will start as a blind-side tackle. He has college interest from power-five conference programs.
New starters, 6-foot-6, 290-pound junior Hark Sohi will take over the other tackle spot, while 6-foot-1, 200-pound senior Jack Westrich will be at tight end.
Westrich and Story will be two-way linemen at defensive ends, while Pitzel and Lucarelli are in the same boat as defensive tackles. But those guys have big shoes to fill with the graduations of all-Ohioan Nate Leskovec, David Marbury, Nick Close and Yusef Russell, who were relentless in stopping the run. Not to mention, Solon graduated third-team all-Ohio linebacker Jeff Barnett.
Through three games last year, Solon held its non-league opponents to a combined minus-34 yards rushing. Overall, the 2018 Comets surrendered just 223.9 yards and 15.6 points per game.
“I think there’s a standard of excellence that our program has established for 30, 40, 50 years, and, when guys start playing in the flag leagues at the rec, and then the Saturns program, and the goal is to get to Stewart Field on Friday,” McQuaide said about holding his new defensive guys accountable this season.
“We lost some tremendous defensive players from last year that are playing in college, and now it’s these guys’ turn,” he said. “That’s the beauty of high school football, guys rising through the program, and now it’s their turn to show what they can do.”
At linebacker, Solon graduated its top three tacklers from a year ago but returns the experience of 5-foot-9, 205-pound senior RJ Howard, a team captain who accumulated 47 tackles with one interception last season. Howard also returns with experience at running back.
Joining him in the starting linebacker unit will be 6-foot-1, 185-pound sophomore Jakob Oldenburg and 5-foot-9, 180-pound sophomore Markell Green.
“They were good players last year as freshmen,” McQuaide said. “They’re athletic, young guys that have had very good springs and summers, and they’ve done a really good job. Now, Friday night will be the biggest difference in their athletic career up to this point, because in high school there’s nothing like playing varsity on Friday nights.”
In the defensive backfield, Solon returns McCurry at strong safety, with 58 tackles and three interceptions last season, as well as fellow third-year senior starter Dominic McGhee at cornerback. With 42 tackles and two interceptions last year, McGhee is a team captain who also has experience at receiver.
Completing Solon’s all-senior defensive backfield, 5-foot-11 Cameron Fuller will take over the other cornerback position, while 5-foot-8 Caleb Sinclair will start at free safety. Both guys have been in the program all four years of high school.
And on special teams, junior Noah Jahnke returns with 50 kickoffs for an average of 41.5 yards per attempt last season, while senior Harrison Rich returns after connecting on 92 percent of his 26 extra-point attempts.
Solon will kick off its season by hosting Hudson at 7 p.m. Friday at Stewart Field.