If football was like riding a bicycle, then surely experienced gridders wouldn’t need to be busting their donkeys during two-a-days and scrimmages amidst the August heat leading up to the first week of the season.
But familiarity is like the sea that kills the fisherman – those who think they know something get taken by surprise.
There aren’t any reels or cast netting over at University School, but the Preppers no doubt have some tackle in them with eight returning starters on defense and seven on offense, overwhelmingly in their skilled positions.
Nonetheless, the maroon-and-black gridders don’t have the mentality of waltzing into the 2019 season like their dung don’t stink.
“Certainly, we have a lot of guys with familiarity, but, at the end of the day, one thing that’s easy to forget as a coach, and I feel like I do it every year, is every time you start, you’re starting again,” said University fifth-year head coach Ben Malbasa, who has a 26-17 record at the helm, including a 4-6 mark with a young team last season.
“While I might think about the offense all offseason, I’m not sure how many 17-year-olds, outside of maybe my quarterback, think about it all offseason,” he said. “The one thing that I try to remind myself is that, at the end of the day, it’s about what we can execute and not what we can conceive. And, so, one of the keys for us is to continue to become proficient in executing what we do.”
Taking into account that University will continue to utilize two quarterbacks this season, in 6-foot-6, 190-pound junior Ricky Radtke and 5-foot-7, 170-pound junior Solomon Perez, the Preppers actually have eight veterans on offense.
Radtke completed 31 of 62 passes for 363 yards with four touchdowns and also had 44 carries for 120 yards and five touchdowns last season, while Perez completed 75 of 136 passes for 1,150 yards and 12 touchdowns.
They both have different skillsets, Malbasa said.
“Ricky brings a little bit to the run game, and Solomon has got an incredible cerebral feel for the game,” the coach said. “The great thing about Solomon is sometimes he can see something on the sideline, then go in and do it because he sees it. And that’s a real credit to him and his preparation.
“But it’s nice to have that situation. And, as I’ve told them, I’m going to do what’s best on a week-in, week-out basis. I think Ricky’s probably a little bit ahead in that role, but I’d say both of them are going to play a lot of meaningful downs for us.”
The pass game might be a bit more of a challenge this season without 6-foot-3 graduates Jack Voudouris, who had 641 yards receiving with third-team all-Ohio honors last season, and Jake Kapp, who had 456 yards receiving.
But the Preppers return a four-year starter in 5-foot-8 senior slot Nic Pujolas, who had 218 yards receiving in 2018, and 6-foot-1 senior Parker Crowley, who recorded seven catches for 76 yards with two touchdowns at tight end but now is at wide receiver.
Top prospects to step into the other starting receiver roles are a trio of juniors, including 5-foot-10 John Pape, 5-foot-10 Michael Beros and 5-foot-11 Jacob Sands. Not to mention, 6-foot-1, 190-pound junior Alec Radwancky will take over the tight end spot after mainly playing defensive end a year ago.
While the receiving game gets its footing, 5-foot-8, 165-pound senior Dylan Loconti returns at running back. He had 174 carries for 886 yards and eight touchdowns for all-district honors last season.
On the offensive line, University returns three starters in 6-foot-2, 220-pound junior tackle Karson Baldwin, 5-foot-10, 185-pound senior center Ryan Devine and 6-foot-2, 220-pound senior tackle Mitch Fragassi, but Fragassi has been banged up in the preseason, giving 6-foot-1, 205-pound sophomore Gianfranco Calabrese the opportunity to step up.
Meanwhile, 5-foot-9, 190-pound junior Jack Mlakar and 6-foot-2, 230-pound senior Jack Sweeney are filling the guard spots.
With a 54-gridder roster of 13 seniors, 19 juniors, 11 sophomores and 11 freshmen, the Preppers will remain two-platooned in the trenches.
In a three-four base, the lone veteran on the defensive line is 6-foot-1, 195-pound tackle John Sparber, while 6-foot-2, 170-pound senior Brooks Crowley and 6-foot-2, 180-pound senior Miles McIlvaine – both lacrosse guys new to football – will get some starting action at defensive end or elsewhere on that side of the pigskin.
“I think, for us, if we continue to show the growth we’ve shown at flying to the football in terms of pursuit, I think we’ll have the makings of one of the best defenses I’ve coached,” Malbasa said. “So, I’m really excited about this group.”
Most of University’s experience on defense comes with three veteran linebackers and an all-senior secondary.
Returning at linebacker, 210-pound junior Khari Tidmore had 74 tackles with a fumble recovery and two sacks as a first-team all-district selection; 175-pound junior Nick Flowers had 42 tackles with a fumble recovery; and 165-pound junior Jack Novack had 17 tackles.
Not to mention, Loconti had 85 tackles last year, but, with more depth at linebacker, the Preppers will try to keep him fresher for his running-back duties, Malbasa said.
Also figuring to get starters’ reps at linebacker are 155-pound junior Bobby Ware, who had nine tackles last season, and 155-pound senior Joe Averill, University’s top-placing wrestler at districts last year who is new to football.
While most high school football programs have shrinking senior and junior classes, University tends to gain numbers among its upperclassmen each fall.
“We’re really lucky, and I think part of it is that I have coaches who do a great job in the halls,” Malbasa said. “This will be the fourth straight year that we have more seniors than when they were freshmen, which is really cool.”
The Preppers’ all-senior veteran backfield includes 6-foot safety Jack Borrow, a third-year starter with 55 tackles last year; 5-foot-10 safety Max Young, who had 53 tackles with two fumble recoveries and two interceptions; 6-foot cornerback Charlie Brennan, a third-year starter with 46 tackles and an interception in 2018; and 5-foot-8 senior Cam Gable, who had 15 tackles and a fumble recovery.
Those four guys have been in the program all four years and work hard for one another, Malbasa said.
“I think, No. 1, they have great chemistry,” he said. “They know each other, they play off each other, they’re excited for one another, you know, those four guys are always together. There’s a lot of pride in that unit. When you are proud of that unit, you don’t want to let those guys next to you down.”
And assuming kicking duties is 5-foot-5 sophomore Evan Weybrecht, who made seven extra points as a backup last season.
While the Preppers have seven new opponents on their schedule this season, they will kick off their 2019 campaign against a familiar foe when they host Warrensville Heights at 4:30 p.m. Friday at Scovil Field in Hunting Valley.