According to University School Preppers’ head Coach Ben Malbasa, the Preppers stomped a lot of grapes these past two seasons and are now ready to drink some wine.
University School returns 14 starters for the upcoming 2022 season and a wealth of experience to pioneer a new chapter of Preppers’ football.
“The juniors and seniors played a ton in our football program as sophomores and juniors coming up through the last two years,” noted Malbasa. “While that might not have been the greatest thing going through the last two years at this point, it certainly pays some dividends right now as we get ready for this season.”
The Preppers will begin their season next Friday, Aug. 19 by traveling to play Columbus Academy at Hondros Field at 7 p.m.
Malbasa admitted the 2021 season was a little too familiar.
Despite the season starting on time, the Preppers’ schedule was riddled with cancellations because of the pandemic.
“It was obviously a little rougher than we had hoped,” the eight-year coach said. “We thought we were out of the woods and had some issues but other teams had issues. The shame of it is that our guys worked really hard and so when you lose a couple of opportunities to compete that’s always difficult.”
The last two years were unforgiving for University School combining for a 2-13 record, including going 1-7 in the 2021 season.
In addition to a new season, University School has also been assigned to Division III, Region 9, after spending the last two seasons in Division II, Region 5, because of a shift in its competitive balance numbers.
The Preppers had originally been a member of Division III, Region 9, when Malabasa took over the program but were moved to Division II because it was one of the few schools that dressed and played freshman, which increased its competitive balance numbers.
It’s an even mix of returning starters with seven players returning on offense and seven players returning on defense.
Although the Preppers have only nine seniors, those nine seniors have tremendous experience having earned numerous varsity minutes since they were underclassmen.
Returning as quarterback will be junior Jackson Boland.
The 6-foot-2 junior only played half a season last year before he was sidelined due to injury.
Malbasa said one of the things that stands out about Boland is his toughness. If the Preppers’ signal-caller had his way, he’d also be playing linebacker but that’s where Malbasa had to put his foot down.
“Something that’s pretty impressive is the physicality that he brings to the game,” he added. “He also has great toughness in the pocket. Last year even as a sophomore what impressed me was he took some great hits and he made great throws under pressure. He doesn’t panic. He has a real composure about him that makes him an outstanding quarterback.”
Leading the receiving crops is senior wideout Brian Kellon, coming off a dynamic junior season in which he earned a berth to the Division I state track meet in the long jump.
“I’m very confident in his ability and think he’s one of the top receivers I’ve ever coached,” Malbasa noted. “I’ve had some good ones and when I look at him I see someone who can change a game.”
Behind Kellon will be junior Duke Brennan, senior Jordan Heiser and sophomore Jonathan Diaz, who Malbasa believes will be an underrated weapon as a slot receiver.
The Preppers plan to utilize a running backs-by-committee approach with senior Ryan Pattison, junior George Minello and sophomore Michael Malone.
Malabasa is encouraged by the fact the trio of Preppers’ tailbacks are all physical runners and believes his team will receive contributions from each of them.
Senior Sammy Martin and junior Lex Kekic will split time at tight end.
Malbasa sees the potential for University School’s offense to be up there with some of the most dynamic ones he has coached in his seven years at the helm but it’s up to his players to prove it.
The Preppers return four of their five offensive linemen in seniors Chris Jackson at left tackle, Gavin Ippolito at left guard, juniors Sean Fioritio at center and Cameron Beiswenger at right tackle.
“If you believe in the importance of having a physical football team, then this is the opportunity to set a tone for the game and you’re not guaranteed anything,” Malbaa said. “Execution is obviously huge but just know when we’ve got guys who’ve done it in some tough situations.”
According to Malbasa, Jackson is ready to have a breakout season.
The six-foot-two senior will be a two-way in the trenches by playing defensive end as well as left tackle.
“The first thing about Chris is he has the ability to explode and when the ball snaps he has the talent to get off the ball and really disrupt an offensive play,” explained Malbasa. “Top players always work hard but sometimes it’s as much talent as it is about effort and he combines both at a really high level and that makes him an even more effective football player so there’s a reason he’s blowing up.”
Alongside Jackson on the defensive line will be Kekik, Martin and several of the offensive linemen.
Malbasa sees the defensive line as being a major strength of University School’s defense.
Kellon will be the lead defensive back in the secondary, followed by Malone, Minela, sophomore Cameron Schreiber and senior Johan Guy.
Pattison and junior Noah Tidmore will be penciled in as the starting linebackers.
Freshman Mateo Morali is projected to be the team’s new starting place kicker in the wake of former kicker Evan Weybrecht’s graduation.
According to Malbasa, the Preppers’ football program is on the verge of turning a new corner.
“We’re at a point where we have 40 guys playing middle school football which was not the case five or six years ago,” he said. “It’s really cool to have some of the people in the program that we have and I am so excited for the next five years of University School football and beyond because I know this is the start of a really great run.”