August 21, 2014

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High school football 2011: Strong senior class helps Rangers bond

NORTH RIDGEVILLE — Just two seasons ago, a North Ridgeville football team did something none of its predecessors had ever done: Make the playoffs.

As a follow-up to that performance, the Rangers came up short in their bid for a second straight postseason bid, but still contended in the West Shore Conference, finishing 7-3 overall and 5-2 in the conference.

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Can the Rangers make it back to the playoffs this year? Veteran coach Jeff Riesen isn’t sure about that, but he doesn’t see why they shouldn’t strive to do just that.

“We approach every year with a positive belief that we can be successful,” Riesen said. “How successful we are will depend on how hard we work and how well we play together.

“We had a very good offseason program directed by strength and conditioning coach Doug Beach. We’ve seen many positive things as a result in strength, quickness and attitude.”

Riesen has orchestrated some off-the-field activities among his players to instill camaraderie and pride. They spent a few days this summer power washing the stands at the football stadium and painting them blue and gold — the school’s colors.

Those are the things seniors like P.J. Bunevich refer to when they talk about Riesen and his coaching staff changing the culture at North Ridgeville.

“Events like that build team chemistry, and that almost serves as a welcome to the team for the underclassmen,” said Bunevich, who returns as the starting free safety and also replaces Mike Mees at starting quarterback. “Every day, if it’s not coaches, it’s leaders of the team, the seniors, that always stress to have Ranger Pride, and it’s really been showing through our two-a-days and this entire offseason.”

Riesen toyed with the idea of replacing Bunevich as the starting free safety so he could concentrate solely on playing quarterback. In the end, he decided against it.

“We’d like to take him out of the defense since he is our quarterback, but he has so much experience out there, we don’t want to mess with that,” Riesen said. “P.J. was our backup quarterback and he did start on defense, so he has a season under his belt as starter under the lights and that’s important.

“I coach the quarterbacks, and I’ve coached him since he was a sophomore. I’ve seen him grow and improve as a quarterback during that time. I think he’ll do a great job replacing Mike.”

Starting as the quarterback on both sides of the ball will be a challenge. But it’s one Bunevich is up for.

“I think I’m handing the job well, as of now,” he said. “Playing both ways has its ups and downs, but I feel confident in laying down the challenge of playing both sides of the ball this year.”

One thing helping Bunevich is the large group of seniors on the team. Tight end/linebacker Matt Dawson, two-way lineman Mitch Bugala, wide receiver/cornerback Christian Watkins and running back David Bowden are players Riesen sees taking more of a leadership role.

“It’s nice because these seniors we have are extensions of us,” Riesen said of the coaches. “That’s the way we look at it. They’re not coaches but they’re team leaders. When the sophomores come up and the juniors who have not had a lot of playing time, they’re able to pass along what they learned the previous year. That’s very beneficial to us.

“They know what’s expected of them and what we’re trying to accomplish with our program — the unity that’s needed, the attention to details. Sometimes kids don’t see the big picture, only parts of it. These kids know the little things that are so important, such as assignments and their preparation for the season, and that’s big for us as coaches.”

Bunevich believes his senior class could become a special group.

“This year’s starters have been together since middle school,” he said. “And for us to finally all get back together in the starting lineup is something we’ve been looking forward to. We have that chemistry and camaraderie among us, and I believe we have a solid bunch of guys in the starting lineup this year.”

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Contact Dan Gilles at 329-7135 or dangilles73@gmail.com.