September 30, 2014

Elyria
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High school football 2011: Comets plan to contend despite losses

AMHERST — Amherst returns only seven starters from last year’s 8-2 squad.

Got a problem with that?

If so, don’t tell new it to new coach Chad DiFranco, officially hired in February to replace the departed Kevin Fell, now at Elyria. DiFranco sees little problematic about the number.

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“We graduated a bunch of guys, yes,” said DiFranco, the Comets’ defensive coordinator the past 12 seasons. “Two years ago, we sat here and said the same thing and those guys turned into two-year starters. If you’re a successful Division I program, you play seniors on Friday nights.

“Avon Lake graduates 20 to 25 impact players each season. We don’t have a lot returning? Who cares? In good programs, guys — with exceptions — spend one year backing someone up and one year as a starter.”

Funny he should mention the Shoremen: The Comets haven’t won a Southwestern Conference title since 2000, and have lost 11 straight games to Avon Lake, including last year’s Week 10 thriller. The Comets fell behind 21-0, but rallied in the second half and used a hook-and-ladder play to move into scoring position in the final seconds.

The Shoremen, though, shut the door on Amherst’s SWC and playoff hopes.

It capped a disappointing finish to the season for the Comets, who began 8-0 and had big plans. Instead, a missed field goal that would have sent a Week 9 game against Olmsted Falls to overtime and the last-gasp loss to Avon Lake left behind a bitter taste.

“We definitely remember (the finish to last season),” said junior running back Jordan Irvin, expected to be the primary ballcarrier with workhorse Jason Stump graduated. “It was our best chance to win an SWC title. We were close. We use that as motivation.”

To that end, the Comets end huddles with a chant of “SWC champions,” making clear their goal of ending that SWC drought that has included playoff appearances and nine- and 10-win seasons — but no conference crown.

And while the Comets lost key personnel, they have veterans back at important positions: Quarterback Brennan Hosier burst onto the scene as a junior in replacing graduated Alex Basinski, and ran Fell’s spread well. The offensive line returns three key players — left tackle Gino Cioffi, left guard Alex Bookshar and 330-pound right tackle Alex Brown.

Cioffi, at 6-foot-4, was especially impressive in practice early in camp, with pancake blocks one after the other.

“I told him, ‘(Colleges) give you the eye test and you pass it,” DiFranco said. “If he wants to play Division I, now he has to make those big-time plays, those pancake blocks.”

Said Hosier: “That line gives us confidence, with a lot coming back.”

Drake Thompson, who last year transferred from Lorain, and junior Aaron Kelley will fill in for five graduated receivers who turned Hosier’s passes into big gainers last year.

The team’s defense is a little less settled, but still has impact players, DiFranco said. Matt Hess, a 285-pound junior, will move from offensive line to anchor the defensive line, while Cody Sheets will move from defensive line to outside linebacker. Tray Waite, a transfer from Warren G. Harding, “fell out of the sky” and will make an immediate impact in the secondary and likely on punt returns, where he averaged 11 yards per return last year for the Raiders.

DiFranco said one of the biggest things he learned from Fell was a more even-keeled nature. DiFranco said he’s found himself much more calm early in camp than when he was the team’s defensive coordinator.

And DiFranco, Hosier and the rest of the Comets will get tested right away against Elyria and Fell, who spent three years with the Comets.

“It will be pretty exciting,” Hosier said. “There’s been some trash talking between me and (Fell), but he was great to me. He was really hands on with the offense, too, and helped me learn.”

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Contact Joel Hammond at 329-7135 or hammond_joel@yahoo.com.