COLUMBIA STATION — Columbia won the Patriot Athletic Conference Stripes Division and earned a spot in the OHSAA Division V playoffs last year. The question this season: Are those accomplishments a fluke or is coach Jason Ward on the verge of building the Raiders into a small-school football powerhouse?
“Every coach wants to build a program that wins consistently where every player comes in expecting to win,” Ward said. “But this year’s team is looking to create its own identity. These guys have been working hard to make their own name and make the community proud of this football team.”
With most of the key skill position players returned, it’s not unrealistic to think the offense could equal last year’s squad that averaged 38.5 points a game while compiling a 9-2 record.
Quarterback John Banyasz is in the rare position of being a four-year starter with 29 varsity starts under his belt. Last season, Banyasz threw for 1,478 yards and 22 touchdowns while only throwing three interceptions.
“It’s crazy that I’ve been here for four years already,” Banyasz said. “I have so much experience with our system and know our plays so well, sometimes I feel like I know the offense as well as our coaches do.”
Although the Raiders postseason run ended with an opening-round 35-12 loss to Patrick Henry, the lessons learned in playoff football still resonate with Columbia.
“The energy and enthusiasm has carried over into the offseason and the start of this year,” Ward said. “The kids get it now, they saw what big-time football is all about. Now they want to uphold the tradition.”
Senior running back-linebacker Brandon Heidinger, who was the Raiders’ leading rusher with 716 yards on 141 carries as a junior, said that taste of success has driven him and his teammates to work even harder.
“Everyone saw how to be successful,” he said. “Everyone knows now what it takes to win. I know it has driven me to do my best and work even harder.”
The Raiders will have a chance to avenge their only regular-season loss in 2010 on Aug. 27 when they kick off the season at Cleveland Central Catholic. The Ironmen defeated Columbia 30-22 on opening night.
“We don’t really think about revenge or looking ahead at future opponents,” Ward said. “We have a goal of going 1-0 every week of the football season. That allows us to stay grounded and concentrate on the task at hand.”
Senior wide receiver Shane Lambert, one of only six seniors on the Columbia roster, caught 21 passes for 387 yards and five touchdowns last season. Lambert is hoping to play an even bigger role in the passing game this season.
“I’m comfortable with all of our receivers, but it always gives you extra confidence to throw to someone you’re familiar with because you know they are going to be there to catch it,” Banyasz said.
Columbia still has some things to work out on a youthful offensive line, and with just four players on the roster weighing in at over 200 pounds the Raiders may be susceptible to struggles against bigger, more physical teams.
The difference between being labeled a one-hit wonder and building on last year’s success may be as simple as staying healthy. The Raiders have 32 players on their roster, so a few key injuries could decimate the depth chart.
As long as Banyasz can stay healthy, Columbia should find itself near the top of the Stripes Division.
“Having a four-year starter at quarterback allows us to do things other teams might not be able to do,” Ward said.
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Contact Todd Shapiro at 329-7135 or email@example.com.