ELYRIA — Last season’s version of the Elyria Catholic Panthers realized pretty quickly that the West Shore Conference was definitely not the same as the White Division of the North Coast League.
EC took a 2-1 non-conference record into its first WSC schedule, and before the Panthers knew it, they were 2-5 with three games remaining in the regular season.
EC was competitive in games with Division II Avon and Division I North Ridgeville, but ended up with losses of 27-16 and 7-0, respectively.
“I really felt like everyone was up for us in the West Shore, and that’s good,” said second-year coach Mike Polevacik. “That’s good for Lorain County and good for us. Now, we know what we’re getting into.
“We know how good the West Shore is and how well-coached these teams are. We went from playing Division IV and V schools in the NCL to playing some really well-coached, bigger teams.”
The Panthers avoided a losing season with three consecutive wins over Rocky River, Bay and Vermilion, giving EC some positive momentum heading into this season.
Junior quarterback Jeremy Holley, who started every game as a sophomore, believes 5-5 wasn’t good enough.
“That’s behind us now,” he said. “We’re looking to get a off to a strong start this year. As a leader of this team, I expect us to come out strong this year. We always have high expectations for ourselves, and last year just wasn’t good enough.
“It was a new offense for us, and, offensively, we struggled against some of the upper-echelon teams. We had key injuries to key players at key times. Those are not meant to be excuses, but that hurt us.”
With Division I Lakewood joining the WSC this season, and with a Week 2 clash with Division I cross-town rival Elyria on the docket, the Panthers have a very strong schedule for a Division IV school.
Polevacik sees that as a positive.
“I feel like we’re a very good Division IV school, but we don’t play a lot of D-IV schools,” he said. “If we can beat a team like E-High, Midview or Avon — teams that we know are going to win games — we’re going to be right there with those other D-IV schools in our region.
“I really try to coach them that way. We know if we can get some quality wins against the teams on our schedule, we know we can be playing in Week 11 and hopefully further. That’s the message I’m trying to convey. We don’t necessarily have to be 10-0 to be in the playoffs with this schedule. And, if we can be competitive with these bigger schools and still be playing in Week 11, I can’t think of anything better to prepare a team for the rigors of postseason play against schools our own size.”
EC will only have 35 players on the varsity roster, which is down from last year. The Panthers do, however, have 20 lettermen returning.
Holley, who may be the most important of those returning players, had some big shoes to fill when Danny Reaser graduated. But as a sophomore, he quickly showed his natural ability and made EC coaches and fans drool over his potential.
“The kid has put a tremendous effort into learning the game of football,” Polevacik said of Holley. “Mostly he’s working on understanding what a quarterback needs to do. He spends a lot of time outside of football talking to our offensive coordinator, Joe George, and asking him about film and that stuff.
“He just got his driver’s license this year but he’s already doing things you expect a college quarterback to do. He’s really worked on his body and physique. At 6-foot-5, 210-215 pounds, he’s lean and muscular. He really put a lot into our offseason weight program.”
Holley will have a young offense at his disposal, but most of those young players — like him — are varsity-tested.
“That playoff year (2010) was just incredible for us, and I learned a lot from Danny and those guys and I want us to get back to that level,” Holley said of his freshman season. “We want the community to rally behind us and get back into the playoffs. It’s exciting to be a part of, and we want to be a part of that excitement again.”
While EC will run a spread offense and could use a lot of four-wide-receiver sets, it still puts importance on the running game. That will be in the hands of sophomore Justin Taylor, who gained 400 yards and scored four touchdowns in spot duty as a freshman last season.
“He’s ready to handle the rigors of being the starting varsity tailback, and I think fans will be pleasantly surprised with his speed and athleticism and the options he gives us out of the backfield,” Polevacik said.
Versatile senior captain Spencer George and 6-4, 300-pound junior Dakota Tallman, who already has a scholarship offer from Bowling Green despite only playing one season of varsity ball, will anchor the offensive line.
“Dakota is a very ferocious player,” Polevacik said. “He played in our playoff games two years ago as a freshman, giving us extra depth. As a junior, he’s got a lot of reps and football under his belt, which means the sky’s the limit for him.”
Seniors Tyler Riddell, Jacob Moore and Connor Hrobat will serve as Holley’s primary targets. Riddell was an All-Lorain County pick last season, while Moore — a captain and two-way starter at receiver and safety — was honorable mention All-Ohio as a sophomore before an injury cut short his junior year.
Tallman will also start at nose tackle for a defense that has to replace last season’s heart in graduated seniors Joe Dempsey and Matt Morgan, who served as inside and outside linebackers, respectively.
Replacing them is senior Nick Kaszar on the inside and junior William Washington on the outside. Polevacik believes they are up for the challenge.
“William’s only a junior, but he’s already kind of emerged as the leader of our defense,” he said. “Nick is one of those kids who didn’t get much of a chance the past few seasons because of the players ahead of him. But he focused on using his JV reps to make himself better.
“He’s just one of those kids who worked real hard to make himself a starter. His role last year wasn’t to be the star. He was just biding his time and working his rear end off and now he’s ready to step in.”
Polevacik is ready to see more positive strides as his team plays its second full year in the WSC.
“Going 5-5, we definitely took our lumps last season, and hopefully that pays off a little this season,” he said. “We really are focusing on that size doesn’t matter. Our motto is ‘Blood and Bones.’ You can only control what God gave you for your body.
“What matters most is there are 11 kids from EC on the field for every play, and those 11 kids will do their best on every snap. All of our guys matter. These guys love their school and love their coaches, and that makes me excited.”
Elyria Catholic Panthers
- CONFERENCE: West Shore Conference
- 2011 RECORD: 5-5, 3-3
- COACH: Mike Polevacik, 2nd year (5-5)
- RETURNING LETTERMEN: 20
- RETURNING STARTERS: 13 (6 offense, 7 defense)
- FAST FACT: The Panthers avoided a rare losing season by winning their final three by a combined score of 132-26.
- Aug. 24: at Huron (7:30)
- Aug. 31: at Elyria (7:30)
- Sept. 7: Centerburg (7)
- Sept. 14: at Bay (7)*
- Sept. 21: at Rocky River (7)*
- Sept. 28: Avon (7)*
- Oct. 5: Vermilion (7)*
- Oct. 12: at North Ridgeville (7)*
- Oct. 19: at Midview (7)*
- Oct. 26: Lakewood (7)*
* WSC game
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Contact Dan Gilles at 329-7135 or email@example.com.