NORTH RIDGEVILLE — Jeff Riesen has had two stints as football coach at North Ridgeville High School, totaling 15 seasons.
Through the first 14 of those, the Rangers never had a losing season, let alone a year with just one win.
Then came last year. The Rangers were an uncharacteristic 1-9 overall and 1-6 in the West Shore Conference.
It’s a season the coaches and players want to forget — and never repeat.
“I think we’re on a mission,” Riesen said. “We’re not used to being 1-9. I know I’m certainly not used to being 1-9 and I think we’re on the same page as far as our expectations. These kids are on a mission to get back to where we’ve been, and that’s to be a successful and respected program. The kids have high energy and work hard.”
The Rangers relied on a lot of juniors and sophomores that didn’t have much varsity experience a year ago. While that group certainly took their lumps, the upshot is all the varsity snaps that group took should pay off this season.
“We weren’t together like we are this year,” said senior Jason Lucas, the starting quarterback and free safety.
“What we get back are a lot of key players and we’re a lot stronger than we were last year. If we can stick together as a team, we’ll be a lot better.
“That’s the biggest thing we learned from last season — that we have to stick together. I think a lot’s expected of us. Once you get into varsity action, there’s a lot of pressure on you and it’s good to be in someone else’s shoes — running the ball, passing the ball, blocking — to prepare you for that pressure.”
Lucas, who started five games at quarterback last year, and fellow senior Bailey Gannon (receiver/cornerback), along with a few other seniors, decided to assert themselves as leaders immediately after the season ended.
“It all started last year when we went 1-9 and I was upset about it, as were all of the juniors,” Lucas said. “Once the season ended, me, Gannon, Devin Johnson and a few others got a pact together. We started throwing the football and running routes on our own time, lifting and putting in extra work because we’re not even going to be close to 1-9 again.
“The biggest thing that I learned from going through that is that no matter how hard you work individually, it’s a team sport.”
Gannon felt the team lacked leadership from the players last season, and it showed on the field.
“Everyone wanted to be the cool guy, but no one wanted to say anything critical,” he said. “We had a lot of sophomores and juniors starting last year, so now we’re all older and we know what it takes to be a leader.
“Me and Jason worked out in the offseason with a couple other guys to go lift, working on routes and stuff like that. We help some guys with their classes and we give rides to some that needed them to get to lifting or to conditioning. I think we’re more of a team this year, and it’s those little things that help establish that.”
Riesen couldn’t be happier with Lucas and Gannon.
“Those two kids are National Honor Society members, so they know what it takes to be a true student-athlete,” Riesen said. “Bailey also stood out in baseball and Jason in track, and both are probably in the top 20 academically in their class. They’re both excellent leaders, both academically and athletically.
“Woody Hayes once said, ‘You win with people,’ and those two are good people right there.”
Gannon and Lucas are among 21 returning lettermen, 17 of which were starters (nine on offense, eight on defense).
Other returning starters include seniors Nick Bailey (tackle), Michael Esler (guard/defensive line), C.J. Osbourne (tailback), Gabe Vega (guard/linebacker) and Jacob Ruoff (linebacker), juniors Willy Hedberg (tackle), Alex Leanza (guard), Logan Armaro (cornerback), Jonah Bowden (linebacker) and Ben Rankin (linebacker), and sophomore Demario McCall (tailback).
“Demario McCall was the first freshman in all my years of coaching that I moved up to play varsity,” Riesen said. “He had 75 yards in nine carries in his only varsity appearance last season, so we’re looking for big things from him as a sophomore.
“Also, Shawn Stumpf (receiver/cornerback) is a junior who returned to North Ridgeville after moving to Canton and missing sophomore year. We think he can be a big addition on both sides of the ball.”
To help with the bonding experience, Riesen did something else he’d never done before — take the team to an offseason camp. The team went to Hiram College in June and spent three days working on drills.
“We participated in seven practices and two 7-on-7s during those three days,” Riesen said. “When you’ve got them as a captive audience and no distractions — no girlfriends, no work, just us — I think that was a real benefit to our program. The kids got to knew each other better and they developed some good work habits, and I think that’s carried over to our two-a-day practices.
“As a result, we’ve seen many positive effects in understanding the basic concepts of our offense and defense and, most importantly, started the critical team ‘bonding’ that is crucial to any team’s success during the season.”
Contact Dan Gilles at 329-7135 or email@example.com.
North Ridgeville Rangers
CONFERENCE: West Shore
2012 RECORD: 1-9 (1-6)
COACH: Jeff Riesen, 39th year, 197-98
RETURNING LETTERMEN: 21
RETURNING STARTERS: 17
FAST FACT: For the first time in Riesen’s tenure, the Rangers attended a team camp at Hiram College in June to try to improve their chemistry and work ethic.
Aug. 30 Westlake
Sept. 6 at Parma
Sept. 13 North Olmsted
Sept. 20 Avon Lake
Sept. 27 Rocky River*
Oct. 4 at Midview*
Oct. 11 Avon*
Oct. 18 at Bay*
Oct. 25 at Elyria Catholic*
Nov. 1 at Lakewood*
All game at 7 p.m.
* West Shore Conference game