In 39 years of coaching, North Ridgeville’s Jeff Riesen had never had a freshman on any of his varsity teams.
Not at North Ridgeville, not at Amherst, not at Elyria and not at Avon Lake.
Until last season.
That’s when Riesen, while watching a freshman scrimmage, saw a player that made him change his mind.
That player was DeMario McCall.
“The scrimmage was in the morning and coaches can stand behind offense and watch,” Riesen said.
“I saw DeMario make some plays that were amazing. Even though he was only a freshman, I’ve coached long enough to know he had that special talent.
“Just that cutting ability alone — when something wasn’t there, he had the ability to make a move and get a gain when there should be no gain.”
In the midst of a forgettable 1-9 season, Riesen decided to suit up McCall for one game last season.
The next week, he was injured playing in a freshman game, which curtailed any further appearances by McCall on Friday nights.
However, just two weeks into McCall’s sophomore season, fans of North Ridgeville and local high school football now know just what Riesen spotted last summer.
The Rangers are off to a 2-0 start and the McCall is a big reason why.
Entrenched as North Ridgeville’s starting tailback, McCall has gained 536 yards and scored 10 touchdowns, leading the Rangers to wins over a Westlake team that qualified for the postseason last season and a Parma team that had just defeated West Shore Conference rival Lakewood in Week 1.
McCall gained 170 yards and four touchdowns in a season-opening 34-21 win over the Demons. But he saved his breakout performance for Friday night, when he gained 366 yards and scored six touchdowns in a 58-22 win over Parma.
“Before the season started, my goal was to get 1,000 yards rushing and score over 20 touchdowns,” McCall said. “I never thought I’d be halfway there on both of those goals in just two games. My offensive line has been working really hard. The team has been working hard, and conditioning hard. If we keep that up, we can do some special things this year.”
McCall ran track for the Rangers last year and made it to the state meet as a relay member. He said the track training and running helped him maximize his speed for football.
“Some people are track fast, others are football fast,” McCall said. “I’m football fast but I’m good at running track. The training I get for track really helps me improve my speed for football season. When I’m running track, I look at the finish line as the end zone and the guys I’m running against as the defense.”
McCall gave credit to fullback Jonah Bowden and his offensive linemen — tackles Nick Bailey (senior) and Willy Hedberg (junior), guards Michael Esler (senior) and Alex Leanza (junior) and center Gabe Vega (senior) — for their blocking, which has helped spring him for many of his long runs.
“My offensive line, those guys are great, man,” McCall said. “I give all the respect to my offense linemen. When I’m behind them, they know to put their guy on the inside to give me the edge and use my speed. They put in a ton of work and that’s why they block how they block when it’s game time. Also, I can’t forget about our fullback, Jonah Bowden, who has been a great teammate and a big help as well.”
While the line, the fullback and even the wide receivers have been a key to the Rangers’ early success, Riesen has to admit McCall’s speed and moves have been just as big.
“The line up front is doing an excellent job springing him, but he has an uncanny ability to — where, even though a block is missed, he can do something positive,” he said. “Last week, he had a 3-yard gain and he made a guy miss in the open field and reversed his field. Most kids reverse their field and they lose 8 yards. DeMario does it and it turns it into a 50-yard touchdown. I told my offensive coordinator on the headset afterward, ‘Wasn’t that a great call?’
“It should have only been a 3-yard gain and set up second-and-7, and instead it was a touchdown because of DeMario’s speed and athleticism.”
McCall’s performance has certainly put him and the Rangers on the local radar. WEOL listed McCall as a candidate for their player of the week. And, along with The Chronicle, SportsTime Ohio and Cleveland.com have reached out to Riesen to do stories on his surprising team and their surprising sophomore tailback.
“It’s been crazy, but it sure beats no one doing anything on you at all and ignoring you,” Riesen said. “We’ll take all the positive press we can get. It’s great for our program and for that young man because he certainly deserves it.”
McCall and his younger brother do drills in their backyard every day to help them with their speed and agility.
“I’ve played football since I was 5 years old,” McCall said. “I’ve got a big yard, and me and my younger brother work hard every day, running sprints, making cuts. When you train hard, you get better by leaps and bounds each day, and we’ve trained very hard to get better.
“My brother’s in fifth grade at Wilcox and I believe that he’ll be even better than me when he gets into high school.”
As McCall puts on dazzling performances and the Rangers win, he and his team are gaining confidence each time. Suddenly, the West Shore Conference race looks intriguing with the Rangers right in the mix at 2-0 with Avon and Midview.
And they have another big game Friday against 2-0 North Olmsted.
“I’m pretty sure all the teams that beat us last year felt like they didn’t have to worry about the Rangers,” McCall said. “But we’re a different team. At Westlake, we just came out and played. We’ve been the underdogs in each game. We told ourselves we’re going to shock the county this year.
“A lot of people have been doubting us this year. But if we keep practicing hard and playing hard, we’ll get to where we want to be.”
McCall said he’d like to play in college and even in the NFL one day. But for now, he’s focused on making the Rangers a threat to win every game.
“I know we got to take it week-by-week, but I’m excited to start playing the conference schools next week,” McCall said. “We play hard, fast and physical. You can expect for the line to block the same as they have the past two weeks and we aim to score points and our defense to try and shut the other team down.
“Like Coach Riesen says, we let the past be the past and we’ve just got to look forward. We’ve changed the history that happened last year and so far, we’ve succeeded in that.”
Riesen believes the sky is the limit for McCall not only for his athletic ability, but also because of his mentality.
“I think he can be something very special,” he said. “He’s a very coachable young man. He puts the team first. Those are all the things you look for in a player and he does those things. And he’s a hard worker. He loves the game and he wants to get better.
“Right now, he’s only 165 pounds and he’ll add weight as he gets older. I’m sure he’ll put on some muscle as the years continue. He’s got great speed right now and he’ll continue to gain speed with his track career and do great things there. I think this is just the beginning for him.”