HENRIETTA TWP. - There's a wealth of experience returning to Firelands this season.
The coaches didn't plan to have so much experience returning. It just worked out that way.
"Injuries," said Falcons coach Mike Passarello, who took over the team in Week 3 of last season. "A rash of injuries got a lot of guys experience."
So many players reporting to sick bay last year might have been a major reason Firelands posted a 2-8 record. Passarello hopes all that trial by fire pays off this season, as the Falcons enter a new conference.
"Some kids were starters for three games then were lost for the season," Passarrello said. "We had players having to play new positions out of necessity.
"We passed our growing pains last year. We have players we thought were going to have to learn to be starters this year who know what being a starter means. We're excited to be in the (Patriot Athletic Conference). We think this is where we belong."
The Falcons had been in the West Shore Conference, but moved to the PAC this season along with fellow WSC member Fairview.
Firelands is in the Stars Division with Black River, Brookside, Buckeye, Keystone and Wellington. Fairview went to the Stripes Division.
The Falcons enter their new conference with 49 players. Nine starters on offense and nine defensive starters return.
"We're solid," said Nick Deichler, one of three returning Division III All-Ohio selections from a year ago. "We've all been hitting the weights all summer. The weights (weightlifting statistics) are up and we're ready to go."
"We have a big senior class," Passarrello said. "We have talented skill players. The lines are coming along, too. They're learning. They're doing a great job of picking things up and getting the hang of our new system."
Passarello said he is only beginning the installment of new schemes this season. He said he spent the final games of last season "tweaking some things" in former coach Todd Pooch's system.
The offense is built around senior quarterback Kyle Smith (5-foot-10, 165 pounds), who landed on the third-team All-Ohio list. Smith completed 70 of 152 passes (46 percent) for 1,106 yards with 12 touchdowns and just five interceptions.
"He's a good run-pass option (quarterback)," Passarrello said. "He has excellent speed and athletic ability."
The Falcons' two other All-Ohioans, Deichler and Joe Kudela, are the running backs. Deichler was third team at that position after rushing for 869 yards on 142 carries (6.1 yards a carry) and scoring five touchdowns. The 5-10, 210-pounder also had three TDs receiving.
Kudela (5-11, 190) distinguished himself as a receiver with 19 receptions for 480 yards - an impressive 25.3 yards per catch - and seven touchdowns. Kudela made second-team all-state for his play at linebacker, where he registered 92 tackles (60 solo) and two sacks.
Three of Smith's receivers return as starters. Greg Northeim will be the wide receiver. Joey DeWitt (6-2, 245) and Steve Bajcer (5-11, 175) are the starters in Firelands' two-tight end alignment.
There is excellent size on the offensive line, with 12 players weighing at least 235 pounds and six going at least 265. Three starters on the interior line are back, with Andy Thoms (6-2, 29) at tackle and Jared Underswood (6-0, 275) and Ian Davies (6-0, 205) at guard.
Joe Sosinski (6-0, 3-5), a big sophomore, is the probable starter at center. Junior Seth Tansey (6-2, 250) is a top candidate for the other offensive tackle job.
All nine returning starters on offense are seniors.
Smith and Deichler started in the defensive backfield, where they combined for 114 tackles from their safety positions. The two cornerbacks, Northeim and junior Dakota Dodge, are also back. Starting alongside Kudela at linebacker are senior Chuck Sees (5-10, 175) and junior Zack Hofecker (5-11, 215). DeWitt and Thoms are the returning starters on the defensive line. Bajcer and senior Zane Hayes (6-0, 235) will likely fill the openings on the line.
Passarrello has set winning the Stars Division title as his team's big goal.
"They need to play together," he said. "They have to follow our coaching, play like a team and keep getting better. This year will be exciting."
Contact Steve Byrne at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
• CONFERENCE: Patriot Athletic Conference, Stars Division
• 2010 RECORD: 2-8, 1-6 West Shore Conference
• COACH: Mike Passarrello, 2nd year
• RETURNING LETTERMEN: 22
• RETURNING STARTERS: 18
• FAST FACT: Firelands' last game as a member of the West Shore Conference was a 28-21 victory over Vermilion. The victory broke a 24-game losing streak in WSC games and gave Passarello his first win as a head coach.
Aug. 26 at Lutheran West
Sept. 2 at New London
Sept. 9 Vermilion
Sept. 16 Fairview*
Sept. 23 at Oberlin*
Sept. 30 Wellington*
Oct. 7 Keystone*
Oct. 14 at Buckeye*
Oct. 21 Black River*
Oct. 28 at Brookside*
All games at 7 p.m.
*Patriot Athletic Conference game