The memory remains permanently seared in Ryan O’Rourke’s memory bank. The sensation of bubbles bursting on the inside, the sights and smells of his first varsity start.
The kid was only 14 years old. Still, the Avon Eagles threw the freshman quarterback right into the fire.
“We were playing Trinity,” he recalls, smirking. “I remember being nervous — really nervous. I didn’t want to screw anything up for the seniors. And I fumbled four snaps. We lost 7-0.”
The irony is O’Rourke is rarely associated with nerves. Behind his even keel and icy cool, the 6-foot-1, 205-pound quarterback has put Avon’s season into focus.
In two games, O’Rourke’s thrown for 538 yards, completing 29 of his 52 passes, with four touchdowns. The Eagles put an initial scare into Southwestern Conference powerhouse Avon Lake before ultimately wearing down in a 50-25 defeat in Week 1.
Last week, O’Rourke had arguably the finest game of his high school career, leading Avon’s explosive offense to a 43-28 victory over Wellington.
“What amazes me about him is how calm and collected he is — regardless of the situation,” said Avon first-year coach Mike Elder. “It doesn’t matter if we just scored a touchdown or if he just threw an interception. He stays the same. That’s real important to the guys in the huddle.”
O’Rourke is highly aware of this. Growing up, he watched his older brother, Jason, run the Eagles’ offense. Jason O’Rourke, now at Baldwin-Wallace studying business administration, was a standout quarterback at Avon during the 2002 season.
“We talk a lot about how you have to hold yourself as a quarterback,” Ryan said. “People are looking at you and they feed off what you show. If they see you’re nervous or if you don’t have confidence, they’ll pick up on it. I just try to play my game and keep my focus. No matter what the score is, you keep your cool.”
Which is precisely what O’Rourke did last week when Wellington forced Avon into a fourth-and-6 around midfield, with the Eagles nursing a seven-point lead late in the fourth quarter. Instead of punting and allowing the Dukes the opportunity to march down the field for a tying touchdown, Avon gambled.
O’Rourke dropped back and aired out a 44-yard bomb to senior wide receiver Kyle Gregory to put the game away. All told, he finished with 225 yards of passing, with a pair of touchdowns.
What has surprised Elder is how quickly O’Rourke has grasped the nuances of a new offense. Elder installed a new system when he arrived in Avon, placing more emphasis on the passing game and spreading the field.
“It’s a numbering system,” Elder said. “It’s based on a college offense and it was literally a foreign language. But Ryan identifies coverages well and recognizes what defenses are trying to do. That gives us a tremendous amount of options for our passing game.”
O’Rourke admitted that his head was spinning in mid-August trying to grasp the terminology, but nearly a month later he appears to be ahead of the curve.
“He’s a full year ahead of where I probably would have expected at this point,” Elder said. “I didn’t realize how intelligent he is. If this progresses further, we’ll give him the option of going to the line and calling a lot of plays based on what he sees.”
Nineteen starts into his varsity career, O’Rourke is firmly entrenched in the Avon offense. And the scary thing is he’s still only a junior. Already, he owns school records for career passing yards (2,024), passing completion (155) and passing attempts (336). By the time the 2007 season is over, he’ll likely be second for career touchdowns.
And that’s before projecting another full year in the offense for 2008.
Future looks bright
These are exciting times in Avon.
In Elder, the football program has a creative, exciting young coach. Renovations are everywhere. The high school will be doubling its size for a student population that is skyrocketing. The football stadium has undergone a thorough refurbishing, installing FieldTurf and a new track. There’s a new a state-of-the-art weight room.
“They’re making this into a football town,” O’Rourke said.
Within several years, the school student population is expected to approach that of the giants in the West Shore Conference, Midview and North Ridgeville. There are even whispers that the school might consider a leap to the Southwestern Conference.
For now, the focus is on Eagles, who have scored 68 points in eight quarters, and tonight’s opponent, Columbia (1-1 overall).
“This is a fun team we have right now,” O’Rourke said. “It’s a fun team to be a part of and a fun team to watch. We’re pretty confident right now. Everything just seems to be coming together.”
Contact Pete Alpern at 329-7137 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.