The purple cloud that hovers over all of Division III is more ominous in the Ohio Athletic Conference. With a 20-time defending champion in Mount Union, it’s hard for the other nine schools to break through.
That’s the task that confronts Baldwin Wallace, which opens the season ranked second in both OAC preseason polls and even earned a first-place vote in each. The Yellow Jackets began the year 19th in D3football.com’s Top 25 poll and moved up to 17 after an idle first week. They return 34 lettermen and 10 starters from a squad that went 8-2 and missed out on a perfect season by a combined eight points, losing by three to Capital and by five to Mount Union in Alliance.
“Our players have to understand how hard it is to take that next step,” BW coach John Snell said. “They’ve got to realize that it’s something that is an entire team, program effort. I think they understand that we weren’t far away last season.”
The offense will likely carry the load in 2011 with seven returning starters led by senior quarterback and Avon graduate Ryan O’Rourke, a two-year starter. O’Rourke threw for 1,611 yards and 12 touchdowns last season and has compiled 3,124 yards and 28 touchdowns in his career as a Yellow Jacket.
“To have any chance at competing at a high level you have to have an experienced, intelligent and talented quarterback,” Snell said. “I think we have two guys at that position who are pretty good and that’s a big help to us in competing in this conference. It hopefully gives us an edge when it comes to our first few games considering we have an inexperienced defense.”
Andrew Dziak is the second senior quarterback, but he only attempted 15 passes in 2011, rushing for 227 yards on 60 carries and scoring six touchdowns. He will likely be used in a change-of-pace roll unless O’Rourke falls victim to injury.
This time around O’Rourke will have a plethora of familiar targets at wide receiver, starting with his top two from 2011. Juniors Gabe Adams and Midview graduate Josiah Holt tied for the team high in catches with 23. Adams accounted for 416 yards while Holt racked up 245 and two touchdowns. Senior Aaron Manders and junior Brandon Mehaffey each return with experience, recording seven catches each.
“It’s really the first time we’ve had this much come back since I’ve been here,” O’Rourke said.
“We know it’s our job to be those leaders not just for the offense but for the entire team.
“We’ve really solidified the depth at receiver. Our relationship can only grow with the years we have under out belt together. I’m very excited to see how it turns out.”
Holt will also anchor what looks to be a strong return unit. The first-team All-OAC pick had two return touchdowns with 338 yards last season, including an 85-yard touchdown against Mount Union. He and O’Rourke played against one another in the West Shore Conference and have been working together over the summer.
The only real weakness on offense will be an offensive line that lost three starters — at center, left guard and left tackle. Alex Lovasz, a junior center from North Ridgeville, played sparingly over his last two seasons and has a chance to see more playing time. It’s just a matter of whether or not he will move over to fill one of the other voids on the line.
The most opportunity for new players to shine will be on defense as Baldwin Wallace returns just three starters and only one in the secondary (cornerback Brandon Russo). It will rely heavy on its defensive tackles —senior All-OAC tackle Max Wagner and junior Addison Carbone — for experience and stability as the only other holdovers from 2011.
Elyria Catholic graduate Joe Fitch has the experience to occupy one of the two vacant defensive end positions. Fitch walked away from football in 2010 due to nagging back injuries, but he took the year to get healthier and put himself in better shape to take on the challenges of college football.
“Last year he re-acclimated himself to football,” Snell said. “I’m expecting him to step up and be a leader. He’s a fifth-year senior so he’s older and I really hope he can have the kind of year that we need him to have.”
Junior and Lutheran West graduate Ethan Beastrom will compete for time opposite to Fitch.
“He’s a guy who started to come on last year and I think he has a lot of potential,” Snell said of Beastrom. “The key is how he developed over the summer and how he plays in this coming preseason.”
Baldwin Wallace loses all three of its linebackers and even its top reserve, clearing the way for a number of players waiting in the wings. The frontrunners are seniors Nick Milano and Brian Ellis, along with junior Mike Stacchiotti.
Former Black River linebacker Jonathan Sas was converted to tight end to add some depth at the position and fellow sophomore Nick Cooper — a Columbia High graduate — has a ways to go before contending for a starting spot.
“Nick still has to develop, I think he has a bit of growing and learning to do at the position,” Snell said. “But he is very committed and works hard. He’s still got to grow a little bit before he’ll be in the picture.”
Baldwin Wallace will host Mount Union on Nov. 3 in their home finale and wrap up the season at Heidelberg the following week. The Purple Raiders and Student Princes were voted first and third in both OAC preseason polls and started their seasons off last Saturday with convincing victories.
Contact Chris Sweeney at 329-7135