By Dan Gilles
The West Shore Conference is entering its final season of play, but one question remains.
Can, or will, any of the six remaining teams be able to knock Avon off of its perch atop the conference that it has held for four consecutive years?
The Eagles will move to the Southwestern Conference next year – along with Lakewood, Midview and North Ridgeville – and have designs on claiming their fifth-straight WSC crown, along with qualifying for the playoffs for the fifth-straight year and reaching at least the regional final for the fourth-straight year.
Throw in a state championship – Avon reached the state final in 2011 – and a cumulative grade-point average greater than 3.4, and you have the Eagles’ goals for 2014 in a nutshell.
As has become custom in coach Mike Elder’s seven years at the helm, Avon is aiming high — and expecting its opponents’ best shots. Avon has been to the postseason seven times in school history – six with Elder as the coach – and has been conference champs 11 times, dating back to 1959.
Elder often says the best part of being successful is program depth: Seniors replace seniors. That limited window for players to make an impact keeps players grounded, as evidenced by the Eagles having won 29 WSC games in a row.
“Our success puts a huge target on us, but we don’t shy away from that. We welcome the challenge,” Elder said. “For us — your past has no bearing on your future. If you start celebrating the past, you get in trouble.
“Seniors get on the field who haven’t been on the field — they’re hungry because they want theirs. Every year the kids change, and they’re just as hungry, because they don’t want to let people down.”
While seniors in key positions have been the rule at Avon, there are exceptions — and two will play key roles this season.
Jake Sopko split time with graduated senior Tommy Glenn last year, and had his best performance in the Eagles’ thrilling regional final loss to Medina Highland. Sopko went 11-for-20 with 224 yards and two touchdowns in putting Avon ahead in the third quarter of an eventual late loss. He threw nine touchdowns on the season in 77 attempts.
Sopko is the unquestioned starter now, and said he’s better having had the time on the field in 2013.
“There was a lot that I took away from my experience last year,” Sopko said. “I learned how (Glenn) took charge of the huddle, and I gained confidence from the times that I was able to get into the game.”
Running back Gerett Choat, meanwhile, had a breakout season as a sophomore, rushing for 1,105 yards and 15 touchdowns, and catching another three scores out of the backfield.
Sopko and Choat, along with Chris Maxwell — a three-year starter at tight end — are the team’s lone starters returning on offense. Zack Torbert, an all-county safety, will become the team’s primary wideout, replacing Braeden Friss and Rhys Ratino, who combined for 23 touchdowns. Elder calls that group one of the best skill position groups he’s coached, which is quite a compliment with the talent Avon has had the past seven seasons.
Greg Harrison and Patrick Baeder will anchor another new offensive line, Baeder being the only returnee who played meaningful time last year.
“We’ve lost a lot of great players, but the guys who have waited fill in well,” Sopko said. “Our coaches prepare them and the whole team well and we’re always confident in those new players.”
Cory Ohradzansky — the Eagles’ leading tackler in 2012 as a sophomore and through three games last year as a junior — is back from a torn ACL and will anchor the defense, while senior Jacob Kules will lead a similarly rebuilt defensive line along with Bryson Golini and Tanner Doenges. Juniors Michael Nose and Darrin Davis will get the first crack at replacing Torbert and others in the secondary.
“Cory Ohradzansky is pound for pound the best football player I have ever coached,” Elder said. “He is a senior captain and definitely our defensive leader. He’s a great kid from a great family with tremendous character and high academics.”
Elder said he had concerns before last season, given that the Eagles had only two offensive starters returning. Things, of course, turned out OK, and his concerns over the get-to-know-you period have waned.
“A lot of kids have been waiting their turn and haven’t gotten their opportunity,” said Elder, who is 70-15 at Avon and is now the longest-tenured head coach in the WSC. “When they do, they usually hit the ground running. This year’s no exception. We have a lot of seniors playing for the first time.
“We lost a ton of outstanding seniors to graduation from last year’s 12-1 regional runner-up team. This year’s team, however, has worked extremely hard in the offseason to continue the proud tradition of Avon Football. We look forward to watching young players step into varsity roles this season.”
Those new faces on defense may be most important, as Elder predicts the WSC will be a close race throughout the season: North Ridgeville (Demario McCall) and Elyria Catholic (Justin Rankin) each feature dynamic running backs, while Rocky River quarterback Matt Lowry led the Pirates to the most points in school history last year.
“It’s going to be a fun league,” Elder said.