The Press Newspaper
Whitmer (4-0), ranked No. 9 in the Associated Press’ latest Division I statewide poll, has become the standard of excellence for major prep football programs in Northwest Ohio.
The last two seasons, the Panthers advanced to the Division I state semifinals.
Clay is working on building a football program that can consistently challenge the likes of Whitmer and other Three Rivers Athletic Conference programs.
Clay (2-2) has had an up and down season. After defeating Sylvania Northview, 42-21, in the opener, the Eagles lost a heartbreaker to Perrysburg, 24-23. Clay then beat rival Waite, 48-12, for the Oil Barrel Trophy, and lost to Central Catholic 56-19 in a game that was closer than the final score indicated.
“We're just trying to improve weekly and work on things that we weren't so successful on in the previous games,” Clay coach Mike Donnelly said. “We're really taking a week-by-week mindset.”
The Eagles offense has benefited from a change that saw their offense go from a spread option to a standard spread formation. According Donnelly, the switch has greatly benefited quarterback Josh Pennington. Last season, Pennington was expected to read the defense and call plays at the line of scrimmage, but now, Donnelly usually relays the plays in from the sidelines. With less pressure on him, Pennington has flourished, completing 57-of-96 passes for 873 yards, six touchdowns and an interception. He's also run for two touchdowns.
Mounib Jomaa, Anthony Ramirez and Kyle Row have taken turns making big plays on the receiving end and twin running backs Devin Dominique and Damon Dominique have complemented the offense, both by running the ball and catching it out of the backfield.
“I think (Josh) has improved tremendously over last year,” Donnelly said. “We catered the offense to his skill set and it has been a plus. He keeps progressing the way we hoped he would. I wanted to put the pressure on me and allow me to be the decision maker. I call a lot of the plays (now). Our quarterback doesn't have as much pressure. He just has to execute the offense.”
The defense, however, has struggled, giving up 25.3 points per game. How the defense performs the rest of the season will go a long way in determining how Clay finishes the season.
As for Whitmer, they appear to be playing just as well as they were last season, surprising a few naysayers after Coach Joe Palka left for the head football coaching job near his hometown in Saline, Michigan. Despite having lost two-time All-Ohioan Jody Webb, who rushed for 1,539 yards and 30 touchdowns last season, and a number of other key players, the Panthers have gotten off to a 4-0 start, highlighted by key victories over two out-of-state powerhouse programs — Detroit Catholic Central (19-7) and Fort Wayne Bishop Luers (20-3).
The Panthers liked to run the ball under Palka, and still do. First-year starting quarterback Nick Holley and running backs Mc'Gail Frisch and Tre Sterritt have made sure the ground game’s success continues.
Donnelly has his own plans on combating the Panthers’ rushing attack.
“Obviously, you have to put extra people in the box and we're going to have to commit our safeties more to the run,” Donnely said. “It's going to be on our cornerbacks to defend the pass. We'll give the offensive line different looks, too. It's about (creating) confusion and committing more guys to the run.”
The Whitmer defense, meanwhile, has also been impressive, allowing only 17 points through four games.
“They've got a lot of guys on defense back,” Donnelly said. “That's their strong suit. It's going to be a big challenge.”
Donnelly is now in his sixth season coaching at his alma mater. Based on his team's play for the season's first four games, which includes being one point from a 3-1 start, he appears to have the Eagles headed in the right direction. He notes that his year's squad, especially the junior class, benefited greatly and gained a lot of experience last year playing as sophomores.
“Our juniors – we played seven sophomores last year and they got a lot of varsity experience,” he said. “They've matured athletically (and) a lot of it has to do with experience. I think that's the biggest difference. We've also changed some things offensively and defensively and have gotten our kids to lift weights more.”
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