For a team to make significant improvement and look to establish itself as one of the area's top teams, it must receive great play and solid leadership from its quarterback.
With the Clay Eagles this season, quarterback Josh Pennington answered the call, serving as the team's leader on offense and accounting for 21 touchdowns on the season, doing damage both through the air and on the ground.
Pennington was the offense's catalyst in 2012, completing 131-of-243 passes (53.9 percent) for 2,025 yards, 15 touchdown and 10 interceptions and running 111 times for 417 yards (3.6 per-carry) and six scores in leading the Eagles to a 5-5 record and a 3-4 mark in the Three Rivers Athletic Conference. That’s pretty good, considering two teams in the league were playing for state championships over the weekend.
“I think I've grown as a quarterback tremendously from last year and our team has come a long way,” Pennington. “I think we proved a lot of people wrong this year. People now realize that we are a team that can compete with anybody.”
During the offseason, Coach Mike Donnelly, a 1992 Clay graduate, made the decision to switch the offense from a spread option to a standard spread formation, something that turned out to be a wise decision that Pennington greatly benefited from.
“I just picked up (the offense) and ran with it,” Pennington said. “Coach Donnelly gave me the offense (after last season) and I studied it. I think the offense was a perfect fit for me. It was just a much easier offense (to run).”
Offensively, the Eagles averaged 28.3 points and scored 38 points or more in four of their games, all victories. In fact, Clay averaged 40.6 points in its five victories this season. Pennington's most impressive performance can in Clay's 38-21 win over St. Francis. In the victory over the Knights, Pennington completed 18-of-31 passes for 367 yards and three touchdowns and rushed 13 times for 63 yards and a score.
“I was very pleased with (Josh's) progress,” Donnelly said. “He's 100 percent better than he was as a sophomore and he continued to improve as the season went on; he also broke a few school records. He blossomed as a quarterback and has room to improve.”
Pennington spread the ball around to a number of receivers, among them Kyle Row (43 catches, 723 yards, 6 TD), Mounib Jomaa (19 catches, 429 yards, 4 TD) and Anthony Ramirez (38 catches, 411 yards, 2 TD).
“(The receivers and I) just have great chemistry,” Pennington said. “Kyle Row was my No. 1 receiver and he did a great job. We knew how to execute. Every day we would stay after practice and do some extra throwing with Anthony Ramirez and the other wide receivers. Trust was a key component (with us).”
But as any knowledgeable football fan knows, a great passing attack is often set up by a stout rushing attack and great play by the offensive line.
Twin running backs Devin and Damon Dominique helped to take the pressure off Pennington by rushing for a combined 1,572 yards on 211 carries and 20 touchdowns. Individually, Devin carried the ball 101 times for 832 yards (8.2 per-carry) and 10 scores while Damon rushed for 740 yards on 110 carries (6.7 per-carry) and 10 touchdowns. Both of them also contributed with their pass-catching abilities out of the backfield as Devin had 19 receptions for 289 yards and three scores and Damon had nine catches for 137 yards and one touchdown.
The offensive line consistently opened holes for the Dominique twins and gave Pennington time to throw. Jared Lutz (6-0, 241) and Dillon Twining (6-2, 250) served as the tackles, Charlie Bee (5-10, 215) started at one of the guard spots with Morgan Seymour (6-0, 215) and Jared Gray (6-3, 223) rotating in at the other guard spot. And the anchor of the group was center Joe Staudinger (5-11, 210).
“The offensive line did an outstanding job,” Pennington said. “There were very few sacks and that's what you ask of your line. I've got to give them all the credit for everything. And the Dominique twins are something special. They're such great athletes and they had a great season. They sure will be missed.”
For Clay to take the next step and establish itself as one of the top teams in the TRAC, the Eagles will have to continue to work hard in the offseason and hope that they can continue to build team unity.
Pennington credited the coaching staff with helping to push the players and get them in shape for the long season.
“We conditioned a lot (this season),” he said. “You have an extra edge if you can wear out your opponent. And we've got the right mindset and worked hard as a team. (The coaches) have put in a ton of work to make us a better football team. I think they deserve a whole lot more credit than they get.”