The Press Newspaper
Could this be the year that the Clay football team gets over the hump and establishes itself as one of the top teams in the Three Rivers Athletic Conference?
It's starting to look like that may be the case. Of course, they will still have to contend with defending Division II state champion Central Catholic and defending D-I state runner-up Whitmer, so winning a conference title may be asking for a lot.
With a senior class featuring 20 players, the Eagles started the year 2-1 and showing signs of promise.
Under first-year coach Mike Lee, backs Josh Pennington, Ryan Fournier and a stout defense helped Clay to victories over Sylvania Northview (28-3) and Waite (47-21).
Despite scoring four touchdowns in the win over Northview, it was the defense that was dominant, allowing the Wildcats just 90 yards of total offense.
Pennington threw for 126 yards and connected with Kyle Row for a 69-yard touchdown. Fournier carried the ball 21 times for 138 yards and two scores. Cornerback Anthony Ramirez had a pick-six, returning an interception 15 yards for a touchdown.
For the second straight year, Clay defeated crosstown rival Waite to win the Oil Barrel Trophy. Despite the lopsided score, the game was tied at 14 early in the third quarter when Row, who also plays cornerback, intercepted a pass and returned it 80 yards to give Clay the lead for good. The pick-six came just after the Eagles had fumbled their kickoff return.
Pennington completed just five passes against Waite, but three went for touchdowns, one apiece to Ramirez for 68 yards, Row for seven yards and Jay Smith covering 11 yards. The veteran quarterback also scored on a seven-yard run, Fournier led the rushing attack with 16 carries for 109 yards and Aaron Seymour scored two rushing touchdowns.
Clay's loss to Perrysburg (50-13) was not as bad as the final score would indicate. Pennington, who threw for 141 yards, had two first half touchdowns called back because of penalties, wiping 14 points off the board. Plus, there was a potentially crucial pass interference penalty on the Yellow Jackets on a deep route early in the game that Eagle fans say the officials missed. Pennington did finish with two touchdowns, one to Row covering 27 yards and a 35-yard strike to Ramirez.
Lee, a veteran coach, is familiar with the community. In six seasons (1992-97), the Fostoria native led Woodmore to four playoff appearances, including two regional finals and three Suburban Lakes League titles and later served as the offensive coordinator at Fostoria for eight years. After that, Lee, the brother of former Clay coach Jeff Lee, worked as an offensive assistant in Lake Wales High School in Florida for seven years.
Currently ranked 15th in Division II, Region 4 with 4.38 points, the Eagles, who faced Findlay on Friday, travel to Whitmer, host St. John's and face Fremont Ross on the road in the coming weeks. How they perform in those games will go a long way in determining how they stack up in the TRAC and whether or not they can position themselves for a spot in the postseason.
It certainly won't be easy, given that the league features some of the state's best programs in Whitmer and Central Catholic, as well as much-improved clubs like St. Francis DeSales and Ross.
Pennington, a three-year starter, has made strides in each of the last two seasons. Operating out of the spread offense, Pennington continues to put up big numbers, but he'll need help from Fournier and his receivers, specifically Row, Ramirez and Smith, if the offense is going to consistently put points on the board. And most importantly, the offensive line will have to give him time to throw.
Lee says if the Eagles are really going to be successful, it will be more a result of their play on defense than on offense.
The defense, which utilizes a stack formation, includes a line that rotates in a number of players, among them Jared Lutz, Dillion Twining, Tyler Dunbar, Joe Staudinger, Jake Woodrum, Antonio Zapata, Chris Hatfield, Nate Durkovic, Jacob Davis, Tyler Koester, Trenton Gast, Austin Kochanski and Sean Pecina. The linebacking corps includes Logan Davies, Michael Lee, Nick Stencel and Keegan Mowrer and Row, Ramirez and Jadea Robinson lead the secondary.
Despite having a strong senior class, Clay did have to replace its share of graduated starters from last year. Among the losses were twin running backs Devin and Damon Dominique, who combined for 1,998 yards of total offense and 24 touchdowns, Jarred Gray, Mounib Jomaa, Cody Gore, Morgan Seymour, Emilio Duran and Logan Badenhop.
The program is in good shape in part because of the work done by athletic director and former coach Mike Donnelly, a 1993 Clay graduate. During his six-year stint, the Eagles steadily improved as they battled some of Northwest Ohio's best programs in the Toledo City League and now the TRAC.