Heading into its Sept. 19 game against Central Catholic, Eagles coach Mike Donnelly reported that the Eagles had lost one player, a defensive back, due to injury.
St. John’s coach Doug Pearson can’t say the same.
His Titans (1-3, 0-1 City League) played a brutal four-game schedule to open the season, beating Findlay in the opener before losses to Columbus DeSales, Strongsville and defending CL champion Central Catholic last week.
“I don’t think we have deflated confidence,” Pearson said. “The worst part is we’re so banged up because of (the schedule). We haven’t played with our original starters since Findlay. We lost a great running back (Ian Gaston) against Strongsville and a lineman hurt his knee, and two other starters have had knee operations.
“We’ve had three major knee surgeries. Gaston went for 200 yards on 14 carries in the opener and was second in the City in the 100 (dash). That was a really heavy hit replacing him.”
The Titans have replaced Gaston with seniors P.J. Wimberly and Hunter Lent.
“So far, so good,” Pearson said. “They’re doing fine.”
St. John’s senior quarterback Walt Anderson, a returning starter, got a concussion against Central Catholic but should be back for the Clay game, according to Pearson.
Donnelly, whose team improved to 3-1 and 1-0 in the CL with last week’s win over rival Waite, said he expects the Titans to be “big, athletic and well coached.”
“The biggest challenge for us is mentally having the confidence and the belief that we can play with anybody,” Donnelly said. “Especially when you're playing the Catholic schools. I coached at a Catholic school (Central) for nine years. They put on their uniforms the same way and have the same confidence issues that we do sometimes. Just because it’s St. John’s or Central, they’re just a team wearing a different color on a Friday night.”
St. John’s top defenders are Lent at strong safety and fellow seniors Zach Villa at tackle, end Tim Kinard and middle linebacker and leading tackler Cody Riffle.
Pearson said he has been following Clay’s progress this season.
“They’re 3-1 and Mike’s going to do a heck of a job out there,” Pearson said. “He schemes better than anybody else around. He’s very good. Offensively, he’ll give you a million different looks and he uses motion effectively. His passing game fits right in. They throw for a high percentage every year.”
Clay junior Mike Toth has filled in more than admirably for graduated tailback Nick Tammerine.
Through four games, Toth has rushed for 513 yards on 109 carries and has scored 11 touchdowns. Senior quarterback Drew Kuns has thrown just two interceptions the past two years.
“You have to play great team defense against Clay,” Pearson said. “You can’t just focus on taking away the run, or the pass will kill you. I said in preseason that they were flying under the radar, and certainly they have.”
Donnelly said he hopes the Eagles can continue to play as well as they did against Waite last week.
“I was very happy with our offensive execution,” he said. “We got back to taking care of ball and mixing the run and the pass. We moved the ball. I was happy with our focus offensively.”
But can Clay consistently pound Toth into the St. John’s defense the way he has been running through and around defenders this season?
“I don’t think we pound Mike into anybody,” Donnelly said. “We run a zone (blocking) scheme and we are more concerned with moving people laterally rather than moving them off the ball. That fits with our size disadvantage in the City League.
“If we have the running game taken away, it’s going to affect the passing game. We’re going to try to use formations to give us angles to give us the best possible situation to get Mike some creases to be able to get some yardage.”