Yes, the Fitch football team has 21 players returning from a team that finished 6-4 in 2009.
The downside to that number is that only one-third of the returnees have starting experience, meaning some younger Falcons will have to prove themselves this season. The biggest proving ground will be up front on offense where Fitch is missing every starter from ’09.
“We need to replace all five of our starters (from last year),” laments Fitch head coach Phil Annarella who is entering his 30th season as a head coach.
Thankfully for the veteran coach, he has senior Steve Zaborsky to man one of the tackle spots. The Youngstown State recruit lettered as a defensive lineman last season, but he has the talent to tackle the offensive tackle spot as well.
“Zaborsky is doing a great job on the offensive line,” Annarella mentions, sounding relieved.
Another super defender who has joined the offensive ranks is senior two-year letter winner Dion Mathews.
“Dion has unselfishly moved to the offensive line,” says Annarella.
Elsewhere on the offensive line senior Kenny Walters will play tackle, senior Zach Zupp will man one guard spot and senior Josh Miller and junior Chris Penson will see time at center. Sophomore Billy Price has impressed Fitch coaches all summer and should see significant starting time on the line too.
“(Price) will play a bunch,” Annarella assures.
That group will have the duty of keeping both of Fitch’s new quarterbacks upright all season. Graduated is three-year starter Jon Ballard who had complete control of coach Annarella’s wide open spread offense. In his place will be senior two-time letter winner Shane Stevens and junior letter winner Demitrious Davis. With Stevens seeing more time on the other side of the ball, the dynamic Davis should do most of the signal calling.
“Primarily (the quarterbacks) will be Shane and Demitrious,” says Annarella confidently. “With Shane playing a lot on defense, Demitrious will have an edge.”
Annarella has spent this summer getting both QB’s as comfortable as Ballard was in his offense as well as devising a few new wrinkles that his former starter wasn’t equipped to handle.
“Both kids are doing a good job grasping the system,” says Annarella. “We’ve added some things to complement their strengths.”
Speaking of strengths, Fitch’s running back position has been good for a long time, but this year it has a chance to really carry the team.
“Our backfield situation is a strength,” Annarella says excitedly.
Leading the run at running back is senior two-time letter winner Bruce Reed who is a three-year starter. He will be joined in the backfield by magnificent Will Mahone, who set a sophomore rushing record at Fitch in 2009, and fellow junior Larry Vines.
While the running back spot seems to be super, you can’t run the spread without some wonderful wide receivers. The Falcons have plenty of firepower at that position too. Junior Chris Davis, Demitrious’ twin brother, has wowed college coaches and recruiters all summer at various camps and combines and is back to help his twin and Stevens flourish in the passing game. Like Davis, senior Cam Patterson and junior Nick Williams lettered at receiver last year and will return to help spark the offense. Another receiver to watch will be junior Lucas Haupt.
“We have very good skill at the receiver position,” says Annarella.
The athletic Davis, Williams and Patterson will also show their speed and instincts in the defensive backfield. It will be quickness on defense that will help the Falcons prohibit their opponents from turning games into shoot-outs.
“Fortunately we have some good foot speed on defense and we need to capitalize on that,” Annarella mentions.
That speed will also be showcased up front where Zaborsky rules at defensive end and Price, Walters, Zupp and senior letter winner Dan Musch make up the rest of the line rotation. Mathews, Reed, Stevens and Mahone will all see time at linebacker.
Fitch finished in fifth place in the Federal League last year and has only won the league crown once since joining the mainly Stark County conference. This will be Fitch’s final season as a league member, which may give the Falcons a little extra incentive to do well.
“Our last year in the Federal League will give us some motivation,” Annarella says honestly, “but it is always our goal to win a league championship.”
Last season Fitch started 4-0, including a big win at Canton McKinley, then fell apart from there. Once again, the Falcons and the Bulldogs will play in week four, but it will be a different McKinley team that visits Austintown on Sept. 17.
“We will need some momentum (heading into week 4) because McKinley is loaded,” says Annarella. “(McKinley )is the team to beat in the conference.”
That may be true, but if some of Fitch’s younger kids step up and Annarella’s offense puts up plenty of points as expected, then possibly the Falcons will make their final Federal season a memorable one.