To say 2012 will be a different type of season for the Fitch football team is a gross understatement.
After years of competing in the Steel Valley Conference then the Federal League, the Falcons will fly into uncharted air space this season as an independent. While familiar schools like Warren Harding, Boardman and Uniontown Lake still fill the Fitch schedule, the Falcons had to scramble to find other opponents such as Akron Hoban, Brunswick, Barberton, Youngstown East, Massillon, Marion Harding and Mooney. Without a conference affiliation, that week 10 showdown with the defending state champion Cardinals may be like a playoff game for head coach Phil Annarella's club.
"For safety's sake it will take probably eight wins (to make the playoffs)," said Annarella during a break from an early August practice. "The schedule is what it is and we have to deal with it. The only thing we have to play for is the playoffs so we can't lose a couple games early on."
In order to win those elite eight games, the Falcons offense must make up for the loss of some very special skill players. Gone to the University of Pittsburgh are quarterback Demetrious Davis and his twin brother, wideout Chris. Off to Notre Dame is all-world running back Will Mahone. Yet replacing that trio may not be as difficult a chore as one may think.
"Our advantage is a lot of the guys we are counting on played a large role for us last year," said Annarella from his school office. "Demetrious and Mahone and some of the offensive linemen were injured and that allowed some of these other kids to get a lot of playing time."
The main "other kid" from that group is senior starting quarterback Matt Futkos. He filled in admirably for Demetrious Davis from week 4 last season and was able to get a grasp of coach Annarella's high-octane spread offense. This year, the senior will try to translate that knowledge into more production on the gridiron.
"We kind of threw (Futkos) into the fire last year," said Annarella about his quarterback, "so he should have a lot of confidence this year. He is one of our captains and if the kids didn't respect him he wouldn't have been voted captain."
The other Fitch captain is monstrous six-foot, four-inch, 310-pound interior lineman Billy Price. Price has been heavily recruited by Division I colleges because of his blend of pure power and athleticism. The good thing for the Falcons is that Futkos and Price aren't the only returning lettermen from last year's six-win squad.
Tyreese Anderson is one of those returning Falcons who saw more playing time last year than originally planned. The senior filled in admirably for Mahone last fall and will be asked to do most of the rushing this season. Also getting some touches will be senior two-year letter winner Billy Aaron and one-time letter winner Anthony Smith.
Fitch will also trot out some interior linemen who lettered in 2011 due in part to having to replace some injured starters. Seniors Mike Koch, Josh Roberts and Andrew Lamancusa are returning letters who will vie with junior letter earners Chuck Zaborsky, Tony Behanna and Ryan Sayers for time in Annarella's interior line rotation.
Linebacker is another area on the defense that is well covered by varsity lettermen. Besides Anderson and possibly Futkos, seniors Deven Gray, Andrew James and Jared McHenry will all get shots at getting shots at the quarterback.
Despite the talent, coach Annarella can call upon at many stations on the field, there are two positions in Fitch's lineup right now the coach considers faulty.
"Our biggest question marks are at defensive back and wide receiver," Annarella said, "which ties together because a lot of the same kids play those positions."
Perhaps seniors Tyler Grover and Keith Lawrence can help ease their coach's mind when it comes to covering those two positions.
There is another pair of letter winners returning to the Falcons who will be seen solely on special teams. Six-foot-three senior kicker Ken Kilpatrick returns with his accurate leg to help boot the Falcons towards some victories, as does junior kicker Nick Sheely.
All of Annarella's kids will get their kicks when they play two grueling scrimmages in August. One of those practice games is against marvelous Mentor while the other is against very able Akron Buchtel. Both of those exhibitions are necessary to ready this Fitch outfit for that season opening game at home on Aug. 24 versus Warren Harding. Coach Annarella is hoping heavily that some of the boys who may not make the highlights every Friday get their feet wet enough in the two scrimmages to make a difference later in the season.
"I say it all the time," Annarella explained, "it's not the stars (who win all the games) it's the supporting cast."
That may be true coach, but if all of the stars do not align correctly in this year of Fitch's first independent schedule then another year away from the playoffs may be the unfortunate result.