Fitch's football team entered the 2012 season facing the uncertainty of playing an independent schedule.
The Falcons faced that adversity head on and only lost one game in the regular season. In the Division I playoffs, the underdog Falcons fought hard against second-seeded Cleveland St. Ignatius before losing to the colossal Catholic school, 35-26.
Fitch returns 30 seniors, 17 lettermen and 10 starters from that winning squad from last season so another trip to the state tourney seems in the offing for this year's group. Veteran head coach Phil Annarella likes what he has seen so far this offseason from his troops, but cautions Falcon Nation not to stand in line for playoff tickets quite yet.
The 2013 Fitch varsity football team
"We have lots of questions," said Annarella who is the career winner of 200 games as a head coach. "There are lots of spots to fill. The kids need to accept this challenge."
The biggest challenge, according to Annarella, is to find a new starting quarterback. Fitch has been blessed over the past few seasons to have incredible incumbent signal callers, but steady Matt Futkos has graduated, leaving Annarella empty handed heading into August.
"(Quarterback) is an open competition," said the Falcon mentor. "We'll see how things work out. With the things we do offensively, we need our quarterback to be able to run and throw. He can't be one dimensional."
Senior letter winner Gabe Chepke saw limited action filling in for Futkos last season and may have a miniscule advantage in the QB race. At 6 feet, 2 inches, 190 pounds, at least Chepke possess the size to be successful behind center. His stiffest competition should come from junior newcomer Antwan Harris. A star on the JV team, Harris is a smaller yet quicker quarterback who should be able to handle the running chores of a spread offense signal caller.
Whoever wins the main spot will be well protected by what should be a strong offensive line. Despite losing all-world lineman Billy Price, Fitch is still formidable up front. Two-time letter earners Tony Behanna, Ryan Sayers and Chuck Zaborsky all return to anchor the interior for Annarella. Seniors Drake Marinelli, Brandon Emery and Jose Rodriguez are a trio of one-year lettermen who should round out the offensive line rotation.
Other letter winners returning to the offense are seniors Gary Gibson and Sam Ortz and juniors Darrin Hall (912 yards and 14 touchdowns last year) and Tyler Hewlett (312 yards and 5 TDs) who have a hold on the running back position and senior receivers Kerrell Johnson, Austin Hogan and Luke Peterson.
Until the offense can find its usual rhythm, Fitch's defense may have to be the dominant unit on the field. Seven of the team's 10 returning starters are from a defense that allowed less than 12 points per game in 2012 and that sits well with coach Annarella.
"We are experienced and have several starters back on defense," Annarella said with a sigh of relief. "It's a good core. I hope they can take the pressure off of our offense and carry the load a while."
The aforementioned offensive line starters will all see action on the opposite side of the line as well, but the real stars of the Fitch "D" may be its collection of linebackers. Linebackers Emery, Gibson, Hogan, Peterson, Ortz, and seniors C.J. Martini and Camran Rezapourian form a solid foundation for Fitch. The defensive backfield should be quick and led by junior Joey Harrington, Chepke and Johnson, who established himself as one of the distinguished defenders in the area a year ago.
Another facet of the defense that should not be overlooked is senior kicker Nick Sheely. The two-time letterman averaged 38 yards per punt last season with 45 percent of his punts landing inside his opponent's 20-yard line. Meanwhile, Sheely slammed the ball 70 times for a 45-yard average on his kickoffs.
While the Fitch roster looks sound on paper, it is football after all, so injuries are inevitable. Too many bumps and bruises, like the ones that saddled the Falcons the past two seasons, may spoil their season.
"Depth is a concern," Annarella announced. "Injuries would be devastating with the inexperience we have. Team chemistry is always important, but maybe more this year."
Hopefully, the Falcons can learn to coexist quickly because the Aug. 30 opener at dangerous Warren Harding is rapidly approaching.
"We have our hands full with Harding right out of the gate," said Annarella honestly.
Other games that should fill the Falcons' hands are against perennial playoff participant Dover in week 4, at rival Boardman in week 5 and versus Youngstown East in week 6. The rematch with the only team to foil Fitch last regular season will be week 7 when Massillon visits Austintown. Perhaps Fitch's grandest victory in 2012 came in week 10 when it mauled Cardinal Mooney, 49-7. The Cardinals will attempt to gain revenge in that same week this season at Stambaugh Stadium.
"Those are all veteran teams with established programs," said Annarella about his team's opponents.
Of course, coach Annarella has morphed his Falcons into an established program since he took over the reigns so there is little doubt that opposing coach's think the same thing when they see Fitch's name on the slate. If one of the competing quarterbacks can establish themselves this summer, then it seems as if the Falcons should be able to continue their winning ways deep into autumn.