For a while last season, it seemed as if the Fitch football team was never going to lose.
The Falcons ran off 12 consecutive wins, including two in the Division I state playoffs, before bowing out to almighty Lakewood's St. Edward 28-0 in the regional semifinals. Last year's playoff run marked three post season appearances in the past four seasons for the Falcons. Fitch also is one of just nine area teams with five straight winning campaigns.
This year surely looks like number six in a row and four playoff trips out of five.
Fitch returns six starters from last year's nearly perfect squad and, although that total may not sound like a lot, the returnees come at all the right spots.
Since head coach Phil Annarella installed his spread offense a few seasons ago, he has had a plethora of slick signal callers spearheading the charge. Senior starter Antwan Harris is part of that group. The letter-winner had nearly 500 yards passing and over 400 yards rushing in an injury-shortened 2013. If Harris can stay healthy for 10 games this season, those numbers will blow up even more.
Senior running back and three-season starter Darrin Hall amassed 1,4800 yards on the ground last fall with a 5.8 yard per carry average and 13 touchdowns.
Joining Hall in the backfield is speedy senior Tyler Hewlett. The diminutive 57, 170-pound Hewlett can attack a defense from tailback, split end or the slot. Another senior letter-winner, Joey Harrington, returns as the team's leading receiver with 332 yards last year.
The 4-H Club of Hall, Harris, Hewlett and Harrington had nearly 50 touchdowns combined in 2013.
Fitch's offense combined for 26 points per game as well, but in order for that total to be surpassed, Annarella will need to strengthen his offensive line.
''Almost our entire offensive line needs rebuilt,'' he said. ''It all starts up front.''
One player who will be counted on amongst the heavies is 240-pound senior Matt Fusillo. Other possibilities in the trenches are seniors Jacob Franks, J.D. Vaught, 65 and 250-pound DeAndre Henry, and 265-pound monster Adam Rivello.
A team cannot win as many consecutive games as Fitch did last year without playing some stout defense. Annarella gives weekly credit to the job defensive coordinator Wally Hurdley does with his group, considering the Falcons' defenders gave up just 13 points per game last season.
The Fitch D has been overhauled for this season with the defensive line getting the most work done.
''Our defensive line needed as much rebuilding as the offensive side,'' Annarella said.
Fusillo will play that side of the line, too, and should be joined by at least a couple of the aforementioned offensive line candidates.
Fitch's linebackers were as solid a collection as there was in Division I last year, but most of those stalwarts have graduated. Junior Damien Gray is a letter-winner who will come back this year and should be accompanied by Hall, Hewlett and seniors Mike Pearson and Maurice Rivers.
Harrington will handle a lot of the defensive backfield duties along with senior newcomers Dwayne Howell and Nate Stevens.
Another weapon that was lost from Fitch's high-powered posse was kicker Nick Sheely. Trying to replace as reliable a foot as his is almost ridiculous, but Annarella will try out senior Anthony Mortaro in that role. At 5'11'', 180 pounds, Mortaro at least looks the part of a booming ball belter.
The Falcons will kick off the regular season on Friday when it hosts Warren G. Harding. Fitch hammered Harding 48-0 last year, so the Raiders will be out for opening day revenge in a couple weeks.
Other major games on the schedule will be against Boardman on Sept. 26, at Massillon Washington on Oct. 3, at Erie McDowell on Oct. 24, and the season finale against Cardinal Mooney on Halloween. This will mark the Falcons' final season as an independent before they enter the All-American Conference in 2015.
Coach Annarella enters this season with 212 career wins. He is 49-27 after eight seasons in Austintown. There is a very good chance he will end this year with over 220 career wins.
If he surpasses 60 career wins at Fitch this year, the Falcons' final independent season will be complete with a state championship trophy.