Joe Ignazio begins his second season as Boardman's head football coach. The coach's first campaign at his alma mater didn't go very well as the Spartans endured a 1-9 season, including 1-5 in the Federal League.
It will not take long for this group to learn just how much better it will be in 2014 because Boardman's first five games are brutal.
The Spartans start the season at home on Friday against mighty Mentor and then play at Cardinal Mooney, host Poland, play at Canton GlenOak and at Austintown Fitch.
''We will find out what we are made of for sure,'' Ignazio said, ''but I expect our kids to rise to the occasion.''
Boardman is blessed to have 70 players on its roster, which is one of the largest groups in the valley. Ignazio realizes the most effective way to make up for a lack of overwhelming talent is by playing fundamentally sound defense.
''We came to camp emphasizing defense,'' said Ignazio. ''We will have to win with our defense.''
Although the Spartans only forced 11 turnovers in 2013 and allowed 31 points per game, this defensive unit has the ability to surprise some experts because most of Boardman's returning talent plays on that side of the ball.
Leading tackler Matt Filipovich returns to play free safety. His 96 tackles were the most by a Boardman underclassman in years. Junior Alex Birchfield will help anchor the defensive line. Yet it is the linebacker position that may be one of the better ones in the Federal League with four returning letter winners.
''Linebacker is our strength,'' said Ignazio.
Junior Mario Graziani was an All-Federal League performer as a sophomore with 69 tackles, two sacks and three fumble recoveries. Junior Alex Duda, who moves from the line, will join him at outside linebacker. Senior Evan Crouch was the first junior to lead Boardman in sacks and is looking to do even more quarterback harassing from his inside spot this year. Also at inside backer will be juniors Gavin Dill and Erick Ritz.
Using the brute force of the linebackers may be the way Boardman needs to go this season since quickness is not one of the Spartans' strengths.
''Our team's speed isn't where it needs to be at this point,'' said Ignazio.
A huge reason why Boardman has a great need for speed is because it graduated its top five offensive performers from last fall. One of those who exited was starting quarterback Darius Sanders, who took over 1,100 yards of total offense with him.
To replace Sanders as starting signal caller, Ignazio will most likely turn to senior Marcus Smith, who did see some time behind center last year. Smith's name is only penciled into the starting lineup at this point, however.
''There is still a battle (at quarterback),'' Ignazio said. ''We have a sophomore who is making a push, but he isn't quite ready right now.''
Three players who are ready to contribute to the offensive effort are senior linemen Jaysen Young at left tackle, Tony Chiarello at left guard, Vince Valentini at right guard and Dough Kephart, who is 6'3'', 225 pounds and returning from injury.
Crouch will start at running back along with Graziani. Duda will see time at both tight end and H-back. Filipovich will play the Z position and senior Jon Cina will hope opponents can't see him from the X spot.
This season will mark the Spartans' swan song from the Federal League. Next year, Boardman will be part of the expanding All-American Conference, meaning that even if they would run the table in the conference this year the Spartans would not be recognized as champs. Fitch did just that in it's final Federal foray and Ignazio is using that to inspire his bunch.
''We are aware of what (Fitch) did in their last year, so the kids are excited,'' he said. ''We always want to be competitive. We want to have a winning record. And we want to compete for a league title. Those should be our goals every year.''