ST. CLAIRSVILLE - The St. Clairsville Red Devils just can't escape it.
No matter where they've turned or gone since the end of last season, when the sport of football comes up, the expectations and excitement are off the charts.
Head Coach Brett McLean, who is beginning his 11th season at the helm, is like most other coaches, though.
He'd love to fly under the radar, sneak up on people, improve every week and then let the chips fall where they may if the team qualified for the postseason.
Unfortunately for he and his coaching staff, that probably isn't going to happen this season since the Red Devils return 10 offensive and eight defensive starters from a team that went 10-2 and advanced to the Region 15 semifinals before bowing out to Coshocton.
Really, the high level of expectations surrounding the Red Devils program is nothing new, seeing that St. C. has qualified for the Ohio postseason five times and enjoyed a perfect regular season under McLean's guidance.
Aug. 23: at Wheeling Park8 p.m.
Aug. 31: at Brooke7 p.m.
Sept. 8: Dayton Jefferson6 p.m.
Sept. 14: at Indian Creek7 p.m.
Sept. 21: at Harrison Central7:30 p.m.
Sept. 28: Bellaire7:30 p.m.
Oct. 5: at Edison7 p.m.
Oct. 12: Buckeye Local7:30 p.m.
Oct. 19: Martins Ferry7:30 p.m.
Oct. 26: at Union Local7 p.m.
Win 9, Lose 1
''We're embracing the situation,'' McLean said. ''We tell our kids every year that if we don't climb the ladder a step further, then we've stayed the same and have gotten no better. The goals are to achieve more than we did a season ago.''
Whether it's been fans' chatter or even media outlets, there are many who envision St. Clairsville playing football well into November. One state-wide media outlet, JJ Huddle.com, picked the Red Devils to prevail in Region 15 when it released its state-wide previews last month.
While the Red Devils were humbled and honored to be recognized among the state's elite, McLean and his staff have been stressing not to get too caught up in reading any press clippings, but rather focus on the task at hand, which is tonight's opener against Wheeling Park in the McDonald's OVAC Kickoff Event at Wheeling Island Stadium.
''We don't take anything for granted,'' McLean said. ''Right now, we're focused on preparing for this opening game, which is going to be a big challenge.''
McLean has been impressed with the level of hunger and determination his team has shown during the preseason. He thinks the expectations have aided that because his players have come to work each day with an impressive focus and understanding of what needs to be done during the preseason and regular season.
''These kids want to get into the playoffs and go far, that's always been the aspiration around here,'' McLean said. ''The things that have happened in the past aren't a part of these kids' legacies. They want to go out and make their own mark as a team in that respect. We're by no means big-headed because we haven't done a darn thing, but high expectations aren't something to be scared of.''
Included the Red Devils' 60-plus player roster is a 14-member senior class that has put together a 24-9 record in three seasons, qualified for two playoff appearances and hosted in the opening round of the Division IV tournament both times.
''It's kind of bittersweet because this (senior) group has been so valuable to us all the way through,'' McLean said. ''They have great personalities, their chemistry is wonderful and most of them have been contributors for us since they were sophomores, so we'll definitely be sad to see this group go. There were times when it felt like this point might never get here for this group, and we hope we can take advantage of it.''
The offseason the Red Devils just experienced wasn't like any they've had. Yes, they lifted weights, kids played baseball and ran track. But for McLean it was a busy time as college coaches from all over America were visiting the Belmont County Seat as they sought the chance to speak to senior Dan Monteroso and junior Michael Ferns.
''We had to remind ourselves that we had our own business to take care of,'' McLean said. ''It felt like every day we were working for another college or university. It's been a great thing for those kids, obviously, but also for the exposure for our program and the kids for what the process is really like. It's not something that happens every year, but it gave our younger kids a goal if they want to get noticed.''
Monteroso, who will start at receiver for the Red Devils, verbally committed to Boston College in early July.
Ferns, meanwhile, collected more than 20 offers during the spring, trimmed those to three by mid-summer - Michigan, Notre Dame and Penn State - and finally made a solid verbal to the Wolverines in early August.
''It's certainly a first for us to have two high-profile college level players on one team,'' McLean said. ''The kids are first-class. They're great students, have some God-given talent and we're certainly blessed to have them on our team.''
Obviously, those two will be a couple of the focal points for the Red Devils this season, but opposing teams will have much more to game plan for on both sides of the ball.
Offensively, St. Clairsville will utilize the spread once again as it desires to get its athletes in space and let them make plays.
But, McLean wants his team to be able to run the ball as well as it has in the past.
''We can't get away from being able to run the ball,'' he said. ''I think people get focused in on the high-flying stuff with the ball in the air, but if you look at us statistically, we've run the ball just as much the last two seasons as we had the previous eight. We'll focus on running the ball and being balanced the best we can.''
The other quandry McLean and offensive coordinator Donnie Giffin might have during the season is finding enough footballs to spread around to the multitude of weapons.
''We're excited about the skill we have returning,'' McLean said. ''We will keep the ball as evenly spread as we can. I wish we had 10 balls we could use on every snap, but we don't. We've got to try to stay balanced. Selfishness has never creeped into this group of kids and that's important because it could kill a team.''
While to many, everything surrounding the St. C. program may seem ideal, but every team has its share of concerns and the Red Devils are no different.
One of the biggest reared its ugly head during the Coshocton playoff game as several key players left the game with injuries. Similar to many schools in the Ohio Valley, depth is somewhat of an issue.
''We don't have the biggest numbers that we'd like to have in our middle classes, but the quality is there,'' McLean said.
Working to establish some depth heading into the season, McLean approached his team's scrimmages - against Magnolia and Carrollton - with the idea of seeing what the second-string players were capable of against an opposing team's first unit.
''We wanted to see our younger kids in scrimmages because those kids are paramount to us being able to establish some depth,'' McLean said.
The Red Devils offense will be triggered by senior quarterback Matt Kinnick (6-foot-1, 180 pounds), who is coming off a junior campaign in which he passed for 2,667 yards and 27 touchdowns.
The Red Devils ground game will feature one of the area's fastest kids in junior blazer Jaylon Brown (5-8, 155). Brown, who is a two-year letterman, ran for 870 yards and 11 touchdowns a season ago despite missing four games due to injury. Brown is an adept pass catcher as well, havin made 21 receptions for 344 yards and three touchdowns.
Ferns (6-3, 220) will be another option in the backfield. He accumulated 441 yards and six touchdowns last season. He also saw time at tight end and was a factor, catching 17 passes for 267 yards and a score.
''Because of injuries last year, we relied on Michael a lot more from the tailback spot,'' McLean said. ''He's played three or four positions for us. We found out that he grew into the position in the two or three weeks he got to do it and we'll utilize him more there this year.''
Senior Luke Smith (5-10, 180) was a standout on the defensive side of the ball and saw spot duty on offense. This year, his role on the offensive side will be greatly increased as he'll also see carries in the backfield.
On the outside, the Red Devils possess a bevy of options for Kinnick. Monteroso leads the charge. The game breaker missed three games last season with a shoulder problem but came back to catch 23 passes for 454 yards and seven touchdowns.
''Dan's one of those kids who seems like he's been around here for 10 years now,'' McLean joked. ''He was a student of the game when he came here and he's continued to learn and knows the offense inside and out.''
Senior Jerrid Marhekfa, who was an All-Ohio first teamer on the defensive side of the ball, will return at the other receiver spot. He was the Devils' leader last season with 30 catches for 742 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Depth at receiver is provided by senior letterman Titus Lepic (6-0, 170), junior Tanner Nemeti (5-5, 115), sophomore J.C. Coleman (5-10, 145).
The tight end spot is another solid area. Senior Jay Gossett (6-0, 170) is a returning starter.
''Tight end is an area where we'll probably have to move some kids around a little bit since Jay is the only experience we have there,'' McLean said. ''It's nice to have one solid returnee in Jay.''
Along the offensive line, four starters return as only OVAC All-Star Anthony Kuhn must be replaced after graduation.
"We have to replace one guard and we actually have a couple of kids battling for that job who saw some varsity time," McLean said. "In a way, I guess you could say we have five guys back, but we've got a good battle going on."
Senior Cole Stephen (6-1, 200) anchors the offensive line as he prepares for his third season at center.
Junior Joel Giffin (6-2, 225) will get the call at right guard, while senior Tom Parker (6-2, 230) and classmate Corey Ernest (6-2, 265) get the call at the left and right tackles, respectively.
The trio battling for the left guard spot is junior Colby Lindsay (6-2, 195), senior Derek Shunk (5-9, 180) and junior Nick VanVoltenburg (5-9, 225).
Special teams should also be a strength. Junior Zach Musilli (5-7, 125) connected on 47 PAT kicks and two field goals, including a game-winner in the Red Devils' opening-round playoff game against Chesapeake. Musilli and Giffin will also handle the kickoff chores.
He's been battling with senior Haylee Skukan (5-3, 130), who also had a field goal last season.
Monteroso will handle the punting duties, but Lindsay could also see time.
Defensively, the Red Devils weren't very good against the run a year ago. McLean, defensive coordinator Bruce Stiles and the entire coaching staff have been working to rectify that problem as best they can.
"There's no hiding it," McLean said. "We have to get better defensively because people are going to focus on trying to manage the clock and running the ball against us. We've got to stand tall in those situations. We realize we'll be tested early and often in that. I think the kids sense it and I really believe they'll be up to the challenge."
The defensive unit is led by Ferns, who had well more than 100 tackles, at the linebacker spot, and Marhekfa, who had seven interceptions at corner.
Smith also surpassed the 100-tackle mark in putting forth a brilliant campaign at outside linebacker.
Stephen is also a returning starter, but he'll find himself at linebacker after playing last season at defensive end.
Ben Coleman, Nolte, Callarik and Busby are battling for the other outside linebacker job.
Along the defensive front, Corey Ernest will shift from end to tackle. Shunk will also be at a defensive tackle. Gossett will hold down one end, while Lindsay is ticketed to be the other end
Others who will see time on the defensive line, include Giffin, Parker, VanVoltenburg.
"Our goal is to get eight deep on the defensive line and I think we're almost there," McLean said.
Along with Marhefka, Brown will serve as the other corner. Monteroso will back both corners, while Lepic will be the safety with Kinnick as his top understudy.
"We've got veterans in the secondary," McLean said. "The kids have to come every day knowing there's a competition and not just think because they started last year, they're entitled to start again."
The schedule is basically the same as last season. They replaced Crestview with Park and the remaining nine games were the same, including Brooke and Dayton Jefferson in the non-league portion of the slate.
St. C., however, will be sort of road warriors this season with only four home games.
"We're excited about being invited to the Kickoff event," McLean said. "It should be an interesting matchup (with Park). We were excited to get a game. We'll have to deal with the road games because it's always tough playing in someone else's place."
McLean's coaching staff is basically the same. Along with Stiles, Giffin and Sacco, the staff includes Mac McLean, Mike Jacob, Ben Frye, Chris Patrone, Ryan Clifford, Casey Callarik, Eric Gay, Gary Hull, Vern Ridgeway, Josh Johnson, Steven Hicks, Dan Howard and Mike Barreca.
Graduation claimed Kuhn, Cory Kotopka, Chase Garan, Ben Evick, Greg Parker, Alex Young, James Green and Brendon Alexander.
Justin Callarik, Corey Ernest, Jay Gossett, Matt Kinnick, Titus Lepic, Jerrid Marhekfa, Dan Monteroso, Dalton Nolte, Tom Parker, Derek Shunk, Hayley Skukan, Luke Smith, Cole Stephen, Brandon Westlake.
John Bland, Brandon Bosworth, Jaylon Brown, Bryce Burnett, Ben Coleman, Daniel Elerick, Evan Elliott, Michael Ferns, Joel Giffin, C.J. Harding, Colby Lindsay, Matt Mamone, Zach Musilli, Tanner Nemeti, Nick VanVoltenburg.
Dakota Bacon, Devon Bailey, Ryan Busby, Matt Carnes, J.C. Coleman, Zach Dopkiss, Daulton Freeman, Alex Gazdik, Malik Gummer, Michael Jacob, Abbey Maroon, Jacob Miller, Mike Monteroso, Jake Orr, John Pyles, Austin Rine, Chris Toohey.
Mickey Berardi, Chris Blackwell, Tyler Blomquist, Grant Cameron, Brandon Carruthers, Brandon Ducker, Carson Ernest, Brendan Ferns, Mike Furbee, Isiah Green, Ty Hawley, Dillon Ketter, Kyle Kyer, Brad LeCron, Haydn Lewis, Blake Peroni, Troy Powell, Cole Skaggs, Jake Stewart, Logan Thompson, Daniel Trouten, Christian Witchey.