WEIRTON - Things are little easier in the Madonna camp this year because everyone now knows what to expect. After a season with a new coaching staff, the Blue Dons know the system and are a lot more comfortable.
"We're way ahead of where we were at the same time last year," second-year coach Doug Taylor said two weeks into two-a-days. "We have a smart group and they are hard workers. Put that together and it breeds success."
The Blue Dons are celebrating the 25th anniversary of the school's first football state championship and with that are going back to the silver helmets and their new throw-back uniforms are a lot like those worn by the 1987 team. Members of that team will be invited back for a reunion at one of the home football games this year. That date is yet to be determined.
Madonna made it into the playoffs in 2011 with a 6-4 regular season, but an injury-riddled Blue Dons team lost in the opening round to Williamstown, which ended up state runner-up, by the narrow score of 38-31.
There were 10 seniors who played key roles in 2011, including Christian Roe, who gained more 500 rushing yards, Ryan Mozingo, the leading tackler with 76, Dan Pietranton, Brandon Matez, Josh Egyud, Joe McCombs, Anthony Fulmer, Doug Howell, Nick Longhi and Nathan Nero.
Taylor said he'll miss those seniors, but he has 11 returning lettermen to carry the load. One concern for Taylor, though, is that he has only four seniors returning, three of which lettered.
Aug. 25: Valley7 p.m.
Sept. 1: at Wheeling Central7 p.m.
Sept. 14: Fort Frye7 p.m.
Sept. 21: at Cameron7:30 p.m.
Seppt. 29: Bridgeport7 p.m.
Oct. 5: at Bishop Donahue7:30 p.m.
Oct. 12: at Notre Dame7:30 p.m.
Oct. 20: at Steub. Catholic7 p.m.
Oct. 27: Toronto7 p.m.
Nov. 3: Clay-Battelle7 p.m.
Win 6, Lose 4
"Those four seniors are showing the kind of leadership we expect from veteran players," Taylor said. "They are the first to show up for practice and the last to leave and they are working hard. They are great leaders and role models and set the tone for the rest of the team."
Quarterback Ross Comis, who was injured near the end of last season and couldn't play in the playoffs, will lead the Blue Dons junior class. He finished the among the area's leaders with 1,122 yards passing and 702 rushing. He scored 18 touchdowns - nine passing and nine on the ground. He also led the Blue Dons with three interceptions on defense.
"Ross matured a lot as the season went on last year and by the end he was reading defenses and checking off plays regularly during games," Taylor said. "He is even more mature now and we're looking for big things from him."
When Comis isn't passing and running the football, he'll be handing it off to junior classmates Nick Ossman and Elliott Nero. Ossman missed four games last year, but still wound up rushing for 422 yards on 74 carries. He ran for four touchdowns and caught a pass for another. Nero scored twice on the ground and caught three touchdown passes.
Backing them up will be Stevie Maus, another junior, and senior James Fulciniti.
Speedy Will Bowser and Marcello Biondillo will be the receivers. Sophomores Austin Connell and Kaleb Baire are vying for playing time along with senior Garrett Hypes, Gabe Hypes, a junior, and freshman Fargo Camerlango.
Several starters return on the offensive line led by senior Quinton Hukill. Hukill, who missed some games a year ago with injuries, and Josh Martin, the biggest of the Blue Dons at an imposing 6-feet-11, 285 pounds, will man the tackles. Martin's "little" brother, freshman Nathan Martin (6-4, 235) will back up at tackle along with two other freshmen, Ryan Egyud and Thaiddeus Dillie.
Garrett Beaver and Travis Brown return at the guards with Adam Robertson pressing for playing time. All three are juniors and sophomore Christian DiAngelo and freshman Adam Davis are showing promise, Taylor said.
Charlie Kotten is back as the trigger man at center. Brown can move there if needed.
Juniors Nate Guio and Tyler Ewusiak will share duties at tight end.
On the defensive side of the ball, Hukill, Beaver, Josh Martin and Kotten will play on the interior line while Guio, Ewusiak, Robertson and Kotten look like the top candidates at the defensive ends.
The linebacking core will see Brown and Ossman on the inside and Hypes and Nero outside. Anthony Antinone and Connell are in the mix along with Fulciniti.
Bowser and Biondillo return to start at cornerback while Comis is the safety.
Robertson or Matt Greene will handle the kicking duties and Bowser, Comis and Biondillo will do the punting.
Speed is one of our strong points along with athleticism, Taylor said. A weakness will be a lack of depth as the Blue Dons roster has only 28, down about five players from last year. One of the 28, Austin Bell, a 210-pound junior lineman, is likely to miss most of the season with a knee injury, according to Taylor.
One of the things that has helped the overall team speed of the Blue Dons is Taylor's investment in consultants to run his team through a speed camp.
"I believe that the speed camp has increased the speed of just about every player and helped them with their agility," he said. "We already plan to do it again next year."
The Blue Dons will play their five home games on the turf at the new Jimmy Carey Stadium on the Weir High campus.
"We're excited about playing on the new field, but we can't afford to get caught up in hype and lose our focus," Taylor said. "In all, we'll play on turf in eight games this year. The only games on grass are away at Cameron and Bishop Donahue. We played on turf several times last year and it is a good thing especially in bad weather."