CONNORVILLE -Two years ago, Phil Pest was called to the sidelines to lead the Buckeye Local Panthers while their head coach was sidelined with some health issues. It's not that Pest had not spent time on the sidelines as a coach, but this time he was in charge.
Apparently, the thrill of being in charge provided a spark and now Pest is embarking on his first season as a head coach. He will be leading the Panthers into the 2012 season not as a rookie, but as a coach with plenty of experience.
"It's been a very easy transition," Pest said regard his move into the head coaching spot. "I've been around some very good coaches my whole career - Jim Thomas and Ron Pobolish - and I learned a lot of football and I learned a lot of coaching.
"They've been a big help to me and the transition has been easy because I was always able to coach with these guys. It hasn't been stressful at all."
Anthony Barsch took over the Panther reins in 2010 and step down after his second season. Pest, a long-time assistant at the school as well as at Wheeling Central, was a quick choice by the Buckeye Local school board.
Buckeye is coming off a good turnaround season in 2011. The Panthers finished at 6-4 after opening with four straight victories. The prior season saw the same team drop its first six before winning three of four to close 2010 at 3-7.
Aug. 24: Utica7 p.m.
Sept. 1: Westinghouse7 p.m.
Sept. 7: John Marshall7 p.m.
Sept. 15: at Bellaire12:30 p.m.
Sept. 21: Edison7 p.m.
Sept. 28: Martins Ferry7 p.m.
Oct. 5: at Union Local7 p.m.
Oct. 12: at St. Clairsville7:30 p.m.
Oct. 19: Indian Creek7 p.m.
Oct. 26: at Harrison Central7:30 p.m.
Win 5, Lose 5
Of course, Pest will be opening the 2012 season without one of the school's all-time great running backs, Josten Dear, and one of the valley's most respected defensive linemen, Greg Ring.
Dear, Ring and Jordan Piergallini all participated in the OVAC All-Star game last month and played key roles in the game. Dear rushed for 1,212 yards last season and finished as the school's second all-time leading rusher behind Billy West with 3,709 yards. Twice he rushed for more than 200 yards a game.
Piergallini, one of the top sprinters in the state last season, finished his lone season at Buckeye with 510 rushing yards on 91 carries and 147 yards on 14 receptions. Ring's senior season saw him record four sacks, 39 tackles, seven tackles for a loss, and six blocked kicks.
Graduation also took QB A.J. Barsch, talented receiver Justin Isinghood, Alex Vanezalos, Chad Wiltshire, Ryan Durbin, Corey Slaga, Tony Marques, David Mains, Dustin Marchbank, Matt Marko, Nathan Kujawa, Tyler Gullo and placekicker Josiah Hannen.
"We're young at the offensive line. We need a couple on the defensive line. We need to replace Josten at defensive end, but probably my biggest concern right now is the offensive line. And I haven't made a decision at quarterback yet," Pest said.
While graduation took its toll, the cupboard certainly isn't empty. The Panthers return 16 letterwinners, thirteen in a talented senior class. The Buckeye roster includes 19 seniors, 11 juniors, 10 sophomores and 16 freshmen.
"I feel good about the senior bunch we have," Pest said. "We have 19 seniors. We lost Josten Dear and that leaves us some big shoes to fill, but we've got some good young linemen that are coming around. We had a good offseason camp.
"I want our kids to be aggressive and physical, but I feel good about this senior group. Good leadership, athletic, quick."
Despite some big names, the Panthers return some senior lettermen who certainly didn't go unnoticed last season. Austin Marshall (5-foot-9, 155), is a speedy running back/defensive back who carried 62 times for 312 yards and five TDs, returned 16 kickoffs for 336 yards and he had three interceptions. Leading receiver Shane Duncan (5-11, 165) is a split end and linebacker that hauled in 11 passes for 228 yards and three scores and finished with 35 tackles.
In addition, seniors Caleb Agnew (5-7, 160), Andy Stock (5-11, 160), Brian Zeroski (5-10, 180) and Nathan Kirk (5-11, 160) were major contributors. Agnew spent some time in the backfield and returned 11 punts for 81 yards and 12 kickoffs for 181. Stock, in an injury-shortened season, carried 20 times for 148 yards and two scores. Zeroski, a tight end-linebacker, was a force on defense with 44 tackles and 18 assists. Kirk, one of the top QB candidates this season and a standout at safety on defense, had 31 tackles last season.
"Andy Stock has really had a great camp,'' Pest said. ''He had that ACL reconstructive surgery and he is doing well. He runs well and has no problem with the knee. I feel real good about Andy being back."
Eight other seniors are returning lettermen that played a big part in last season's success. That talented group includes linebacker-fullback Eric Bell (5-9, 165), running back-linebacker Cody Crawford (5-10, 155), fullback-defensive back Dakota Flaherty (5-9, 160), two-way tackle Lucas Hoahlund (6-1, 195), kicker-defensive end Christian Hopkins (6-4, 185), guard-defensive tackle Lucas Ostijich (5-11, 215), and two-way tackle Michael Telek (5-8, 245).
Rounding out the senior contingent is guard-defensive tackle Chad Durbin (5-11, 200), split end-DB Tre' McGee (6-0, 180), tackle Landon Partelli (5-11, 264), guard-tackle Jonathan Roth (5-9, 180), running back-linebacker Trevor Sebring (5-11, 160), guard-defensive tackle JP Solomon (5-11, 195) and split end-defensive back Logan Hall (6-3, 160).
Three talented juniors return after lettering last season. The trio includes two-way linemen Austin Flaherty (5-8, 165), fullback-defensive end Devan Pyciak (6-1, 215) and guard-defensive end Dominic Rose (5-8, 200).
"There are a couple freshmen that we expect to play at the varsity level before the season is over. We have a good group of sophomores and we have a couple juniors that we expect to continue to be big contributors."
Nine other juniors will be counted on to help the Panthers attack including guard-defensive ends Andrew Cammer (5-1, 161) and DJ Czuchran (5-9, 178), center-defensive end Josh Figurski (6-0, 205), two-way tackle James Glasgow (5-10, 260), quarterback-safety Chase Hopkins (6-0, 170), running back-linebacker Corey Marques (5-7, 120), center-defensive end DJ Rusnak (6-1, 190) and tackle-defensive end Derek Sebring (6-1, 190).
Ten sophomores will be vying for playing time this season. The group features slotback-d-back Eric Banal (5-6, 140), fullback-defensive end Damion Beal (5-9, 160), tight end-linebacker Logan Dehnart (6-0, 160), two-way tackle Billy Glover (6-0, 191), guard-defensive tackle Brent Kandrach (5-10, 216), wide receiver-defensive back Devan Marques (5-6, 125), quarterback-safety Tyler Miller (5-9, 130), wide receiver-defensive back Brandon Panepucci (5-10, 130), fullback-linebacker Nick Pielech (5-9, 230) and tailback-defensive back Shawn Tustin (5-4, 125).
Pest has a large freshmen contingent to help build for the future and a few may find their way onto the field on Friday nights this season.
The frosh group has Nathan Bloom (5-3, 110), Brandon Bake, Tyler Boyd (5-9, 145); Trevor Clark (5- 5, 140), Herbie Devore (5-6, 180), Dylan Dokes (5-10, 175), Ryan Emery (5-4, 160), Tristan Jones (5-11, 185), Zac Merkel (5-8, 175), Ryan Moffo (5-11, 145), Ryan Morrow (5-6, 170), Austin Mosser (5-11, 175), Mason Patterson (5-7, 155), Simeon Smith (6-3, 320), Mike Weaver (5-3, 110), Zach Fair (5-8, 185), Zach Moore (5-6, 150), Kevin Belon (5-9, 110) and Christian Ingram (5-3, 110).
"We're a little smaller than those guys (Dear and Piergallini), but they are quick and savvy," Pest said in praising his incoming running backs. "They have probably been around the game a little longer. I think we should fill all the holes. We should be OK.
"I think we're pretty solid on defense. We just have to find out where everyone fits and plug them in."
Pest's overall view of his 2012 Panthers shows his confidence in his defense and his skilled personnel. While he is looking to fill some holes on the offensive line, one area that was decimated by graduation was the kicking game. Ring handled the kickoffs and Hannen was the punter and placekicker. With both gone, Pest is working on building that aspect of the Panthers attack and is hopeful to have it in place for the opener.
Assisting Pest this season are a bunch of familiar faces, as it contains a mix of former players and coaches with Buckeye experience.
Nate Skrzypek is the offensive coordinator, Tom O'Connell will coach the receivers and running backs, Blair Closser will handle the secondary and inside backers, Mason Boyce, the offensive line and defensive tackles and ends; Caleb Myers, the offensive line and defensive tackles; C. J. Besece, the secondary and special teams. Chris Heaton and Greg Haberfield will coach the freshmen and work with the varsity as well.
With Buckeye 8 teams again filling the last seven dates in the Panthers schedule, Buckeye will open on the road to face Utica in the lidlifter tonight. Pittsburgh Westinghouse comes to Memorial Stadium in Yorkville the following week and John Marshall visits in Week 3.