By DON CLEGG
WEST LIBERTY - West Liberty's run of six consecutive winning seasons ended last fall but that hasn't changed the Hilltoppers' mindset for 2012.
''Our goal is to win the West Virginia Conference and get to the playoffs,'' coach Roger Waialae said. ''If that isn't your goal every season, you shouldn't be coaching.''
Heavy graduation losses combined with a number of key early season injuries to derail the 2011 season almost before it got started and the injuries continued to mount throughout the campaign.
''We knew it wasn't going to be easy to replace 24 seniors who had been with the program for four or five years,'' reflected Waialae, who still brings a 47-31 (.603) record into his eighth year as head coach. ''Production can be replaced but veteran leadership is a big key. We were moving guys all over the place and that made it hard to maintain continuity and focus from week to week, especially on the offensive line.''
Perennially among the WVIAC's offensive elite, West Liberty couldn't field the same offensive line combination in back-to-back games all season and paid the price. A Hilltoppers rushing attack that had produced a 1,000-yard rusher for six straight years managed a total of 544 yards in 2011. The WLU passing game still ranked among the WVIAC's yardage leaders but had a school-record 25 interceptions and just 13 TD passes.
Sept. 1: Catawba (N.C.)1 p.m.
Sept. 8: at Virginia State1 p.m.
Sept. 15: W.Va. Wesleyan1 p.m.
Sept. 22: at Fairmont State1 p.m.
Sept. 29: Glenville State1 p.m.
Oct. 6: at W.Va. State1:30 p.m.
Oct. 13: Shepherd1 p.m.
Oct. 20: Charleston1 p.m.
Oct. 27: at Seton Hill3 p.m.
Nov. 3: at Concord 1 p.m.
Nov. 10: UNC-Pembroke1 p.m.
Win 6, Lose 5
A strong recruiting class combined with an upgraded receiving corps and an influx of talented redshirts will join a solid nucleus of 40 returning lettermen as Waialae and his veteran staff strive to drive the Black and Gold back to the top of the WVIAC pack.
L.D. Crow returns at quarterback after an up-and-down 2011 season, completing 229 of 418 passes for 2,481 yards and 11 TDs with 23 interceptions. He'll be pushed by returning backups Chris Kiedaisch and Ben Rogers along with Tyler Tucci, who had 29 catches as a receiver last fall but is back at quarterback this year. Bo Whitney is a highly touted transfer who began his career at Texas Tech.
''In our system, the quarterback is only as good as his receivers,'' Waialae said. ''L.D. forced some throws but nearly half of his interceptions were deflections off his own receivers. I like our depth, especially with Tyler back in the mix.''
Sophomore Alex Adams and juco transfer Kenjay Trueblood get first crack at rejuvenating the West Liberty ground game. Adams saw limited action as a true freshman but impressed in the season finale and played well in the spring. Trueblood also showed plenty of promise during the spring game. Senior Scott Victorio figures in after bouncing between running back, receiver and H-back a year ago. Juco transfer Dominic Cooper is listed at slot receiver but is a tailback by trade while Dirone McBride, another juco transfer, provides a speed option. True freshman Tim Faulkner was an all-state tailback at Brooke.
''Alex and Kenjay were really good in the spring and now Scotty can focus on just one position,'' Waialae said. ''Cooper could get some snaps here and McBride's one of the fastest kids we've had. Faulkner was one of the best backs in the state.''
Junior Brandon Schroeder emerged as one of the best receivers in the region last fall and is the WVIAC's top returning wideout after hauling in 76 passes for 1,007 yards and seven TDs. Also back are Tristen Devers (27 catches, 271 yards), Hakeem Cartwright (13-179) and Marvin Murray (13-131). Vinnie Candelore and Darrell Stanley have rejoined the team after sitting out the 2011 season. Newcomers include Cooper and the rangy juco tandem of Kordarius Rice and James Wright. Wheeling Park all-stater Boo Lathon heads a list of promising freshmen.
''We're looking to go back to bigger, faster receivers,'' Waialae said. ''Brandon had a great year but we need other people to step up. Cooper's a very talented athlete, Wright's a big target who can play inside or outside and Rice is another tall kid who can stretch the field vertically. We have to be better here than we were last year.''
Redshirt freshman Jesse Rose opened some eyes in the spring at WLU's hybrid ''H-Back,'' which can line up as a slot receiver, tight end or fullback. Sophomore Tony Dumas is also in the mix along with newcomer Mike Salko. Cooper could also play here.
Returning starters Dino Herrera and Sawyer Russell will anchor an offensive line that may have used up a decade's worth of bad luck in the first month of the 2011 season. Herrera started nine games at right tackle while Russell began the season at guard but got some starts at center when Jose Baez went down with a knee injury. Baez is back at center and Zack Turley could nail down a guard spot after switching from defense at midseason. Jake Lilly also made the move from defense to offense in the offseason and has impressed. Also pushing for time is veteran Josh Varney along with redshirt freshmen James Tabor and James Billiter. True freshman Mike Berardi, who prepped at Hargrave Military Academy last year, could also play. Waialae is excited about true freshmen Eli Crutchfield, Augie Schmidt, John McCullough, Jake Turley and Erik Rose.
''Having Jose at center all year would be huge,'' Waialae said. ''We had six different centers in 11 games last year so there was no stability. Zack Turley came on strong after making the change and Lilly could really blossom on offense, too. Those five freshmen are as good a group as we've had.''
All-WVIAC nose guard Matt Betz and versatile playmaker Derrick Rovira return to bolster one of the team's strongest units after sitting out last year as injury redshirts. Converted OL Nate Maleski emerged as a force in the middle while veteran DT Leonidas Redding earned All-WVIAC mention and DT/DE Nick Augustyn started 10 games. David Huggins can play anywhere along the front, Bryan Spruill is coming off a big spring and Derek Wallace adds size and strength to the interior. Veteran DE Nate Parry returns and DE Josh Quinn had a strong spring after sitting out 2011. Redshirt freshman LBs Benedict Faolotoi, Gavin Hutchison and Quentin Sifford have moved to defensive end, adding quickness to the perimeter.
Senior Kyle Agustin is back after leading the team in tackles - ranking sixth in the WVIAC - and there's plenty of competition for the other starting spot. Junior T.J. Lesniewski has starting experience while sophs Lukas Turley and Mike Jefferson played as freshmen. Dylan Dominico joins the mix off a redshirt season while Robert Jones had a strong spring.
All-WVIAC safety Alec Wood will redshirt this season after going down with a knee injury in the spring but the Hilltoppers have no shortage of players ready to step in. Tanner Stocker was Wood's backup at strong safety and will battle redshirt freshman D'Andre Muhammad for the job. Also in the hunt is versatile redshirt freshman Andrew Faraimo, who could also fill in at weak or free safety. Junior Marco Ricchetti, the returning starter at free safety, is coming off a great spring while sophomore Omar Crawford could see action at safety or cornerback. Converted WR Kane Boroski is in the mix at safety along with newcomers Bobby Spence, Jovontae Johnson, Pierre Blake, Miles Young and Ellis Randall.
''Alec will be missed but we really liked what we saw from our young kids,'' Waialae said. ''Marco may have had the best spring of any player on the team and just about every guy can play more than one position.''
Justin Black is a returning starter at one corner and fellow junior Rod White nailed down the other starting spot in the spring. Sophomore Josh White also made strides in April while converted WR Garrett Price proved a quick study in his new spot. Look for some of the over-the-top safeties (WS/FS) to see time on the corners, as well.
Jeff Hoak returns for his second season as WLU's placekicker while Griffin Yocum is back at punter after earning honorable mention All-WVIAC laurels as a freshman. True freshmen Evan Potoka and Rickey Wilson will push Hoak for the kicking duties with Potoka also in the mix at punter. Transfers Bryan Arbes and Josh Wilson are also in the kicking derby. Russell is one of the premier long-snappers in the region while Black ranked among the league leaders in punt returns.
''We have good competition at every position and that's what we want,'' Waialae said. ''Competition makes everyone better.''
The Hilltoppers kick things off at home on Sept. 1 against perennial South Atlantic Conference power Catawba (N.C.) to Russek Field.