MARTINS FERRY - Martins Ferry has a long and storied tradition.
Veteran coach Dave Bruney, who is embarking on his 35th season at his alma mater, is hopeful another exciting chapter can be added as the 2013 campaign opens Friday night.
"I think we have a chance to be a really solid team," Bruney said.
The Riders welcome back a deep and talented nucleus that saw quality action during a 5-5 season.
It was a season in which the Purple Riders were a handful of plays away from possibly being in the playoffs.
At one point, Ferry stood 5-1 but dropped its final four, including a heart-breaking, 34-28 setback in overtime to rival Bellaire.
"If everyone's healthy, we're probably better than a 5-5 team, but injuries are a part of football," Bruney said. "You have to make the best of the cards you're dealt. In some games I thought we did, and others were a disappointment to me."
Gone from that team are several players who made impacts, including All-Ohioan Cody Schau, University of Pittsburgh walk-on Trent Neavin, Sean McGee, Zac Coole, Tyler Strama, Damon Outward, Tyler Lenz, Tyler Lanum, Braxton Waleisky and Jason Reuther.
"We had probably five All-Valley 'Big School' players, but we ended up with two of them for most of the season because of injuries," Bruney said.
According to the coach, the returning Riders have used that mediocre record as motivation during the offseason.
"These kids have a lot of fight in them and that Bellaire game is one that these kids remember," Bruney said. "We like the attitude of our team. We had a good winter, a good spring, two-a-days have gone well."
The goals never change in terms of desire to reach the postseason and battle for the OVAC and Buckeye 8 titles.
However, Bruney, who just wrapped up his 41st consecutive summer of going through double sessions, won't even begin to let his club look ahead to any of that.
"There's an old saying, 'before you can be 2-0, you have to be 1-0,' so you can't lose sight of the task each week," Bruney said. "You can't dwell on things either if something doesn't go your way. I think all of that has to do with maturity."
Bruney has been very pleased with the maturation of his team.
"They've matured attitude-wise, work-ethic wise, but we'll have to see on game night, when the lights come on, if they've matured poise-wise and performance-wise when you're under the gun," Bruney said. "They've practiced well."
That maturation process began almost immediately after the 2012 season ended.
"We had a good winter, a good spring and we've got five or six kids in the senior class who are really good players. Plus, we have a really good junior class. There aren't any really great players, but there are a lot of really good players, so we have a chance to have a good team."
Numbers are up and attitudes are right, but Bruney especially likes the chemistry his team has shown through the summer months, which is often times the ultimate 'X' factor in a team's success.
"You can tell these guys genuinely like each other," Bruney said. "I really like their togetherness. When you have that kind of chemistry, it becomes hard to let your buddies down because you don't want to be that weak link, so to speak."
Because of some of the injuries to the players who Bruney thought could have an impact, some of the younger Riders were thrown into the fire early, which could pay dividends this season.
"A lot of our guys got a lot of reps so far in their career and they're only juniors," Bruney said. "Our junior class has gotten to play a lot of football sooner than they maybe would have if it weren't for different circumstances."
With so much experience and talent back in numerous places, Bruney believes that his club has the capability to come firing on all cylinders right out of the gates.
"We sure hope that's the case," Bruney said. "We've (had) three scrimmages to see what we have in game situations, but it's still going to come down to being able to stay healthy. If we learned any lessons last year, it's that things can go south in a hurry."
Avoiding that injury bug is simply paramount for many teams in the area and the Purple Riders are no different despite the fact that Bruney does like his team's depth.
"It doesn't take too many injuries to cause some changes," Bruney pointed out. "You've still got a schedule to play and you can't go out and sign a free agent, recruit a new kid or make a trade. You go with what you have, so we've spent a lot of time this summer trying to develop that depth."
Bruney and his staff have stressed to their players that it only takes one play and someone new could have their number called.
"When the opportunity presents itself and you're ready to grab it by the throat, regardless of your talent level, you could go in and not hurt us," Bruney said. "Then you're making a meaningful contribution."
Outside of staying healthy, Bruney points to things such as winning the turnover and penalty battles as what could be the ultimate determining factors this season.
"If we do those things and play great defense, and I think we should be able to stay fresh enough, we should do well," Bruney said. "Turnovers were an issue for us last year. We turned it over five times against Edison, which cost us, and they hurt us again against Bellaire."
Martins Ferry's offense will again attempt to seek as much balance as possible, but it does feature a deep and talented stable of running backs.
"We have above average speed and strong kids," Bruney said. "I believe we can utilize a lot of different weapons to keep teams off balance. Plus, these kids have some experience, so we've only had to go over things once during practice."
The quarterback job is ticketed for senior Eric Flowers (5-foot-11, 205 pounds), who saw quality action last season after Strama was injured.
"Eric didn't miss a workout all summer, he's throwing the ball well and we're really excited about him as a runner, too," Bruney said. "He took it upon himself to go to camps this summer and really work on becoming a better player."
Other quarterbacks who supply depth are sophomore James Edwards (5-11, 155), junior R.J. Reed (5-9, 185) and freshmen Cade Lloyd (5-10, 135), Dominic Bell (5-7, 125) and Sam Rossell (5-9, 145).
The tailback contingent is deep, talented and fast.
"I told those kids that I think they can all play, but they have to make a conscious effort to protect the football, No. 1, and No. 2, get yards after contact," Bruney said. "But, we don't want them getting yards after contact at the expense of putting the ball on the ground."
Senior Marcus Sutton (5-8, 177) is expected to get the first crack at earning the bulk of the carries. Sophomore Arjay Burress (5-11, 190), junior Andrew Watts (5-10, 170), junior Jahad Joyce (5-10, 195), who had a huge game against Bellaire, is back in the mix as well along with sophomore Andrew Hython (6-0, 155).
Freshmen candidates include Malik Hill (5-11, 170), Jack Davis (6-0, 160), Logan Selby (6-0, 140) and Jared Straub (5-9, 140).
At the fullback spot, junior Bruce Burger (5-11, 198) returns after seeing quality time a season ago. Hard-nosed classmate Bryce Coleman (5-7, 172) will also see time at that spot.
Seniors JaVaughn Wade (5-8, 210), Daniel Dokes (5-10, 165) and freshman George Stan (5-9, 140) are also vying for time as the lead blocker.
The Purple Riders' home-run hitter on the offensive side of the ball could be senior Bryan Styles (5-6, 147). He'll line up in a bevy of spots, including quarterback from time to time as Flowers' top understudy.
"We've got a lot of kids at running back who are really close together," Bruney said. "If we're going to rest guys, we're going to do that on offense and use our best 11 on defense the whole time."
His primary position will be at one of the receiver spots.
Junior Jack Fitch (5-11, 155) is back at a receiver spot after seeing significant playing time on both sides of the ball. Junior Jake Barritt (5-8, 150) is also ticketed for a receiver post and will see quality time.
Bruney also spoke highly of junior Lucas Agnew (6-0, 155), junior T.J. Jacob (6-0, 160) and seniors Taylor Coture (6-3, 172) and Seth Scott (6-0, 180), both of whom are out for the first time.
Depth at receiver is provided by junior Shawon Manns (5-7, 140), freshmen Ryan Fox (5-5, 120) and Zac Selby (5-9, 145).
"We're very happy with our receivers," Bruney said. "They've all gotten stronger and faster."
Martins Ferry also features arguably the premier tight end in the Ohio Valley in senior Robert Vargo (6-6, 255). He had a big season last year, including a game in which he caught 11 passes.
Seniors Austin DeLeonardis (6-0, 180), who will handle the long snapping duties, and Logan Kinney (6-0, 185) are the top understudies. Senior Dustin Schau (5-11, 210) has returned to football after taking a few seasons off.
Sophomores Emilio Appolloni (6-8, 227) and Matt Barbour (6-0, 220) are also listed as tight ends. Freshmen Rich Lechner (6-0, 160) and Dan Milewski (5-11, 165) supply additional depth.
While Bruney likes the makeup of his skill players, he's especially high on his offensive line, which returns a myriad of experience.
"I really like those guys and they have a chance to be pretty good," Bruney said. "There is some size there and they're athletic. It should be a real strength for us."
Junior Jonathan Bodkin (5-8, 230) anchors the line at center, while Cody Beavers (6-1, 220) is ticketed for left guard. At the left tackle spot, junior Brian Sadosky (6-3, 218) is penciled in.
Senior Luke Straub (6-0, 260) is a three-year starter at guard. Junior Nick Bain (6-0, 267) returns as the starting left tackle.
Senior Hondo Palmer (6-0, 260) has returned to football for the first time since his freshman season. He's the top backup at left tackle.
Junior Mark Douglas (5-9, 200) is one of the more versatile Riders linemen. He's the top backup at center and guard.
Junior Kyle Staley (5-11, 270) is another who could battle for action in the trenches.
Other linemen who are vying for playing time include senior Ricardo Alvardo (5-11, 200), junior Sam Redinger (6-4, 200), sophomores Brandon Mayle (5-11, 180) and foreign exchange student Steffen Ries (6-2, 220) along with freshmen Nick Cummings (5-10, 215), Keegan Hupp (6-0, 185), Connor Patterson (5-9, 235), Drake Rice (5-10, 170), Dom Wallace (5-11, 280) and Darren Clark (6-3, 280).
"We have some promising young kids up front," Bruney said.
On defense, the Riders will again employ a 4-4 formation.
"We feel comfortable with our defense because we have a lot of experience back," Bruney said. "I think our defense is going to have a little bit of nasty in it, too. We have good foot speed as well."
Along the line, Vargo is set to serve as one of the ends with DeLeonardis and Kinney in the mix. The other end has been a battle between Sadosky, Beavers and Schau. A foursome of defensive tackles will be utilized. Bodkin, Bain, Palmer and Douglas are all expected to see time.
"We feel good about those kids' athletic ability and competitive edge because there are enough bodies at that position that they have to compete every day," Bruney said.
At the inside linebacker spot, Straub and Burger are set to lead the way. Sutton and Burress saw quality time as an outside linebacker last season and both will maintain those duties again this season.
Dokes and Hython are the top subs and could see time as well.
The secondary has been a battle as well for jobs with as many as seven players in the mix.
Styles, Fitch, Watts, Agnew, Barritt, Jacob and Flowers are all vying for the jobs as corner and safety.
Burress is expected to handle the placekicking duties, while Flowers is the Riders' punter.
Filling the schedule has become a reoccuring problem for the Purple Riders. Ferry will face three new opponents this season prior to opening Buckeye 8 play. Gone are Heath, Shenandoah and Ridgewood.
Along with Friday's game against Allderdice, the Purple Riders will play at the Dave Bruney Football Complex five straight weeks to open the campaign.
Wickliffe will make a nearly 3-hour trek from east of Cleveland to Martins Ferry in Week 2. That will be the only home game that kicks off at 7:30 p.m.
Linsly has also come onto the schedule in Week 3.
"Putting a football schedule together isn't easy," Bruney said. "We have to watch who play outside of the league because we're the second-smallest school in the league."
In the new OHSAA divisional counts, the Purple Riders have dropped to Division V. They'll compete in Region 17.
Bruney's coaching staff is one of the area's best and has been together for some time, for the most part.
After spending one season working under his father, Zac Bruney has returned to the collegiate ranks as the quarterbacks coach at Ohio Dominican.
"I hated to lose him, but I am happy for him because that's what makes him happy," Bruney said. "When your kids are happy, you're happy."
Bill Bruney, Dave's brother, is back as the defensive coordinator, while Dirk Fitch serves as the offensive coordinator.
Gregg Bahen is back on board, working with the tight ends and outside linebackers. John Bennett coaches the receivers and defensive backs. Plus, he oversees the Purple Riders' computer scouting.
Rich Materkoski is the passing game coordinator and works with the defensive backs and receivers. Jim Hoover and Nick Stankovich coach the line.
Anthony Reasbeck is the quarterbacks coach and works with the freshmen and junior varsity. Chas Yoder and Taylor Yoder work with running backs and linebackers as well as the junior varsity.
Chad Ware is the junior high coordinator. Derek Edwards, Robert Harris, John McFarland and Josh Cusick are also working with the seventh and eighth grade squads.
Ricardo Alvardo, Taylor Cotoure, Austin DeLeonardis, Daniel Dokes, Eric Flowers, Logan Kinney, Hondo Palmer, Dustin Schau, Seth Scott, Luke Straub, Bryan Styles, Marcus Sutton, Robert Vargo, JaVaughn Wade.
Lucas Agnew, Nick Bain, Jake Barritt, Cody Beavers, Jonathan Bodkin, Bruce Burger, Bryce Coleman, Mark Douglas, Jack Fitch, T.J. Jacob, Jahad Joyce, Shawon Manns, Sam Redinger, R.J. Reed, Brian Sadosky, Kyle Staley, Andrew Watts.
Emilio Appolloni, Matt Barbour, Arjay Burress, James Edwards, Andrew Hython, Brandon Mayle, Steffan Ries.
Dominic Bell, Darren Clark, Nick Cummings, Jack Davis, Ryan Fox, Malik Hill, Keegan Hupp, Rich Lechner, Cade Lloyd, Dan Melewski, Connor Patterson, Drake Rice, Sam Russell, Logan Selby, George Stan, Jared Straub.