WEIRTON - Madonna coach Doug Taylor greeted 36 players when two-a-days began Aug. 5. He had a veteran player returning at just about every position with only four holes to fill.
Graduated starters from the 2012 squad that posted a 12-2 record are Charlie Kotten at center, guard Quintin Hukill, and receiver Garrett Hypes. James Fulcinetti, who started some at inside linebacker and saw plenty of playing time there, also picked up his diploma.
"We lost a lot of experience with those that departed and they were multi-year starters, but because of the veteran players we have available this year, I think the transition will be somewhat smooth."
The Blue Dons were the victims of a one-point, overtime loss to Wahama in last December's Class A state championship game at Wheeling Island Stadium, and 18 lettermen, including 15 seniors, look to take that extra step.
"The outcome last December was not exactly what we wanted," said Taylor, who is beginning his third season. "We've had nine months to think about it and now we want to start playing some football again."
The Blue Dons, of course, are led by senior quarterback Ross Comis, a first team all-stater a year ago and Madonna's Player of the Game in the championship tilt. This will be Comis' fourth year as a starter as he has been the Blue Don starting safety all four years and the starting quarterback since his sophomore year.
"A lot of teams would die to have a starting quarterback returning," Taylor said. "We have one with two years as a starter coming back. We put a lot on Comis' back. He's a gamer and just has the will to win."
The Blue Dons senior rushed for 1,662 yards last year and passed for another 1,561 for a total production of 3,223 yards in 14 games.
Taylor also has a couple of other holes to fill since Nick Ossman decided to transfer to Brooke for his senior season. He was the Blue Dons running back and inside linebacker last year.
Taylor will fill one of the spots, at center, with Shain Livada, a 5-foot, 11, 230-pounder, who was the starter at that position last season at Weir.
Senior Garrett Bever returns at one guard position while seniors Austin Bell and Travis Brown battling to replace Hukill on the other side. Bell was slated to see a lot of action last year, but injured a knee that required surgery in August putting him on the shelf for the season.
Taylor said Tyler Ewusiak (6-3, 210) will move from tight end where he saw plenty of playing time a year ago out to receiver to help fill the vacancy there.
Another transfer student, Dillon Shaw, a sophomore, is vying with Travis Brown and Stevie Maus, both seniors, at inside linebacker.
Taylor's early depth chart showed senior Anthony Antinone as the backup quarterback and he hopes to find some playing time for freshman signal caller Joe Ewusiak, to get him some experience for 2014 when Comis and Antinone will have graduated.
Senior Eliott Nero (5-10, 205), a second team all-state selection at linebacker, got a lot of carries last year and returns as the feature back. He'll get help from senior Stevie Maus (6-0, 225), Shaw and freshman Dustin Brown.
Seniors Marcello Biondillo and Will Bowser return at receiver to join Tyler Ewusiak. Others vying for playing time are Levi Shreves and Marquis Jeter, both juniors out for football for the first time, and freshmen Jimmy Mazzone, Nate Smith and Tavon Jeter.
Nate Guio (6-3, 215), who was named a first team all-stater at defensive end, returns at tight end on the offense. Backing him up will be junior Austin Connell and Phillip Good, a freshman.
The giant of the squad, Josh Martin, who stands 7-foot and weighs in at 295 pounds, returns at tackle with Adam Robertson (6-3, 230), another senior, on the other side of the line. Martin's younger brother, Nate (6-6, 265), a sophomore, Christian D'Angelo (6-6, 215) and freshman Justin Canei, also 6-6, are vying for playing time. Canei's father, Robert, played college football at the University of Miami, according to Taylor.
Backing up the three seniors at offensive guard will be sophomore Adam Davis and freshmen Gaetano Fuscardo and John Serafini.
Ryan Egyud, a sophomore, and senior Travis Brown are listed as backups behind Livada at center.
"Our linemen are not only experienced, they are athletic as well," Taylor said. "They get along with each other, hang out with each other and are friends. They are a good group of kids."
Green, a junior soccer style kicker, returns along with Robertson, who kicks off and kicks field goals.
The cast is basically the same on the defensive side of the ball with Bever and Josh Martin at the tackles and Guio at one defensive end spot and either Tyler Ewusiak or Austin Connell at the other. Sophomore Thadius Dillie is a backup.
Travis Brown, Maus and Shaw will see most of the action at inside linebacker while Nero, Gabe Hypes and Grant Retton are listed at outside linebackers.
Biondillo and Bowser return at cornerback, and Comis is back at safety.
Anthony Antinone, Austin Bell, Garrett Bever, Marcello Biondillo, Travis Brown, Will Bowser, Ross Comis, Tyler Ewusiak, Nate Guio, Gabe Hypes, Shain Livada, Josh Martin, Stevie Maus, Eliott Nero, Adam Robertson.
Austin Connell, Christian D'Angelo, Matt Green, Grant Retton, Levi Shreve.
Adam Davis, Thadius Dillie, Ryan Egyud.
Dustin Brown, Justin Canei, Joey Ewusiak, Gaetano Fuscardo Phillip Good, Jimmy Mazzone, ohn Serafini, Nathan Smith, Marquise Jeter, Tavon Jeter.