With 21 starters returning from posting a 7-4 record in just its second varsity season, the Lake Erie College football team enters its inaugural year of competition in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference with experience, depth and expectations for the first time in the program's short history.
But head coach Mark McNellie, who spent 17 years coaching in arguably the nation's premier Division II football conference before building the Storm program from the ground up, is cautiously optimistic about the 2010 season and Lake Erie's initial foray through the GLIAC.
"There's a lot for us to be excited about," McNellie said. "We have a chance to play in a new conference, test where we are at, to see how we've prepared the last couple of years. This is the first time we've truly had four years worth of players in the program and for the first time a true team that has adequate depth and the means to play a Division II schedule. We don't have to do it with smoke and mirrors. We have good players across the board, with good quality depth."
"Our team is very business like. They show up everyday with lunch pail and go to work. We've had that 'lunchbox mentality' from day one: we just show up and work and compete every day. I'm proud of where we are at and how hard they have worked. It's a very cohesive group, a very strong "team" right now. But we know we have a great challenge facing us and will find out if all the work we've been doing for the past few years has prepared us for this."
Three teams from the GLIAC qualified for the NCAA Division II playoffs a year ago – national runner-up Grand Valley State, Hillsdale and Saginaw Valley State – and conference schools have reached the postseason a total of 22 times in the last decade.
Playing in a conference is a welcome change from the hectic schedule of independent play the past two seasons. Starting with a 10 game league-slate in 2010, the Storm will have the opportunity to form regional rivalries and compete against five schools for in-state bragging rights. They'll also have a chance to face some of the nation's best competition, going up against all three GLIAC playoff teams from a year ago on the road.
"I'm not really big on status things, but there is definitely something about being in the GLIAC and among what I feel is the best group of teams in the country," McNellie said. "It's a way for us to judge where we are at as a program against the best there is with the year-to-year consistency of who we are playing and how well we are playing."
Based on the numbers it has put up the previous two seasons, the Storm offense certainly appears GLIAC-ready. Lake Erie ranked 19th nationally in rushing and 39th in total offense a year ago and averaged nearly 30 points per contest. Those numbers include several late season games in less than ideal conditions and sloppy track at Britt Stadium. The new artificial surface should only help the Storm's quick strike offense.
Directing the attack is junior Sean Bedevelsky (Brunswick, Ohio/Brunswick), who has started every game in school history at quarterback. The team's offensive player of the year threw for over 2,200 yards for the second straight year and tossed 15 touchdown passes. He also ran for a team-high 640 yards (6.2 avg.) and nine TD's. Bedevelsky notched a pair of 100-yard rushing games to go along with five 200-yard passing games.
"I've run out ways to positively describe Sean, he just continues to get better and better," said McNellie. "His arm is as live as ever, his feet are quicker than ever. Those things aside what makes him go is his decision making and his leadership. He is a natural leader and has the uncanny ability to make decisions on the move that I've never encountered before. He is what makes us go."
Junior quarterback Sean Bedevelsky talks about the Storm's offense in 2010
He'll be backed up by redshirt sophomore Matt Krumpak (McDonald, Ohio/McDonald), who saw action in four games a year ago, completing five passes for 53 yards and adding 43 yards on the ground. Redshirt freshman Brendan Gallagher (Aurora, Ohio/Aurora) could also be in the mix to see some time as a reserve and the incoming freshman class features four talented signal callers.
Bedevelsky and company will have plenty of options to get the ball to, either in the run game or in the passing attack. Bruiser Tony Howard is gone, but a trio of returners will share the workload from the tailback spot in 2010. Redshirt freshman Chris Brown (Cincinnati, Ohio/Princeton) had a fantastic spring and has impressed the coaching staff with his ability to make defenders miss. Junior Kameron Alexander (Akron, Ohio/Buchtel) gained 270 yards and scored two touchdowns as Howard's back-up a year ago and redshirt sophomore Onesiaum Glass (Westerville, Ohio/Westerville Central/Ohio State) returns to the team after a year away. He rushed for 186 yards in eight games for the Storm in 2009. All three provide different looks and pose a variety of threats to defenses.
On the wings, versatile redshirt junior Dave Romeo (Eastlake, Ohio/Eastlake) is back along and will line up in one of the starting slots. He led the team in receiving yards (590), was second in all-purpose yards (825), scored four touchdowns and even threw a two-point conversion pass. Opposite of him will be sophomore Andre Wells (Cleveland, Ohio/Villa Angela-St. Joseph), who had a rush and a kickoff return each over 40 yards last year. They'll be backed up by junior Nick Yeager (Madison, Ohio/Madison), who caught 10 passes for 136 yards and a TD last season, and junior newcomer Patrick Lunney (Mount Shasta, Calif./Mount Shasta/College of Siskiyous) an all-state selection at the junior college level last year after rushing for nearly 1,600 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Fifth-year senior Demetrius Gray (Cleveland, Ohio/South) moves outside the numbers to a receiver spot to team with junior Brandon James (Mentor, Ohio/Mentor) as part of a veteran group. James has led the team in receiving each of the last two years, including catching 43 passes (4 TDs) last season, and heads into the season with 99 career receptions. Gray caught 23 passes from his wing position a year ago and led the team in all-purpose yards (826).
The pair is joined by fifth-year senior Tracy Evans, Jr. (Cleveland, Ohio/East Tech/Kentucky State), redshirt junior David Krzys (Ashtabula, Ohio/Lakeside), junior burner Ryan Robinson (Maple Heights, Ohio/Maple Heights) and a host of capable pass catchers. That trio combined to catch 23 passes a year ago and each averaged over 10 yards per catch.
Tight end John Hokavar (Perry, Ohio/Perry) will also be a focal point of the passing attack. In nine games a year ago, the now redshirt junior caught 13 passes for 252 yards and three touchdowns and was named to the d2football.com All-Independent Team. He'll be backed-up by redshirt sophomore Joe Aichele (Hemlock, Ohio/Miller), while freshmen Joey Siefer (Sylvania, Ohio/Sylvania Southview) and Ryan Schmitz (Cincinnati, Ohio/Hamilton) could also battle for playing time.
"The key to our offense is the fact that we have not changed since day one," McNellie said. "We thought we wanted to be a little different than everybody else by attacking the perimeter and getting the ball in our best athletes hands in space. There's a lot of great talent and depth in offensive skill positions."
In 2009, the Storm offensive line allowed just 16 quarterback sacks and plowed the way for the backs and receivers to put up those impressive numbers. Four experienced starters from that line return, led by junior tackle Mike Gritz (South Euclid, Ohio/Brush), a d2football.com All-Independent Team selection. That one loss is a big one in graduated center Nick Ellis, but junior Mike Hounshell (Willoughby, Ohio/Notre Dame Cathedral Latin) slides down from tackle to snap the ball and direct things up front. Sophomore Guy Cullison (Columbus, Ohio/Bishop Ready) and junior Barrett Fredrickson (Mayfield, Ohio/Mayfield) return at the guard spots. Redshirt freshman Mike Price (Parma Heights, Ohio/Valley Forge) will line up at the other tackle, giving the Storm plenty of size up front.
Sophomore Greg Juhola (Ashtabula, Ohio/Lakeside) will backup Hounshell at center while fifth-year senior Mike Colabuno (Perry, Ohio/Perry/Otterbein) and junior Chaz Brown (Euclid, Ohio/Euclid), who transitioned over from the defensive line, will provide plenty of depth at the guard spots. The reserve tackle spots could go to freshmen Austin Pickens (Cleveland Heights, Ohio/Cleveland Heights) and Cody Furr (Lodi, Ohio/Cloverleaf) plus veteran junior Mike Robare (South Euclid, Ohio/Brush) should also be in the mix for time at a number of spots on the line.
There were some early season struggles as the defensive unit transitioned to a 3-4 scheme, but by the end of the season, the Storm defenders made great strides. Lake Erie allowed just over 10 points per game over the final five contests, including just 23 total during a late-season four-game winning streak.
"Last year, our guys were playing in a new system early on and looked liked guys playing in a new system. They were unsure and weren't really confident in what they were doing," said McNellie. "But now with a full season, and a full spring, under their belts, I think it will be a much improved group."
A total of 14 players with regular starting experience return, including the top nine tackles from a year ago, led by junior middle linebacker Gus Armbruster (North Royalton, Ohio/North Roylaton) who had 86 total stops a year ago.
Junior linebacker Gus Armbruster talks about the Storm's 2010 defense.
The front three returns nearly intact. Junior Josh Freeman (Mentor, Ohio/Mentor) slides down from end to the tackle spot where he'll team with redshirt junior ESPN The Magazine Academic All-District IV third-teamer Taylor Jonard (Galena, Ohio/Big Walnut). Each player finished with 21 tackles a year ago, with Jonard's 6.5 tackles-for-loss ranking second on the team. Jonard's classmate, Derrick Clement (Seville, Ohio/Cloverleaf) returns at the nose position after making 35 stops last year, including 5.5 in the backfield. He'll be supported by sophomore Bryant Loparo (Bellevue, Ohio/Bellevue) who appeared in eight games as a rookie. Redshirt freshman Zane Huston (Bellevue, Ohio/Bellevue) and sophomore Taylor Leppla (Cambridge, Ohio/Cambridge) inherit Freeman's old end spot. Leppla played in all 11 games a year ago.
Armbruster returns in the middle of the Storm defense and is joined by a host of experienced linebackers. He'll be joined inside by redshirt junior rover David Heck (North Lima, Ohio/South Range), a 46-tackle man from a year ago. Veteran juniors Cameron Bryant (Lorain, Ohio/Admiral King) and Matt Lott (Newark, Ohio/Newark Catholic) are in the lead reserve roles and sophomore Matt Spelich (Cleveland, Ohio/Lutheran West) should also figure in the mix for playing time. All three will be counted on to be key contributors on special teams.
The deepest spot on the field for Lake Erie may very well be at the "Stormy" outside linebacker spot. Last year's starter, senior Dan Nebraski (Painesville, Ohio/Madison/Edinboro), returns along with fifth-year senior Gerald Still (Cleveland, Ohio/South/Hibbing). Junior David Dunne (Rocky River, Ohio/Rocky River) has moved down from safety to make it a three-way battle for playing time. Nebraski made 35 tackles, including four for losses, and had an interception. He also recovered a blocked punt for a touchdown in his first game in a Storm uniform. Still, who earned the team's special teams player of the year honor for his work on the kick coverage units, made the switch to linebacker midway through the year and contributed 26 tackles on the year. Dunne was third on the team with 57 total tackles, including 39 solo, and has been one of the defensive pillars the past two seasons.
At the other outside spot, or the lightning position, junior Kevin Chapman (Cincinnati, Ohio/Anderson) is coming off a solid 2009 campaign in which he ranked second on the team in total tackles (69) and had a team-high seven TFL's. He'll be pushed by senior Garrett McMullin (Brookfield, Ohio/Clarion), who had 55 tackles in his first year at Lake Erie, including 5.5 for losses.
"In a lot of these spots, there's great competition amongst several guys who have started in the past and have a ton of game experience," McNellie remarked. "It's a coach's dream, and a player's nightmare, to have this kind of competition. Hopefully it will extend into the season and these guys will continue to push each other to perform on the field."
The secondary will be bolstered by the return of junior Ryan Studer (Madison, Ohio/Riverside) at safety. The team's defensive player of the year in 2008 when he made 78 tackles and intercepted two passes, Studer missed the entire 2009 season after suffering an foot injury during the summer. Fully healthy heading into this season, he will provide a strong presence at the back end of the Storm defense. The other returners at safety are junior Steve Bensinger (Poland, Ohio/South Range) and redshirt freshman Nick Krantz (Mentor, Ohio/Mentor). After starting the season on offense, Bensinger moved to the other side of the ball and made an immediate impact there in 2009. He finished the year with 49 tackles and returned an interception 84 yards for a touchdown in the season finale at Wesley. Krantz appeared in just one game before suffering a season-ending injury. Athletic freshman Dylon Leymon (Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio/Cuyahoga Falls) should also see considerable laying time.
At the corners, the trio of redshirt junior Kenneth "Rudy" Glenn (Shaker Heights, Ohio/Shaker Heights) and sophomores Cameron Whitner (Westerville, Ohio/Olentangy Liberty) and Desmond Reed (Warren, Ohio/Warren G. Harding) all return. Glenn made 47 tackles and led the team with two picks, while Reed accounted for 30 stops and Whitner 17 a year ago. Sophomore Akeem Solomon (Rochester, N.Y./Wilson Commencement/Hampton) saw action in a reserve role late in the season last year and leads a young group fighting for playing time.
"We're going to play faster by changing fronts and being blitz oriented," McNellie said. "We won't sit back and let people dictate to us, we're going to 'play downhill.' It's not an overly huge group, but it will be a group that relies on speed and the ability to bring fresh people into game. We have depth at a lot of key spots and there won't be a drop off when those guys are in the game. We want to come after people at 100 miles-per-hour and when that group gets tired, bring in fresh bodies that do the same thing."
Sophomore Sam Marcotte (Chardon, Ohio/Chardon) returns to handle the kicking duties after a 51-point debut. He connected on 36-of-41 PAT's and was five-of-nine on field goals as a freshman, including a long of 32. He'll be backed up by freshman John Lord (Aliquippa, Pa./Aliquippa). Punter Vince Hug has moved on from the field to the sidelines as a graduate assistant after a solid three-year career, leaving a sizeable hole in the field position battle. The multi-talented Hokavar, an all-star punter in high school, will likely be the first called on to handle punting duties, but freshman Billy Croom (Columbus, Ohio/Beechcroft) has shown a strong leg in preseason camp and could be a factor.
A bevy of experienced returners are back. Bensinger ranked among the nation's best with a nearly 13-yard punt return average, including a 60-yard score at Saint Joseph's, while Gray, Alexander and Wells all averaged better than 20 yards per kick return. Those four, along with Whitner and Reed, provide plenty of opportunities for big plays in the return game.
For the third year in a row, the Storm will open the year against Gannon. The first two meetings with the Golden Knights have resulted in heartbreaking defeats for the Green and White, including last year's 35-34 nail-biter in Erie, Pa. The Storm will return to Gannon Field on Sept. 2 looking to open the season with a win for the first time in program history and to avenge those aforementioned defeats to the Knights.
The historic first conference game in Storm history will take place at home the following week, when Lake Erie welcomes Michigan Tech to Britt Stadium for the GLIAC opener on Sept. 11. It will also be the first game on the new ProGrass Mondoturf surface.
The Storm will then go on the road for two straight games against 2009 playoff squads Saginaw Valley State (Sept. 18) and Hillsdale (Sept. 25) before returning home for a homecoming date with Ferris State on Oct. 2.
That game will be the first of two straight at home. The following week, on Oct. 9, Lake Erie will take the home field at night for just the second time ever, hosting Wayne State at 7 p.m. Then its back on the road for two straight, at perennial NCAA Division II power Grand Valley State Oct. 16 and Findlay Oct. 23.
Fellow GLIAC newcomer Ohio Dominican returns to Britt Stadium Oct. 30 in a rematch of last year's wild 52-49 shootout won by the Panthers. The Storm's final home game will be Nov. 6 against Tiffin before closing out the season on the road at Ashland Nov. 13.
"The hardest part of playing in the GLIAC is the quality across the board is unbelievable - week in and week out if you don't show up to play you're going to be embarrassed," McNellie said. "There are no bad teams. Every one is a solid team. Every one is well coached and comes prepared each week. Our guys- both players and coaches, everyone across the board - must realize it's an 11-week dogfight and you have find a way to do it each week because if you don't, it's going to be very tough."