INTER-COUNTY LEAGUE Lowellville carries high expectations
The smallest school in the ICL has big-time goals.
By TOM WILLIAMS
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
When it comes to Inter-County League football, size usually matters.
Over the past decade, the ICL's traditional Division V teams -- South Range, Springfield and Mineral Ridge -- have dominated the title chases.
But once in a while, such as in 1994 when McDonald not only won the ICL crown but advanced to the state's Div. VI championship game, a smaller school excels.
This may be the year when one of the eight-team league's Div. VI teams strikes fear into the hearts of the big boys.
"The ICL will be strong again this year," said South Range coach Dan Yeagley, who led the Raiders to a 10-0 regular season and two playoff wins last fall. "A lot of our teams last year played a bunch of underclassmen who gained a lot of experience.
"Springfield will have a very talented team this year," said Yeagley, whose Raiders have just three returning lettermen. "Close behind Springfield will be McDonald, Mineral Ridge, Western Reserve and Jackson-Milton.
"Lowellville, however, will be the favorite to win the ICL," Yeagley said. "They have a lot of very talented players back, including a very strong group of skill players and good size on the front line."
According to Lowellville's third-year coach, John Protopapa, the Rockets have eight returning starters on both sides of the ball, the most of any ICL team.
"During my first couple years, we had mostly underclassmen playing," Protopapa said of the difference in this year's team. "Having them all in the same system for three years makes this summer's training seem more like a refresher course."
Protopapa said the Rockets appreciate that their league opponents are picking them as the team to beat.
"I'm glad people are showing us respect, but it does add a little pressure," Protopapa said. "We're the smallest school in the league and we've had trouble with larger schools in the past."
The biggest challenge for the Rockets is staying injury-free.
"Depth-wise, we're not very deep at all," Protopapa said. "If something happens to our first group, things could change in a hurry."
Protopapa sees Springfield and South Range as the teams standing in the Rockets' way of a league crown.
"Springfield lost their quarterback [Pat Birch] and running back [Dan Zitkovic], but they have most of their linemen back," Protopapa said. "They will be very strong up front."
Leading the Rockets' offense will be senior tailback and three-year letterman Andy Peterson (6-2, 198 pounds), who rushed for 1,075 yards and scored 15 touchdowns in 2001.
"He's really an exceptional athlete," said Protopapa of Peterson. "He's already receiving a lot of interest from Division I college teams, mostly to play defensive back or linebacker.
"He's a naturally strong kid," Protopapa said. "He can bench lift over 300 pounds and he went to state for the long jump."
Protopapa said Peterson will play safety on defense "because he can cover so much ground so quickly."
Other players Protopapa is counting on are linemen Ben Bestic and Andrew Mamula.
The key game that may determine the ICL race is likely to be played on Oct. 4 when the Springfield Tigers play at Lowellville.
The Tigers (6-4, 6-1 in 2001) have 17 returning lettermen.
"We have a lot of kids coming up," said Springfield's second-year coach, John Smith. "We're gonna be a better team than last year."
Smith agrees with Yeagley that Lowellville is the preseason league pick.
"Lowellville has a lot of good skill players coming back and a good mixture up front," Smith said.
"But you don't want to overlook South Range even though they lost so many starters," Smith said. "Those type of programs just don't fall off the face of the Earth."
The ICL's darkhorse teams this fall may be the Blue Devils -- specifically Dan Williams' McDonald team and Lew Speece's Western Reserve squad.
McDonald has six returning starters on offense and seven on defense. Western Reserve has 14 lettermen coming back.