A cast of top players hopes to turn the Falcons around.
By JOE SCALZO
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
AUSTINTOWN -- Ask someone in Austintown why the Fitch High football team has been mired in mediocrity for the past seven years and you often get some variation of "I don't know."
Head coach Carl Pelini is no different.
"I can't answer that," he said. "I've only been here three years. All I know is that we need to reestablish ourselves."
Since Dave Hartman left as coach after the 1993 season, the Falcons have had one winning season -- going 7-3 in 1994. Since 1995, Fitch is 21-45 and 4-22 in the Steel Valley Conference.
Hartman went 92-35 over 12 seasons. He won four SVC titles outright and shared four more. He made the playoffs three times.
Since then, the Falcons have not won an SVC title or made the playoffs.
The road ahead
An SVC title is probably out of the question this year -- Warren Harding and Ursuline are the early favorites -- but the playoffs aren't.
"We're coming off a 3-7 season, so we're not ready to talk about the playoffs," Pelini said. "We're talking about improvement."
On paper, the Falcons look good. They've got three legitimate Division I college players -- senior running back Davanzo Tate (who verbally committed to West Virginia), senior lineman Mike McGlynn (who verbally committed to Pitt) and junior wideout Miles Williams. Their only major losses were quarterback Steve Burnich and receiver Ross Watson, who both made All-SVC, and tailback Ray Betts.
Fitch also has good numbers -- a senior class of 30 and a varsity roster of close to 70.
"There's better leadership this year," Tate said. "That's something we didn't have last year."
Added McGlynn, "There's a whole attitude. We've made a lot of strides and we've gotten physically stronger."
McGlynn, who was academically ineligible last year, will anchor an improved offensive line. The Falcons will rely more on the running game -- Jason Aikens is a better runner than passer -- and Pelini expects better ground production this season.
"We need to have balance, but we haven't run the ball well so it's obviously something we're focusing on," he said. "We weren't physical last year."
One to watch
Tate, a three-year starter and All-SVC pick last year, will be the feature back and will also play defensive back. He's strong for his size, but his main asset is his speed -- he qualified for the state meet in the 200-meter dash last spring -- and coverage abilities. Tate rushed for 451 yards on 92 carries and had 13 receptions for 125 yards. He also had three interceptions and 65 tackles.
Tate turned a 3-yard screen pass into a 60-yard touchdown in last week's scrimmage against Steubenville. The Falcons looked good in scrimmages against the Big Red and Howland, but they can still improve.
"We've had some bright spots, but there's been a lot of dog parts, too," Tate said. "We haven't played up to our potential. The talent is there, we just need to follow our coaches and get better."
Fitch plays its regular brutal schedule, but will benefit from seven home games. The Falcons have looked good at times in Pelini's two seasons -- they were the only team to beat Ursuline in 2000 and played well in many of last year's losses -- but have been inconsistent.
"I don't know if inconsistent is the right word," Pelini said. "We've been in most of our games. We just have to keep getting better."
The SVC's final year -- Fitch and Boardman will leave for the Federal League after this season -- should be one of its best. Boardman, which made the playoffs last season, will be strong once again and Mooney should be much improved after a disappointing 1-9 season last year.
Some teams could overlook Fitch this year, which is just fine with McGlynn.
"We're going to surprise a lot of people," he said.