Looking ahead, Fitch has plenty of players moving up through the ranks.
By JOE SCALZO
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
AUSTINTOWN -- At this time last year, Fitch coach Neal Kopp was a pretty confident guy.
After four years of building the program -- first as an assistant to Carl Pelini, then as the head coach -- Kopp finally had a team that could contend for a league title, an undefeated regular season and a playoff berth.
His team accomplished two of those goals -- the Falcons fell to Canton GlenOak in Week Nine -- before losing a heartbreaker to Cleveland Glenville in the first round of the Division I playoffs.
It was Fitch's best season in more than a decade, but graduation took its toll.
The Falcons lost nine starters on defense and seven on offense and must replace key players such as John Mang, Mike Eliseo, Frank Cardon and Brian Mellott.
In all, Fitch lost seven first team all-Federal League players.
"We've got a challenge in front of us," said Kopp, who has gone 15-6 in two years at Fitch. "We've got kids who have been playing two or three years at the freshman and junior varsity levels, so we'll see how quickly they can get accustomed to playing at the varsity level.
"We can compete, but we'll have to grow up pretty quickly."
Kopp plans to build around his offensive line, which returns three starters: guard Mark McGlynn (whose brother, Mike, plays at Pitt), tackle Pat Reedy (who's already been offered a scholarship by Kent) and center Joe Stryffeler.
Senior running back Dane Stilgenbauer -- the only other returning starter on offense -- may see the bulk of the carries early.
"If we have a strength, it's our offensive line," Kopp said. "We're going to have to rely on them early. But our biggest weakness is depth in the interior line. We just don't have as many bodies as last year."
Fitch still has good numbers and they're getting better. In addition to 67 varsity players, the Falcons have 50 playing freshman football and another 110 at the junior high level.
"In another year or two, we'll have our program where we want it," Kopp said. "Our challenge to the kids is that no Fitch team has ever made the playoffs two years in a row. That's what we're trying to shoot for."
Canton GlenOak and Canton McKinley probably will get most of the preseason press in the league.
GlenOak quarterback Mike Hartline is one of the state's top prospects. McKinley lost to Cincinnati Elder in last year's Division I state championship and has plenty of talent returning.
"There's no shortage of skill over at McKinley," Kopp said. "And that's where we're trying to get to."
Made the playoffs
Five of the eight teams in the league made the playoffs last year: Fitch, McKinley, GlenOak, Massillon Jackson and Uniontown Lake.
"That probably showed some people that may still be disgruntled that we're not in the [Steel Valley Conference] that the Federal League has got some good programs and some good football," Kopp said.
Massillon Perry and North Canton Hoover -- which went a combined 5-15 last season -- had uncharacteristic down years and should be better.
Lake, which lost to eventual state champion Columbus Brookhaven in last year's Division II regional final, is in the same situation as Fitch, having to replace a huge senior class.
Boardman, after several strong years in a row, is in the middle of a down cycle, having gone 1-19 over the past two years.
Second-year coach D.J. Ogilvie is trying to rebuild the program, but it will take time.
To make matters worse, the Spartans lost their top lineman, senior Levi George, when he transferred to Warren Harding in the off-season.
"It's going to be an interesting season," Kopp said. "Our biggest challenge is that, having won the league last year, everyone's going to be gunning for us. We know we're going to have to come out and play physical if we want to continue what we did last year."