BY ROB TODOR
The preliminaries are over, and now it’s time for the contenders to step up.
It almost sounds like a presidential election around convention time, but for today’s discussion we’re talking about the high school football season.
The first three weeks of the season were a lot like the state preliminaries and caucuses, where many hopefuls present their platforms and the voters decide whose message is best.
Only on the football field, the strongest contenders are decided in a more democratic way — on the scoreboard.
About a month from now, the field of contenders will be weeded out even further, and we’ll be at election time, when only the strongest survive.
So then, let’s take a look at the races, with the favorites, the contenders, and those who might not end up with the hardware, but could have a say in who hoists the trophy the final weekend of October:
The favorite: Canton GlenOak. The Eagles are defending champions, and they feature an explosive offense built around junior running back Bri’onte Dunn, who was offered a scholarship by Ohio State earlier this week. GlenOak’s defense, though, has been gouged for 51 points the past two weeks by Massillon (a 28-27 loss) and winless Green (a 27-23 win).
The challenger: Austintown Fitch. The Falcons have certainly been impressive in the first three weeks, but the schedule hasn’t been nearly as difficult as it is about to get. Fitch gets Canton McKinley tonight, then travels to GlenOak next Friday.
Waiting in the wings: A better question might be, who’s not? Every Federal League team had a winning non-conference record (even Jackson, which was 0-10 in 2009), and Lake shocked Canton McKinley last weekend 21-14 in their league opener. The Blue Streaks, though, lost stud running back Jim Luther indefinitely with a knee injury in that game.
Perry is also 3-0, but until last week’s win over Brunswick didn’t have a particularly challenging schedule.
Boardman finished tied for second in the league last season, but the Spartans are going to have display more offense than they’ve shown in weeks 2-3 if they want to be serious contenders.
The favorite: Howland. Not much question here. The Tigers’ biggest challenge might be overconfidence after knocking off Warren Harding at home last Friday. De’Veon Smith is only a sophomore, but he might be the best player in the area.
The challenger: Canfield. The Cardinals, for once, finally gets to play a home game after starting 1-2 on the road. Canfield still has a lot of questions to answer — they handily defeated the team they were expected to (Canton South), but they came up short against their best competition (Aurora and Dover), although by slim margins. Most of those questions should be answered tonight against Howland.
Waiting in the wings: Poland and Niles. The Red Dragons ditched their pass-first offense last week against Coventry and found out they have a dominant runner in Reggie Wells. Now other teams know that, too, and the challenge for Niles is to have the same kind of success with defenses stacked to stop it. Poland’s woes are on the other other side of the ball — the Bulldogs have allowed 88 points the last two weeks (granted, against pretty stout offenses). That’s going to have to get fixed quick.
The favorite: Hubbard. Any questions of the Eagles after a week 1 loss to Poland should have been answered with a pair of dominant performances against JFK and Southeast. The challenge for Hubbard gets exponentially larger the next three weeks, though, with Salem, Lakeview and Girard on the schedule.
The challengers: Salem and Lakeview. The key to slowing the Quakers is controlling Trent Toothman, which is kind of like stopping a waterfall with a Dixie cup. Salem’s problems so far have been on the defensive side of the ball, and they can’t count on Toothman to continually bail them out — can they? Lakeview’s only loss so far has been a three-touchdown margin against Howland (no crime there) but the Bulldogs’ two wins have come against Struthers and Chaney, so the jury’s still out on this team.
Waiting in the wings: Struthers and Liberty. Both teams have shown marked improvement since week 1 losses to Lakeview and East, respectively, but it’s going to be tough for either to crack the top three in this balanced division.
The favorite: Campbell Memorial. The Red Devils have a terrific athlete in Lester Hughes at quarterback, and he can throw it just as well as he runs it. Ja’les Hughes is no slouch, either, and that combination, along with a pretty stout defense, make the Red Devils an easy choice.
The challengers: Girard and LaBrae. The Indians haven’t broken loose offensively like many expected when Nick Cochran took over as head coach. There’s nothing to suggest it won’t happen, but closer-than-expected victories against Struthers and JFK are head-scratchers. LaBrae hung tough with Salem in week 1 and have won the last two weeks.
Waiting in the wings: Champion. The Golden Flashes have already doubled their win total of last year, but like Struthers and Liberty, may not have the horses — yet — to get through the Campbell-Girard-LaBrae gauntlet.
INTER TRI-COUNTY LEAGUE-TIER ONE
The favorite: Crestview. As long as Carter Hill and Co. stay healthy the Rebels are going to be tough to beat. This league appears as balanced as ever, though, and there isn’t a night off.
The challengers: Again, who to leave out? Columbiana, South Range and United come immediately to mind as the top threats, and Springfield would be, too, if not for that disappointing performance against Lowellville last weekend. Maybe that was an aberration.
Waiting in the wings: Mineral Ridge. The Rams are 1-2, but they came within a breath of getting in the playoffs last year and have enough veterans who know how to compete.
INTER TRI-COUNTY LEAGUE-TIER TWO
The favorite: Western Reserve. This might be the Blue Devils’ best chance since 2006 to supplant McDonald atop the standings. They’re going to score points — the key will be to avoid the turnovers and penalties that have cost them wins in the past.
The challengers: Southern and McDonald. The Indians are for real — they have a bunch of athletes and dominated Tier One schools East Palestine and Lisbon in weeks 1 and 2, and smoked Toronto last Friday. McDonald is 1-2, but they have too much coaching and talent not to be considered a contender.
Waiting in the wings: Lowellville. The Rockets opened a few eyes with their win over Springfield last weekend, but we’ll now more about their chances after this week (Western Reserve) and next (McDonald).
EAST SUBURBAN CONFERENCE
The favorite: Grand Valley. The Mustangs’ three opponents are a combined 1-8 but they’re playing the best of anyone in the league right now.
The contenders: Mathews and Py Valley. Both teams are 2-1 with a bad loss (28-0 to Western Reserve for Mathews, and 34-6 to Garrettsville for the Lakers).
The favorites: Ursuline and Cardinal Mooney (big surprise, huh?). The Irish passed their toughest test of the season’s first half last week against Lake Catholic, and may have a playoff spot locked up by the time their late-October gauntlet of Steubenville, Mooney and St. Vincent-St. Mary rolls around.
The Cardinals took one on the chin last weekend against Lakewood St. Edward, and have a tough challenge tonight at Columbus DeSales. This might just be a must-win game for Mooney, who don’t want to be staring at a 4-2 record going into their own season-ending swing of SVSM, Ursuline and Cincinnati Moeller.
Waiting in the wings: Harding. The Raiders still control their destiny for a postseason berth, but the defense has given up 70 points in three games and is going to have to get more stout in October.