By Joe Scalzo
After a nightmarish first season that saw his varsity roster dip below 40 players, forcing him to cancel the junior varsity season, Boardman High football coach Joe Ignazio added another title: recruiter.
He and his staff reached out to high school students, obviously, but they also aligned the youth programs, meeting with players after the Spartan Bowl that pits Boardman’s two middle school teams and at the school’s kids camp.
“I never anticipated the numbers would be as bad as they were,” said Ignazio, a Boardman graduate and longtime assistant who went 1-9 in his first year as head coach. “We just pounded the pavement and went after kids. We had conversations. We did recruiting mailers. And we met with parents a lot.”
The parents’ main concern was concussions, so Ignazio talked about the team’s concussion protocol, its two on-staff trainers and its team doctor.
The result? Boardman has 65 players in its top three grades, as well as a big freshman class with several players that will compete with playing time.
While those numbers will upgrade the team’s depth and overall talent — Boardman wore down in the second half of most games — it also forces players to earn their starting spot.
“It’s a lot easier to throw a kid out of a huddle and have the next man up than it was last year,” he said. “Now you can challenge and motivate a kid to earn his spot and get better.”
Added senior linebacker Evan Croutch, “That’s the best part of this year. No one has a guaranteed spot.”
Senior Marcus Smith, who filled in at quarterback when Darius Sanders was hurt last season, is back behind center, where he will be pushed by junir Alex Duda and strong-armed sophomore Sean Birchfield.
Second team all-Federal League selection Mario Graziani returns in the backfield along with Cardinal Mooney transfer Benji Roberts. First team all-conference pick Matt Filipovich and senior Jon Cina will play receiver, with senior Nick Krohn, sophomore Austin Barone and sophomore Travis Koontz (who stands 6-foot-4) also in the mix. Croutch will be the tight end.
Up front, senior Jason Young returns at left tackle, while senior Doug Kephart (who broke his femur in training camp last year) will play right tackle. Seniors Tony Chiarello and Vince Valentini are the guards, with junior Wes Thompson and sophomore Nick Stamp competing at center.
On the defensive line, juniors Alex Birchfield and Alex Duda return at the ends and junior Erick Ritz is back at tackle. Young will also play tackle, with sophomores Donovan Turney and Stephen Taylor competing for playing time.
Croutch, a YSU recruit and second team all-conference selection, returns at middle linebacker with junior Gavin Dill and Graziani manning the other spots.
Filipovich returns at safety, while Smith will see time at both safety and cornerback. Sophomore Gavin Strines and Cina will also play cornerback.
Graziani returns at kicker, but Ignazio also has some soccer players who will be in the mix. Cina and Croutch will handle the punting, while Filipovich will be the primary punt returner and Graziani will return kicks.
Boardman is entering its last season in the Federal League and starts the season with two state runners-up from last year: Mentor (Division I) and Mooney (Division IV). The other two non-league games are against 2013 playoff teams: Poland and Austintown Fitch.
“The Federal League is definitely one of the tougher leagues in Ohio,” Smith said. “It’s a grueling season — even our out-of-league games are tough — but with our numbers, we think we can really compete this year. We’ll see what happens.”
61Jon Michael DanaOL-DL5-10245Sr.