After narrowly missing out on the playoffs two years ago, Struthers made it abundantly clear what its goal was last season: get to the postseason.
An 8-2 regular season earned the Wildcats their first playoff berth since 1999. They rode that high through Lakeview, 14-3, in the first round, but were knocked out by the eventual Division IV state runner-up Cardinal Mooney.
This year begins a new season and a new set of goals.
“Get further in the playoffs,” said senior Mark Caruso. “Any loss is a little bit bittersweet, but we had a goal last year.
“We set it and we reached it, and that’s what we’re going to try and do this year.”
Easier said than done. The Wildcats return just one starter on the offensive side of the ball (tight end Cameron Suchora) and four on defense. They’ll also be without senior running back Luke Witkowski for the first two games of the season after a court settlement with the Ohio High School Athletic Association in early August ended an eligibility dispute.
Witkowski, 19, initially was ruled ineligible because of his age, but since his family emigrated from Poland when he was 6 and he eventually repeated third grade, an agreement was brokered with the OHSAA.
“It kind of hit me hard this year, because I didn’t know what was going to go on,” said Witkowski, who will be eligible to return in Week 3 against Mogadore.
“I’m happier than happy, to be honest with you. I’m just happy I get to play and give it my all this year.”
There’s having to replace missing parts and then there’s what Struthers must do on offense. The Wildcats graduated a combined 123 starts on the offensive line alone, as well as a three-year starting quarterback in Gary Muntean. Add in the loss of Nick Pollifrone and the Wildcats will have a completely different unit in 2014.
Coach Curt Kuntz will insert senior Christian Nemeth at quarterback. They will get some relief Week 3 in the form of Witkowski, who should be fresher than everyone else come season’s end.
“Everybody’s going to be tired and stuff and I’m going to be fresh, so I’m hoping for the best,” Witkowski said.
The lone retuning starter that will be on the field to start the season is Suchora. He understands his top priority — at least early on — needs to be helping the inexperienced line up front.
“Offensive line is going to need to step it up,” Suchora said. “It all starts there. If we can’t run the ball, we can’t do anything else.”
The defense returns four players, which probably feels like a veteran group to Kuntz compared to the other side of the ball.
Caruso, a defensive back, is excited about the potential the unit has shown through fall camp. Although he knows it won’t come without bumps in the road.
“I think we’re going to definitely be well prepared,” he said. “We’re going to have to handle adversity well and I think we will because our coaches prepare for that a lot.”
Nemeth will also be relied upon to make plays in the secondary, according to his coach.
“Christian will be all over the field doing different things on offense and defense for us,” Kuntz said.
Junior Anthony Milone kicked toward the end of last season and did a good job, so expect him back in the same role again to start this season.
Kuntz’s biggest worry — and rightfully so — is depth. Struthers has just 41 players on its roster, so new faces are going to have to learn on the fly.
“Everybody says you have to stay healthy,” Kuntz said. “It’s even more true this year.
“If we stay healthy, I think we have enough talent to compete with everybody on our schedule and have a meaningful game at the end of the season to hopefully continue playing Week 11.”