By Steve Ruman
A year ago, the Warren JFK football program had more questions than answers as it headed into the 2015 season. The Eagles were coming off back-to-back 2-8 seasons. The combination of a beefed-up schedule, declining enrollment and a roster which included just two seniors led many to believe another losing season was in the works.
Instead, the Eagles soared to an 11-2 finish and advanced to the Division VII Region 23 title game.
This year, JFK will not catch anyone by surprise. The Eagles return 22 lettermen, including nine starters on offense and all 11 starters on defense. A senior class of 14 will provide plenty of leadership.
“The biggest difference between my first year here and last year was our strength and our intensity,” third-year coach Jeff Bayuk. “We strengthened ourselves mentally and physically, and it showed.”
“I’m not going to predict our season in terms of wins and losses. I’ll just say that I would be very disappointed if we don’t go out and play with the same mindset as we did a year ago.”
In 2015, an offense which averaged 28.8 points per game revolved around Jacob Coates (442 rushing yards, 37 receptions for 572 yards) and Evan Boyd ( 1,206 yards, 12 touchdowns). The same will hold true this season.
“It’s no secret, when you have these types of weapons, you ride them out,” Bayuk said. “We’re not going to fool anyone into thinking we won’t use Evan and Jacob to their full potential.”
The Eagles’ offensive line returns four of five starters, and will be anchored by seniors Bruce Johnson and Luke D’Amore and junior Chris Urchek.
Senior Ryan Lee and junior Greg Valent are expected to battle for the quarterback spot — a position which needs to be filled due to the graduation of Bobby Jefferson.
“The good news is that both young men have experience playing under the lights, and they both have some quarterbacking experience,” Bayuk said. “But starting at quarterback at the varsity level is a huge responsibility, so there will be an adjustment period at this position.”
After giving up more than 30 points per game in 2014, the Eagles held opponents to an average of 14.5 points per game last year.
“I am convinced that our success a year ago was a direct result of our defensive play,” Bayuk said. “Our defense changed the culture of this team. We got after people.”
Senior defensive end John Millard led the team in sacks, while Lee led the team in tackles from his linebacker position. Senior nose man Ross Nocera is a two-year captain. Coates, Boyd and Danny McCartney will anchor an experienced defensive backfield.
“We may move some guys around, you’ll see players in different positions than they were a year ago, but everyone out there on the field will have varsity experience,” Bayuk said.
Senior Justin Bofenkamp returns to handle the JFK kicking game, just as he did the past two seasons. Last year, Bofenkamp was nearly perfect on extra-point attempts, and he tied a school record with a 46-yard field goal. He averaged 35 yards per punt.
Coates will once again give opponents fits with his big-play ability on kickoffs and punts.
“We place a lot of emphasis on our special teams, and we’re fortunate to have some experience and talent in this phase of the game,” Bayuk said.
With 20 playoff appearances and 28 postseason wins, JFK owns the richest tournament football history among all Trumbull County schools. Given the wealth of talent that returns from last year’s playoff team, the chances of adding to those post-season numbers appear strong.
“We certainly will go into the season with high hopes, but you never really know what to expect,” Bayuk said. “Being such a small school, we’re always just a couple of injuries away from becoming an entirely different team. Depth is always a concern.”
Warren JFK’s early non-league schedule includes consecutive road games at LaBrae, Girard and Crestview.
“We’re going to know where we stand right away, because those are all strong opponents who will be better than they were a year ago,” Bayuk said.