By Greg Gulas
Cardinal Mooney finished 8-3 a year ago, but a second round playoff exit left the Cardinals with an empty, unfinished feeling.
They hope to take care of that feeling in 2017.
When you’re part of a program that is used to making deep postseason run, and then fall short of that goal, the motivation is there.
“Each year you learn with the guys receiving valuable playing experience in the process. This is a new year, last year is behind us and the dynamics are different so we are ready to start anew,” Mooney head coach P.J. Fecko said.
“We have a new senior class ready to take over the leadership role and last year’s sophomore class is a year older, looking for an enhanced role.
“The beauty of high school athletics is that juniors become seniors, it’s their team and they have to figure out a way to lead. So far they have established a positive chemistry, weathered any storms and have helped mesh all classes into a cohesive unit.”
Fecko added that this year’s version of Cardinal Mooney football has a passion for the game and is a lot of fun to be around.
“This is a really good group to work with because they are hard-working, attentive, passionate and great to be with every day,” he said. “They’re a responsive group that is ready to go each and every time they hit the field.”
Getting out of the gate fast and maintaining the momentum that they have built will be the key for this year’s squad as they play their first five games and six of their first seven on the road.
“The challenge of playing a schedule like ours is that it’s a brutal, daunting task to get through that portion not just successfully, but injury-free,” Fecko said. “It’s an old cliche, but you need to stay healthy, especially in high school football, and most especially in our area. Depth will be a problem for many teams and in northeast Ohio, we’re an older community, which means there are less younger players each year coming out for football.”
The Cardinals run a multiple set and have six starters returning, including four on the offensive line.
Senior Antonio Page returns at quarterback with John Murphy and Luke Fulton also battling for playing time.
Page threw for 671 yards and five touchdowns last season and rushed for 438 yards and nine touchdowns.
Chris Gruber (288 yards, 2 TDs) and Jason Santisi are the running backs with Dan Simko and Andre McCoy the fullback hopefuls.
Page’s targets include wide receivers Nico Marchionda (9 receptions, TD), Anthony Fire, Brent Weaver and Julian Diaz, and tight ends Brennan Olesh (4 receptions, TD) and Cheriff Jamison.
Vinny Gentile and Karter Kesner will handle the snapping duties, Tyler Petrey, Steve Moser and Joe Granchie are the guards with Kyle Jornigan and Alex Maxin penciled in at the tackles.
Of the six returnees to their 4-3 set, two are linemen, one a linebacker and the secondary returns three and is the most experienced group.
On the line, Gentile and McCoy will compete for time in the middle with Jamison at one end, Fire the other and Simko adding depth to both areas.
Petrey and Maxin are the inside mainstays and will back up both Gentile and McCoy.
Olesh and Darrion Fant are the inside linebackers, Weaver is set to patrol the outside while the last line of defense includes cornerbacks Marchionda, Gruber and Diaz and safeties Page, Fulton and Santisi.
Fire averaged 34.7 yards per boot on 24 punts a year ago and returns in the same capacity this season.
Andrew and Brian Philibin are the kicking hopefuls with Maurice McElroy the extra-point specialist.
Marchionda and Gruber will handle the punt and kick return duties.
With five road games to start the season, the Cardinals must start quickly and build on the momentum that they generate, otherwise it could be a long season.
Challenge is nothing new to Fecko or the Cardinals and with three home games to end the season, one of which is against arch-rival Ursuline (Austintown Fitch and Warren Harding are the other two opponents), a good start will go a long way in determining the importance of those final regular-season games.
“The seniors have done a great job pointing ‘their’ team in the right direction and we’re ready to get started,” Fecko said. “We’ll need to stay focused and play together as a team, especially those first five games, but this group is ready to go and it should be an exciting season.”