Struthers reloads to pursue another playoff berth
By BRIAN DZENIS
The Struthers High School football team has lost key players, but the Wildcats plan to keep rolling.
They’ve already passed that kind of test in 2017, making the playoffs in consecutive years for the first time in school history after losing Division I talents A.J. Musolino to graduation and center A.J. Iarussi to a season-ending injury in Week 2.
“Mentally, it was hard at first, but we had to figure it out soon,” senior Keith Burnside said. “We figured it out and we did it as a family.
“We played as a family and we played as a team. We did that last year and we made the playoffs.”
Iarussi has moved on to Purdue. Fellow veteran offensive lineman Jimmy Stefanski is at Carnegie Mellon and senior Willie Mitchell, a two-way force at running back and linebacker, has rejoined Canton McKinley after leaving the team for Struthers after his freshman season.
Struthers (7-4) also said goodbye to assistant coach Paul Hulea, who is now the head coach at Leetonia.
“We started seven sophomores and that was tough early on last year, but it paid dividends later in the year,” Struthers head coach Curt Kuntz said. “It’s paid off with having some good juniors with really good senior leadership.
“We have kids who played a lot of snaps and we have some young guys to throw in there and it creates a good, balanced mix.”
JD Hall returns as the starting quarterback his senior season. He was good enough to play varsity football as a freshman as a wide receiver, but Kuntz kept him as junior varsity player in his sophomore year to prepare him for replacing Musolino under center.
“Coach Hulea convinced me to play JD as our JV quarterback and he could have started on varsity on offense or defense, but then you don’t get those valuable reps you can’t replicate in practice.
“The JV lines don’t always give you a Cleveland Browns type of line. He got live bullets and last year, I think it paid off for us.”
Hall passed for 1,103 yards and eight touchdowns in 2017.
“I wouldn’t change it any other way. They set me up to be successful by the time I got to my junior year at quarterback,” Hall said. “I wanted to play varsity as a sophomore, but this is what happened.
“There’s no questioning Coach Kuntz. He knows what’s best. There wasn’t really a conversation, I just had to do my best to help the team.”
It will take a committee to replace Mitchell’s 791 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. Junior Adrian Brown and senior Keyshawn Chism stand to pick up the slack and Kuntz said he has three younger players competing for carries.
The offensive line returns four starters in juniors Jake Vlosich, Marcel Walker, and Declan Sekol, and senior Brandon Kistler and the fifth spot is up for grabs.
The 6-foot-5 Carson Ryan is best known as a Division I basketball recruit — he’s linked to Youngstown State — and now he’ll be making his debut with the football team this fall at wide receiver.
Seniors Tommy Kopnicky and Kevin Caldwell are back as well as Burnside at wideout. Hall’s sophomore brother, Aiden, may catch some passes as well.
The team’s starting wideouts and running backs plus Hall will patrol the secondary.
“The four best will play the most, then we’ll have some really good backups,” Kuntz said.
Burnside can play linebacker along with junior Robert Tomko, senior Robert Macciomei and sophomore Alex Cummings.
Kistler and Sekol figure to start at defensive end and on the inside will be a rotation of the team’s remaining starting offensive lineman and younger lineman.
Senior Hunter Stellato returns at kicker an Hall also serves as the team’s punter.