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Lowellville off to fast start behind offense

LOWELLVILLE — It didn’t take long for the Lowellville Rockets to hit the ground running this season.

Through three games, the Rockets are averaging 51.3 points per game and recorded wins over Columbiana (55-14), Campbell (50-41), and most recently South Central (49-15). With returning starters at almost every skill position offensively, the Rockets were bound to get off to a hot start. They were strong offensively last year, averaging 31.8 points per game.

Led by quarterback Vinny Ballone, the Rockets scored a season-high 56 points during their regular season finale win over Mineral Ridge.

So, after last season’s performance, and with the plethora of returning talent, head coach Andrew Mamula hasn’t been too surprised by the offensive numbers the Rockets have been putting up.

“We expected (the offense) to be our strength,” Mamula said. “We have a quarterback (Ballone) that’s a four-year starter, this is his third year in our system, and he finally took that leap. We thought he’d take a leap from his sophomore to his junior season. We didn’t think his decision-making was where we wanted it to be, but this year it is.”

So far through the 2022 season, Ballone has passed for 832 yards and 16 touchdowns, while also rushing for a team-high 184 yards and two touchdowns. But, as Mamula alluded to, one thing that has stood out the most about Ballone’s early season success is his efficiency.

In 61 pass attempts, Ballone has completed 72 percent of his passes and has averaged 18.9 yards per completion.

The 6-foot-5 signal-caller also hasn’t thrown an interception this season.

“He’s making quick decisions, he’s throwing the ball away, he’s making quick reads,” Mamula said. “We kind of expected that last year, but this year, I mean, he hasn’t made a bad read in three games.”

Ballone hasn’t been doing it all by himself though. Five of his receivers have already tallied at least 100 receiving yards this season. Senior wideout Brady Bunofsky, who caught 65 passes for 1,005 yards and 13 touchdowns last season, is already up to 321 yards and three touchdowns this season on just 13 receptions. The star receiver is also averaging 24.7 yards per catch.

Alongside Bunofsky, Michael Ballone, Matt Lucido, Anthony Lucente and Braylen Dabney have all played crucial roles. Dabney and Lucente are tied for the team lead in touchdown receptions with Bunofsky and Michael Ballone has tallied 136 receiving yards on just eight catches.

“There’s a lot of weapons,” Mamula said.

The biggest thing with the Rockets has been having defenses pick their poison. Last year, team’s focused on shutting Bunofsky down with double teams, but this year Vinny Ballone has been able to spread the ball around to the rest of his receivers.

Michael Ballone and Dabney have been consistent deep threats and then as a 6-foot-2, 248-pound tight end, Lucente has provided Vinny Ballone with a constant mismatch in a variety of positions.

“We’ll live with whatever you’re going to give us,” Mamula said. “Vinny’s making the right decisions where he’s not trying to force it to Brady, or anybody else. He’s going to do what the scheme allows, and it’s been well executed so far.”

It’s not just the passing game though either. The Rockets have developed a solid running game to try and keep teams off balance, and so far they’ve racked up 486 total yards, and two running backs are averaging over 8 yards per carry. Vinny Ballone leads the team at 11.5 yards per carry as the Rockets opened the season against Columbiana by rushing for 275 yards as a team.

Santino Rivera-Ocasio has rushed for 144 yards so far while Marcus Dubos has tallied 98 on 17 carries and Gino Perry has tallied 48 yards on five carries.

“It’s opened up a lot for us,” Mamula said. “It gives Vinny more time because you can’t just rush up field. Our first year, it was just go get the quarterback, you don’t have to sit for the run. But if you do that, you’re going to create running lanes with our counter scheme, with our zone scheme. So it’s just opened up some running lanes and has taken the pass rush down a little bit.”

Continuity helps, too. Since the Rockets returned most of their starters at the skill positions, they could skip a few steps this offseason while preparing for the upcoming year.

With the shorter offseason, Mamula believes that has helped them early on this year.

“They keep moving the season up, so there are fewer doubles, but I think the teams that have been around, that have been together, early in the season they have that advantage,” Mamula said. “We have the advantage because we’ve basically been doing this for three years with the same group. We lost one skill guy last year and that was it. So when we started in July, we didn’t have to put in our basic stuff because it was already put in with all of them. So we kind of just went right to our advanced stuff.”

With nonconference play out of the way, the Rockets have a big test ahead of them tonight as they get set to face off with the Springfield Tigers, who have run the Mahoning Valley Athletic Conference for quite some time.

A season ago, the Tigers handed Lowellville one of its three losses in a 54-6 blowout victory. Now, the Rockets are looking to make a name for themselves atop the conference this year.

“I mean, our kids do, and I think, in actuality, everyone in our league does,” Mamula said about looking forward to the Springfield game. “They’ve been a top-tier program, and not just good in the area, but good in the state, and it’s rare that you have teams like that with that longevity. So, everyone in our league wants to beat them and we get the first shot.”

The two teams kick off tonight at 7 p.m. at Springfield High School.

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