Columbiana Clippers look to rebound from injury-riddled year
COLUMBIANA — The Columbiana Clippers’ sideline featured more crutches, body casts, and medical boots than helmets and shoulder pads by the midway point of the 2022 season.
At one point, head coach Bob Spaite had open tryouts for anyone who could play quarterback after his depth chart at the position was empty.
“It was a disaster,” Spaite said regarding the quarterback position. “That one Saturday we put everyone’s name up on the board that can catch a snap. Everyone who can remotely throw a football. We came up with three or four kids that we had a package for each of them. It was just crazy.”
But once they saw their MASH unit return to the field, the Clippers saw their true potential. They knocked off rival East Palestine 46-14 in week eight, providing Spaite with his 200th career victory, and followed it up with a 41-0 win over Leetonia, and a 27-6 victory over playoff-bound Lisbon. The streak of wins gave the Clippers momentum heading into the offseason.
“That is what we hoped. That was the reason why we withdrew from the playoffs,” Spaite said. “I was questioned about that. At 0-7, we didn’t deserve to be in the playoffs no matter what happened. I knew that maybe, just maybe we could win the last three, and feeling pretty good about ourselves, and then play Kirtland. That would make no sense.”
Senior Kian Hartley knew very well how frustrating it was. He was one of those starters that missed a few games due to an injury.
“I was one of those injuries, and it was difficult watching from the sidelines,” he said. “But after all the injuries, and going through that, it was sweet to get coach Spaite his 200th. We all love coach Spaite.”
The benefit of having all those injuries last year is that the Clippers will have a large number of seniors and juniors returning with playing experience. They will return all but one starter on the line, plus most of their running backs.
“It is a really big tone-setter for the offensive line with three starting seniors, so I think the three of us will need to lead,” offensive tackle Bryce Ebben said. “The games are won in the trenches, so we will be a big part of the offense this year.”
The Clippers are also counting on being strong up the middle on defense with Ebben at defensive tackle/nose guard and Hartley attacking from his linebacker spot.
“We have so much experience there in our front seven, so I don’t think opponents will be able to run up the middle on us,” Ebben said.
The Clippers will once again be at the mercy of staying healthy to be successful in the 2023 season. With 39 players on the roster and only a few sophomores, the starters are well-experienced, but any players lost will mean underclassmen being pushed into service.
“Right now, we feel comfortable with maybe 14 or 15 kids in a varsity game. We need to condition enough that our guys can be ironmen and bring the other guys along,” Spaite said. “But at the same time, we have to be careful to not overdo it to the point where they have no legs and that kind of thing. We talk about it as a coaching staff all the time.”
With four of their five linemen returning, the Clippers’ strength on offense will be their ability to run the football. They also return their fullbacks and the team has increased its strength in the weight room during the offseason. With the graduation of Joe Guido as a quarterback, the Clippers are searching for a signal-caller to take the reins.
The three quarterbacks currently battling for the starting spot include senior Parker Bush, junior Liam Surgenavic, and talented freshman Hayes McCoy.
All three are intelligent and talented, but Spaite may use Surgenavic as a receiver due to his size, and he also hesitates to throw a freshman into varsity games.
The Clippers will use a committee of running backs with Hartley at the fullback and H-back position, junior Spencer Pruitt at tailback, junior Gavin Guy at fullback, and Surgenavic also at tailback. Providing depth in the backfield will be freshman Jensen Nordquist at halfback, and sophomore Lucas Barber at tailback/halfback. Junior Craig Witherow will start at the tight end/H-back position.
Junior Dylan Bregar highlights the receiving corps for the Clippers while junior Coleman Bacon will also start and can play halfback. Surgenavic may also play receiver if not under center. Talented freshman Senator Johnson may also get some reps on the outside to provide depth.
The heart of the offense will be up front with junior Bransen Graham and Ebben at the starting tackle positions. Junior Mike Dunn will be at center with junior Max Conway at guard. Junior Jason Martin and sophomore Aiden Bowyer may battle for one of the starting spots at either tackle or guard. Providing the line with some depth will be junior Noah Benner and freshmen Will Croate and Brayden Clancy.
Much like the offense, the interior of the defensive unit will be Columbiana’s strength with veteran players on the line and at the inside linebacker positions. Spaite also points out that they have increased their strength in the weight room and have a better knowledge of the system entering this season.
Graham, Martin, and Ebben look to anchor the defensive line with Guy moving from linebacker to the noseguard spot this season on defense. The other offensive linemen will be in the rotation up front on defense too as Dunn and Brenner will look to provide a little depth.
The senior duo of Hartley and Cameron Clancy will start at the inside linebacker positions as three-year starters. Hartley and Clancy have finished as the top two tackles for Columbiana the past two years.
On the outside, Conway and Witherow look to be the starters with freshmen Devin Brode and Jenson Norquest getting some looks as backup performers.
In the secondary, the Clippers have Bacon at one cornerback spot, and Bush is looking to start on the other side. Junior Spencer Pruitt and Surgenavic will be the two starting safeties. While junior Caleb Pursley, McCoy and Johnson will provide some depth.
Sophomore Aiden Radcliffe, also on the Clippers soccer team, will handle both kicking and punting again after serving the same duties last year as a freshman.
Spaite points out that Radcliffe is an outstanding athlete that may also serve as a kickoff returner.
Pruitt and Witherow will be emergency punters if needed.
In addition to Radcliffe returning kicks, Surgenavic and Bacon, both state track performers, will be return specialists.
Pruitt and McCoy will also see some action as punt/kickoff returners.
Aug. 18 vs. Lowellville 7 p.m.
Aug. 25 at McDonald 7 p.m.
Sept. 1 at Western Reserve 7 p.m.
Sept. 8 vs. United* 7 p.m.
Sept. 15 at Lisbon* 7 p.m.
Sept. 22 vs. Leetonia* 7 p.m.
Sept. 29 vs. Southern* 7 p.m.
Oct. 6 at East Palestine* 7 p.m.
Oct. 13 vs. Wellsville* 7 p.m.
Oct. 20 vs. Valley Christian* 7 p.m.
2022 Results (3-7)
At Lowellville L 14-55
McDonald (3-7) L13-14
Conneaut (8-3) L 14-38
At Wellsville (4-6) L 7-14
At Southern (11-2) L 14-51
At United (9-3) L 7-47
Valley Christian (10-1) L 10-40
East Palestine (1-8) W 46-14
At Leetonia (0-10) W 41-0
Lisbon (5-6) W 27-6
Head coach: Bob Spaite, 30th season, 189-115; 202-148-4 overall
Assistants: Ryan Holmes (Defensive Coordinator), Kris Reash (Offensive Coordinator), Evan Schneider, Austin Saverko, Alex Ferfeloia, Tim Reash
Division VI, Region 21
Eastern Ohio Athletic Conference
Players on the roster: 37
Returning letterwinners (15): Parker Bush, Kian Hartley, Cameron Clancey, Coleman Bacon, Liam Surgenavic, Craig Witherow, Dylan Bregar, Spencer Pruitt, Gavin Guy, Mike Dunn, Branson Graham, Bryce Ebben, Noah Benner, Max Conway, Aidan Bowyer
2022 season: Following a disappointing one-point loss to McDonald last year, the Clippers were hit with a rash of injuries over the next few weeks, including all three quarterbacks on the roster. But with several starters returning by week eight, the Clippers beat rival East Palestine 46-14 to provide coach Bob Spaite his 200th coaching victory. They proceeded to win their final three games of the season.