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Fitch seniors look to pen their own chapter

Correspondent photo / Robert Hayes Austintown Fitch senior quarterback Deshawn Vaughn Jr. rolls out of the pocket and gets set to throw to a teammate during a 7-on-7 passing scrimmage at Austintown Fitch High School against Western Beaver (Pa.).

AUSTINTOWN — Always loaded with talent, Austintown Fitch possesses the star power to earn some wins at the Division II level.

Trading in their navy lids, the 2023 Falcons are donning new white helmet shells that evoke the teams of yesteryear.

After returning a slew of players that have committed to Division I colleges or have received offers, Fitch coach TJ Parker feels good heading into the fall. He sees his players’ eagerness to play real games after a summer of camps, offseason workouts, and 7-on-7 scrimmages.

For Parker, seeing the current group of upperclassmen arrive for their final high school football season is surreal. He remembers the senior class when they were just freshmen during his first season as the head coach in 2020. That same group was called upon early during their careers following a slew of injuries back in 2021.

It’s now time for the senior class to pen its own chapter in Fitch’s history.

“Throughout, the sophomore class that’s now seniors, they’ve been the plugs. They’ve been the guys who played for us when another group were seniors. They’ve been the fill-in guys, now they’re the guys who are counted on,” Parker said. “The truth is we’re playing some young guys too, and they’re looking at those young guys and saying ‘I was right where you are. I know the struggles you’re going through’ and they’re carrying them along.

“I think the camaraderie, the team feels, it’s there because these seniors have really went through every aspect. Some of them played young, some of them this is their first time actually getting some good limelight. So they’re coaching these younger kids along in terms of what it means to be in our program.”

The Falcons open up their season at Euclid, a team that routed Fitch the last time the two met in the 2018 postseason.

“Some of our kids were in the seats watching that game, that was before our time, but (Euclid) scored three touchdowns in the first four or five minutes of the game, so that’s their thought of Euclid.” Parker said.

The Falcons will also take on Massillon, along with local bouts against Ursuline, Boardman and Harding. Among matchups with St. Ignatius, GlenOak and Stow-Munroe Falls is an interesting week two matchup at home against Central Valley (Pa.), from the WPIAL AAAA that’s posted a blazing record of 38-2 over the past three campaigns, with multiple state titles.

An open slot during week seven will provide Austintown the opportunity to catch its breath, but the Falcons are open to the idea of playing if an opportunity presents itself.

“It’s a never-ending battle. We’re just in a really tough spot. We’re in a town that doesn’t have very many big teams, and then we’re not in a league, so your options tend to run out when you’re trying to find like teams,” Parker said

“What I will say is I’m not excited about a bye week, as much film and opportunities as I can give these kids to make memories on the football field, that’s something I want to do,” Parker said. “But having the bye week gives you a little bit of a chance to unplug from the actual pressure of the actual weekly game. There’s things we want to do that week with our cheerleaders and our school. We also have plans to do stuff with our youth programs, so it’s a good opportunity to allow the kids to grow during that week, while also prepping for our next game.”

Correspondent photo / Robert Hayes
Austintown Fitch head football coach TJ Parker gives direction to his players during a 7-on-7 passing scrimmage at Austintown Fitch High School against Western Beaver (Pa.). Parker enters his fourth season as the head coach of Austintown Fitch.

OFFENSE

With a full season under center behind him, senior Deshawn Vaughn Jr., who threw for 1,431 yards, rushed for 412 and scored 25 total touchdowns last season, is looking to take full advantage of an offense chalked full of skill.

“I think last year it was do exactly as coach says inside the offense, you look at him this year, he’s a coach on the field,” Parker said. “He knows where people are supposed to be, he knows what he wants inside the offense. He knows all 10 guys that are around him and how it should go. When we’re in certain positions, he knows the calls we’re possibility going to make, or he’d like to make.

“What I’m most impressed with him and the team, it’s not what we’d call ‘dude ball.’ He’s going through his progressions and going through his reads and making the right plays consistently. When he does it, he knows it.”

Sophomore Davanzo Tate III will act as his backup.

Senior DJ Williams, a Ball State commit, has seen plenty of action during his varsity career, earning 1,164 yards on the ground with 12 touchdowns in 2022. He emerged following a preseason injury to now graduated Jamell James in 2021, but now it will be Williams who steps into the spotlight.

“DJ knows the bulk of the load is on him. We’ve talked about practice habits and all that, you see a change in him. He’s ready to handle the rock consistently, and he wants the rock. That’s exciting for us when you have a kid like that,” Parker said. “We’re going to be smart with him, but at the same time, it’s Fitch football. We’re going to try and run the ball to the best of our ability, and he’s a great guy to have leading that.”

Also receiving carries will be the platoon of senior Devin Phillips and juniors Joey Janis, who also wrestles, and Robert Maderitz.

Senior Dan Evans III hauled in a team-high 41 passes for 503 yards and six touchdowns a year ago. He’ll play a factor in the run game, and the former Division I state track finalist has potential to be a gamebreaker in all facets of the offense.

“You can go with DJ inside, then you really have to pack the box, when you turn around and look on the perimeter and get it to Dan Evans right now, he can take the ball from the line of scrimmage to the end zone with big play ability. It’s a luxury we’re blessed with and thankful to have,” said Parker. “Make no mistake about it, it’s the kids. They’ve worked, they understand what it takes, it’s on them.”

Dom Perry, who caught 12 passes for 396 yards and seven touchdowns last season, and sophomore Allen Hill add additional big play ability. Treavion Davis and Brady Evans are younger faces that will make an immediate impact.

Moving over from defense, Pitt-commit Davion Pritchard and Deonte Stallings will be plugged in from time to time on the outside.

“Now it’s time for Dom to become comfortable and just become a consistent playmaker for us,” Parker said. “He was a our deep threat last year. We’re going to need the kid to move the chains consistently.”

The Falcons will return three starters on the offensive line in the form of senior center Mark Stankorb, senior guard Ryan Armes and junior guard Trenton Ciccarelli.

Sophomore Booker Newberry, senior Trevor Dragon, senior Dasean Johnson, sophomore Deandre Reed and junior Lucas Jones all appear as favorites for reps early on. The inside line has the veteran experience, while the outside is a little greener.

“They’re coming along; everything starts up front,” Parker said. “It’s taking time for them to gel as a unit and luckily we have some guys that can make a mistake. We could be in trouble, then the very next play, one can pop all the way. So that takes a lot of pressure off them and gives them time to grow.”

Correspondent photo / Robert Hayes
Austintown Fitch senior running back DJ Williams works his way past a teammate during a practice earlier this month.

DEFENSE

Senior Xavier Dahn, a Ball State commit, will become a major two-way player for the Falcons, earning 47 tackles, seven for a loss, and 4.5 sacks on defense last fall. Senior Donavan Bell-Sullivan returns at tight end, but also finds himself back at defensive end.

Sophomore Demar Rodgers will help fill out some of the starting positions, along with Stankorb.

Juniors Cam’ren Natali and Brady McNally along with sophomore Jojo Lumsden round out the defensive line.

“We finally have some depth. We need to keep growing, keep getting guys better, but we think we have some depth and some guys that we can get in there to cause problems.” Parker said. “Xavier has worked his butt off in the offseason and took it very serious, but it’s a maturity thing for him, and he’s matured, and he’s focused.

“Laser focused, locked in and he doesn’t want to come off the field. Last year it was all about defense, and now he wants to impact the team anyway he can this year. When you have people like that on the field, and people like that leading your defense, it’s exciting.”

Senior Kylen Foster, who made 46 tackles and recorded four sacks last season, and Phillips (22 tackles) are leaders at the inside linebacker position. Junior Rocco DiFlorio will add to the mix too.

Senior Sergio Marinelli and sophomore Alex Hill anchor down the outside linebacker position.

The secondary has been a strong suit for the Falcons as they have athletes all over. Evans III and Pritchard lead the group while Clarence Croom and Tate will look to earn reps.

Vaughn (21 tackles, three interceptions) will plug in at safety as needed with sophomore Junie Higgs, Perry and Stallings.

Pritchard is someone to keep a close eye on during his senior season before he heads off for the ACC.

“Davion has always been someone in the moment. The lights were never too bright, he was never enamored by that as the whole process went,” Parker said.

“He’s always been a great teammate, a great kid who really enjoys showing up, being with the team, practicing with the team, and being with his friends.”

SPECIAL TEAMS

It’s always difficult to replace a four-year starting kicker and all-time points leader, but junior Anthony Ruggles will now take over kicking duties after handling punts last season. Hunter Smart becomes the Falcons long-snapper.

Of course, there’s plenty of options for kick returns on special teams, especially on kickoff.

“Punt is a lot different than kickoff, but (Evans III) has done it for years, so he’ll be the leader back there, but we have Higgs that can help him out if need,” Parker said.

2023 Schedule

Aug. 18 at Euclid

Aug. 25 vs. Central Valley (Pa.)

Sept. 1 at GlenOak

Sept. 8 vs. St. Ignatius

Sept. 15 vs. Stow-Munroe Falls

Sept. 22 vs. Ursuline

Oct. 6 vs. Mass. Washington

Oct. 13 at Boardman

Oct. 20 at Harding

2022 Results (10-2)

Foothill (Nev.) (3-7) W 42-10

Canton McKinley (6-6) W 38-14

GlenOak (4-7) W 48-18

at Ursuline (10-3) W 42-34

Bennett (NY) (2-6) W 42-20

at Massillon Washington (12-2) L 28-49

at Strongsville (3-8) W 35-3

at Wadsworth (7-5) W 42-35

Boardman (4-6) W 42-20

Warren G. Harding (2-8) W 59-28

#Mayfield (6-5) W 56-34

#St. Vincent-St. Mary (8-4) L 14-21

#-OHSAA playoff game

Coaching staff

Head coach: TJ Parker, 4th season, 24-7 overall

Staff: Jeff Bruno, Cory Lanterman, Dylan Hogue, Davanzo Tate, Bob Korenic, Steve Zielinski, Mark D’Eramo, Mike Polder, Seth Steiner, John Galbraith, CJ Martini, John Fitzgerald, Nate Armstrong III, Eddie Diflorio.

Team facts

Divison II, Region 5

Independent

Players on roster: 60

Returning letterwinners (18): Davion Pritchard, Dan Evans III, Donavan Bell-Sullivan, Devin Phillips, Deshawn Vaughn Jr., Kylen Foster, Dominic Perry, Sergio Marinelli, Demar Rodgers, DJ Williams, Cam’ren Natali, Rocco DiFlorio, Anthony Ruggles, Xavier Dahn, Mark Stankorb, Booker Newberry, Ryan Armes, Trenton Ciccarelli.

2022 season: The Falcons started off the year with five straight wins before dropping their only loss of the regular season in a 49-28 decision against Massillon Washington. They won their next five before falling to St. Vincent-St. Mary in the second round of the OHSAA playoffs.

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