Phil Annarella figures he knows a thing or two about Mercer County Athletic Conference football. And after three years navigating the Hickory Hornets football team through the conference, he knows that a strong quarterback and experienced lines are a pretty good diagram for success.
That's what Annarella is seeing so far as he looks upon this year's edition of the Hornets. With senior quarterback Ross Trimmer as the centerpiece, protected by an experienced offensive line, that will serve as the overriding theme as Hickory comes off a successful second half of the 2000 season to serve as the motivator. The Hornets, who started the season at a dismal 1-2, did more than just salvage the season, but instead did a 180-degree turn and ran away with a 6-4 record.
Trimmer returns to the helm for his second full season under center, and Annarella said he is putting his faith in his quarterback's arm.
"Trimmer is the man," Annarella said. "He's started for us for four years. He's a real competitor, and he's always going to push himself harder on his own than any coaches could push him," Annarella said.
Trimmer landed a starting role in his freshman season at defensive back where his speed and athleticism kept him on the field for every game. As a sophomore, Trimmer shared quarterback duties with Derek Perkins before becoming a full-time starting QB his junior year.
Junior passer Chad Fitzgerald also has enjoyed a strong camp, according to Annarella, and will back up Trimmer.
"I don't think it changes any given year, there are no givens," Annarella said. "As always, there are none on the schedule that we can look past. We have to bar injuries, like anyone else. And also see whether these sophomores are going to grow up quickly, or if they're going to play like sophomores. That's always hard to tell. We turned the corner last year and had a winning season, and right now we're trying to build on that."
As is normally the case, the Hornets' offense will funnel through the running game, and for the moment, Annarella is not singling out any one back to carry the load.
"The backfield is up in the air right now, Annarella said. "We're probably a little unique in that respect, we have a lot of experience and also a lot of young guys."
Seniors A.J. Staul and Rico Cruz, who only saw limited time at fullback last year before moving to tailback this year, are the two most likely to earn most of the carries. At fullback will be Josh Covert, who according to Annarella, spent some time there last year and has come back even stronger in camp this year.
Leading the pass-catchers will be team co-captain and senior Nate Banak. Beyond him, Annarella said he is waiting patiently to see who will emerge from a large group of seniors and underclassmen all vying for a starting role. Among them are seniors Mark Tarkanick, Bruce Graban, Marcus Papamarkos and Matt Kornbaugh, along with juniors E.J. McClaren and Preston Gibbs.
"We just aren't sure who will surface," Annarella said.
At tight end Brian Necastro, who saw a fair amount of playing time last year, will compete for downs with Mark DeArment, surprising sophomore John Braymer and senior David Drivere.
The offensive and defensive lines will certainly serve to anchor the 2001 Hornets. "Fortunately, that is one of the areas we have experience," Annarella said.
Senior tackle Adam Gassner and offensive guard Bobby Byerly, both 2-year lettermen, return to starting posts along with tackle Joe Ciccone, who was a defensive starter last season.
"We're planning on using (Ciccone) a good bit on offense," Annarella said. "He was a solid defensive starter for us all year last year."
Joining him is returning starters junior Ryan DeArment and senior center Micah Bender, who also lettered for the Hornets on the defensive side in 2000.
Annarella said little has changed in his offensive scheme from last year. The Hornets will use a multiple formation offensive set, lots of motion and, according to Annarella will try to "do a better job of passing the ball."
The defensive line, conversely, will have a similar look, with Gassner, Ciccone, Bender and DeArment all returning. At the ends are NeCastro and Cruz, along with sophomore Matt Gourley, junior Chris Clark and Braymer. At inside linebacker, the Hornets again are padded with experience in Covert and Byerly, but also blessed with young talent in sophomores Chris Harper and Dustin Kulka.
Trimmer's speed again will bolster the secondary, as the senior embarks on his fourth year as Hornets' starting safety. Joining him in marking receivers will be corners Banick, McClaren, Gibbs and Tarkanick. Adding depth at safety will be Papamarkos and Fitzgerald. Others competing for time at defensive back are Kornbau, Mark DeArment and sophomore Aaron Brest. Annarella also noted a new strength in his kicking regiment. In addition to All-MCAC punter Trimmer, the Hornets have a pair of able place-kickers. "We are blessed with two excellent kickers," Annarella said. Ben Woods, who lettered as freshman, and first-year junior soccer player Chad Ceremuga.