During the 2000 football season, the West Middlesex Big Reds became familiar with the role of top dog, riding through most of the campaign atop the Mercer County Athletic Conference Class A standings.
But, instead, a dog-fight finish between division rivals Kennedy Christian and Sharpsville became one of the highlights of the season as the Big Reds experienced a tumultuous end to the season, falling to both the Blue Devils and the Golden Eagles in successive weeks, leaving Middlesex on the outside looking in and missing the playoffs after one of the best seasons in school history.
After starting the season a perfect 7-0, the Big Reds ended the season with an impressive yet disappointing 8-2 mark. But with the past in the past, head coach Rick Resatar's team is looking to forget the two costly blemishes in the season's final weeks and ride the momentum of its great season.
copyright © 2001 The Sharon Herald Co. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction forbidden without permission "Hopefully we're just going to pick up where we left off," Resatar said. "I have pretty high expectations and the kids do, too. I can see us repeating the same thing that we did last year, if not even better than that."
Although the Big Reds bid farewell to 1,000-yard rusher Chad Fette after last season, the 2001 team returns its starting quarterback in junior Jake Buzard. Fette rung up 1,284 yards on the ground and 18 touchdowns, fifth best in the Herald coverage area.
But Buzard became just as valuable a tool on offense, ranking fourth in the region among passers by completing 88 of 146 passes for 1,146 yards for 9 touchdowns in 10 games.
"The skill-people are going to be really good," Resatar said. "We lost Chad last year, which was a big loss, but everybody else is back."
Resatar said he feels Buzard is close to being at one with the Middlesex offense.
"In our second scrimmage (Allegheny-Clarion Valley), Jake made some great decisions on some options, cut some things back and made some big gains," Resatar said. "I know he can do it. We try to do what the other team is going to let us do."
Resatar said Buzard will be calling plays out of the audible much more this season, mainly because of his aptitude for the game.
Giving a huge boost to the passing attack is the return of senior wide receivers Jeremy Baker and Rob Long, who gave opposing teams fits in 2000, ranking, respectively, as the third- and fourth-best pass catchers in the area.
Baker made 34 receptions for 390 yards (11.5 ypg.) and 7 TDs, while Long hauled in 29 passes for 384 yards (13.2 ypg.).
Other receivers vying for playing time include seniors Jon Schwartz and John Lark, and sophomores Giani Ruffo, Nick Bender, Brandon McNamara, Chris Fisher and David Bable.
Baker may also fill in some of the void left by the graduation of Fette. He carried the ball as a second back in almost every Big Reds' game in 2000.
But junior Dan Mihalcak, who also earned some playing time last season, has emerged as the most likely featured back.
copyright © 2001 The Sharon Herald Co. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction forbidden without permission "He has a lot of the same style that Chad had, he likes to cut back a lot, and he's pretty elusive. He has great vision, and his decisions are getting better every day in practice."
Ruffo, a 2-way starter as a freshman, also will compete for some carries. Other backs looking for possible carries are junior Joe Habarka, Jeremy Baker and surprise first-year senior Nate Luce, a baseball and basketball standout at West Middlesex.
"(Luce) has been outstanding in the scrimmages," Resatar said. "He already scored a touchdown for us on a toss. We've thrown about four or five balls to him and he's caught them all, and he's our punter. And he's a first-year player."
West Middlesex's offensive and defensive lines lost two key starters to graduation in Ben Buzard and Rob Multari, but the Big Reds still bring back a wealth of experienced 2-way linemen in seniors Travis Boitnott, Josh Potanko, Doug Edney and Albert Skiles, along with juniors Bob Krusey, Trevor Robinson and Mark Argenziano. Resatar said he is impressed so far with the play of his linemen.
"I believe this will be the best offensive line we've had since I've been here," he said. "These kids really are pretty good football players," though he admitted that numbers will be a concern all year for the Big Reds.
"It will depend on how much they have to play on both sides of the ball, the conditioning and the wear and tear of every Friday night."
Because of their shortage in depth, Resatar said the scheme of his practices has changed from hitting to running. In fact, he said that his practices have generally been limited to about 10 contact drills per day per player, "so they don't forget how to hit."
Sophomore linemen back from last year's roster include Josh Fette, Mike Chiodo and Kevin Gault. The linebacker corps will be bolstered by returnees Habarka, Baker and Bauer.
In the secondary, the Big Reds again boast good speed and experience, led by defensive backs Buzard, Schwartz, Ruffo, Long, Lark, Mihalcak, McNamara, Bender and Fisher.
"The key is staying healthy," Resatar said. "We've got 30 kids on this team right now. Key injuries will really hurt us. Being a Class A school, we just don't have the numbers."
Resatar noted the strengths of both Sharpsville and Kennedy again this year in Class A. But before West Middlesex thinks about its two biggest opponents, Resatar wants his team to think about its first opponent, Neshannock.
"If we can out there and get off to a great start against them, I think we'll be very successful and hopefully in the same position we were last year going into the Sharpsville game. We're capable of being in that position."
Perhaps the biggest motivator all season will be the back-to-back shutouts that, in effect, ended the season for West Middlesex in 2000 after the Big Reds coasted past almost every other opponent, except Cambridge Springs, en route to a 7-0 record. Resatar said he hopes to a see a change in the way his team plays comeback in the coming season.
"That's always been the thing with this team," he said. "If we get up on somebody early, we've always been able to roll. But if we get down early, it seems like we struggle."
Resatar will be assisted by Brian Hoffman, Ron Fox, Matt Nelson and D.J. Lawrence.