Sheffield senior Nick Bonavita has been here before.
As a freshman, looking for playing time on the Sheffield football team three years ago, Bonavita used his "low man" status to fuel his desire to improve. He had to claw his way to the top of the depth chart.
He hopes to put that same strategy to work this fall when he puts on the pads for Division III Juniata College.
Times Observer photo by Allen Seybert
Sheffield Area High School senior Nick Bonavita, front, signs his letter of intent to play college football at Division III Juniata College beginning this fall. Joining Bonavita while he signs his letter are, back row from left, Sheffield football coach Bryan Gould, Nick’s father and former coach John Bonavita, mother Cheryl Bonavita and Sheffield principal Amy Beers.
"I think me playing varsity ball as a freshman will be one of my biggest helps next season," said Bonavita. "I know what it's like to have a target on my chest and to be the low guy on the totem pole. It really helped push me in high school and I think it can do the same in college. I want to use it as motivation and just try to get better and better with each day. It's a big transition from the high school game to the college game, but I think I can handle it."
If his high school career is any indication, Bonavita is well suited for the job.
Recruited by Juniata as a strong safety, Bonavita was a force for the Wolverines during each of the past four seasons. In a trend that he hopes to see continue in college, Bonavita improved with each high school season that came and went.
"My senior season was just so special for me and the entire team," said Bonavita who helped lead the Wolverines to their first District 9 Class AA playoff appearance in school history. "Individually, I was an AML (Allegheny Mountain League) all-star at running back and a Big 30 all-star at linebacker."
According to the team's statistics, Bonavita rushed for a team-high 666 yards during his senior season with seven touchdowns, including a 99-yard touchdown run against Cameron County that will never be broken. He also caught 14 passes for 179 yards and two more touchdowns.
Defensively, Bonavita recorded 86 tackles - second most on the team behind classmate George Fitch's 105 - and recovered one fumble.
Bryan Gould was Bonavita's coach for each of the past five seasons, beginning in eighth-grade in the junior high program. Even more than all of the statistics, Gould didn't have to think long when questioned on what Nick would bring to the Eagles' program.
"Heart," said Gould. "He puts his whole heart into the game and gives you everything he's got whenever he's out on the football field. He can accomplish anything when he puts his mind to it. Before his senior season, he decided he wanted to be our running back. He put the work in and was our workhorse all season with nearly 700 yards and seven touchdowns. He can accomplish anything he wants to at Juniata. His possibilities are endless."
Even before his outstanding senior season got underway, Bonavita already had an idea where football would take him at the next level. In May of 2011, Bonavita attended a scouting combine at Clarion University where several scouts from local Division II and Division III schools were in attendance.
It was there he meant Tom Gibboney, the man who would become his recruiting coach from the college located in Huntingdon.
"Before the combine, I hadn't heard a word about Juniata," said Bonavita. "After meeting Tom, I started looking into it and found that it's also a great academic school. I dug a little further and found that Steve Norris - a family friend - had gone there and he had nothing but good things to say. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it just felt right."
Bonavita made it official by signing a letter of intent to play for the Eagles in the fall.
Before putting on the pads, Bonavita feels he has a leg up on the competition.
"There aren't any strong or free safetys on the Juniata roster," said Bonavita. "I look at that as motivation to put everything I've got into the game and hopefully get onto the field a little quicker than maybe I would've."
The well-spoken senior has come a long way in his four years at Sheffield. He's also quick to acknowledge that he didn't get here alone. Bonavita credits his mother, Cheryl, and father, John, for making him who he is today.
"My parents have always been the ones pushing me and making me strive to do better," said Bonavita. "I am who I am because of them."
John has a unique perspective into his son. Not only does he know Nick as his son, but also as one of Nick's coaches. John coached the Wolverines during Nick's freshman season - that all important year - and knew rather quickly that Nick had what it took to get to the next level.
"Nick was just one of those kids who could play," said John. "He was a lot of fun to watch and plays the game the way it's supposed to be played. He's got a great head on his shoulders. He knows why he's going to school. He actually came up to me during the recruitment process and told me that playing football was the bonus. He was equally, if not more, excited about the education he's going to get at the school.
"He can go a long way with his brains. I've got to be honest, it wouldn't surprise me to see a coaches' headset on that boy someday."
Maybe someday. For now, Bonavita is just excited to start the next chapter in his football life.
"I'm entering this new chapter in football with a short term memory," said Bonavita. "My time at the top of the mountain is over. I'm going to be playing 22 and 23 year-olds and it's a whole new ball game. It's a tough road ahead, but I think I have it in me to do well."