By ALLEN SEYBERT
Look at a Warren football roster from 2011 and then pick one up from the ongoing 2012 campaign.
Times Observer photo by Allen Seybert
Airing it out
Warren quarterback Austin Jerman throws a deep ball to an open teammate during a Dragons football practice held Wednesday at War Memorial Field. The Dragons play Conneaut at 7 p.m. Friday at Corry Area High School in the District 10 Class AAA playoff quarterfinals.
Many of the names remain the same.
One thing that's changed is the record.
The 2011 Dragons struggled through a 2-8 season while this year's edition of the same team stands at 8-2 heading into Friday's District 10 Class AAA quarterfinal playoff game with the Conneaut Eagles (6-4). The game will be held at 7 p.m. at Corry Area High School.
Despite the level of success attained in 2012, Warren head football coach Brad Wright and the Dragons still feel as if they have something to prove - especially in the postseason.
"In terms of competing in the postseason, I still think we have things to prove," said Wright. "I have been part of two playoff games in my seven years at Warren. Both were lopsided affairs that we were on the wrong end of. Success this Friday would be a big step in the process of program building."
After narrowly missing out on a Region 5 title, winning a playoff game has become of the utmost importance to Dragons players such as senior quarterback Austin Jerman. Warren has not won a playoff game since an 18-9 victory over Grove City on November 2, 2002.
"It's been 10 years since a Warren team won in the playoffs," said Jerman. "We made that, and winning a region title, our goals at the beginning of the season. After falling short of the region title, we are putting more emphasis on bringing a playoff win to Warren."
The fact that Warren is even in a position to prove itself in the playoffs seemed improbable at the end of 2011. With many of the same players returning, an 8-2 record may have seemed unlikely. Instead, the Dragons stormed out of the gate, opening 5-0 and averaging over 53 points per game in those victories. The team's only losses in 2012 were to Region 5 champion Slippery Rock and one-loss DuBois out of District 9.
Jerman says the path to change started when 2011 came to a close.
"It started in the offseason," he said. "A lot of guys made a commitment to putting the work in in the weight room and that work ethic has carried over onto the field."
"This group of seniors and the program in general has grown tremendously since this past November," said Wright. "Prior to last season, offseason attendance was very low. I implored these seniors to change everything about how they prepared themselves for their junior season, knowing if they could work together in the offseason, the rest of the underclassmen would follow. What ended up happening was that we went from a 2-8 football team to an 8-2 team."
Wright added that it was important for the team to go through the training together rather than making it an individualized concept.
"Prior to this year, we had far too many players training on their own," he said. "It is so vitally important in a team sport that team members see each other grind out a challenging offseason through sweat and hard work. This is the key to building a team that trusts and cares about each other."
That commitment to one another has translated into wins on the football field. That has made the current crop of seniors extremely special to Wright. The coach thinks a victory over Conneaut on Friday would help cement the legacy of the group.
"This is a special group of seniors for many reasons," he said. "Beyond the fact that they (have) an amazing combination of strength, size, athleticism and speed, they are truly great people. Success in this week's playoff game would certainly cement their legacy as one of the best senior classes in recent memory at (Warren).
"Regardless of the outcome of Friday's contest, you can never take away what they have accomplished for this program from last season to this season. They have made Warren football relevant again."
Not only relevant - but purely dominant at times. Warren's offense has put up staggering numbers during this season, scoring 83, 64, 60, 49, 47 and 42 points in different victories this season. The reasons for that improvement are many, but a majority of the coaches and players point to the improved play of the offensive and defensive lines.
"One thing we've been able to do this season is run the ball effectively and that's a big credit to the guys up front," said Jerman. "Being able to establish and rely on a run game early in games has helped us have success in every phase of the offense."
Senior center Mark Cecco is one of the members of that improved Warren front along with Mark Manderfeld, Jacob Sutliff, Geoff Stewart, Eddie Ord and others.
"It all comes down to our offseason work," said Cecco. "We've been playing together since third grade and I think we've finally come together as a group and are showing what we can do."
Warren's offensive numbers are eyepopping.
Jerman leads the ground game with 776 yards and eight touchdowns, but a trio of teammates have also rushed for at least 340 yards (Matt Falvo- 486 yards, 7 TD; Luke Wortman- 440 yards, 4 TD; Chris McNeal- 340 yards, 8 TD). A season ago, McNeal's 155 yards were a team-high.
Jerman - Warren's all-time leading passer - needs just 32 yards to become the first Dragon to reach the 4,000 career passing yards mark. This season, he is 121 of 195 for 1,709 yards with 24 touchdowns and just seven picks. He is rated second in all of District 10 behind only Cathedral Prep's Damien Terry - a Division I prospect.
Jerman's favorite targets include Davis (34 catches for 480 yards, 8 TD), Jordan Willetts (34 for 454, 10 TD), Wortman (24 for 379, 3 TD) and Cody McGraw (14 for 186, 2 TD).
Warren opens the playoffs with the Conneaut Eagles - a relative unknown in the Class AAA playoffs. The new school - a combination of former Class A schools Linesville, Conneaut Valley and Conneaut Lake - spent the season competing in Class A Region 1. The consolidation of the schools came after region assignments were designated.
Still, Wright considers them a quality opponent for the playoff opener.
"Conneaut is a quality football team," said Wright. "They have been on a role of late, winning five of their last six games. The key to beating them this week will be to handle their extensive blitz packages and protect (Jerman). On defense, we need to play disciplined football and execute our assignments against a quality option based running attack."
The Eagles' first season in Class AAA has had its share of ups and downs. The team opened with a win over Class AA Girard, but has losses to Class A schools in West Middlesex, Lakeview and Sharpsville. It's only game against a Class AAA school was a 26-20 victory over Meadville last week. Warren beat Meadville, 49-28, earlier this season.
Elijah Anderton is Conneaut's biggest threat at tailback with 1,050 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns this season. Teammate and quarterback Jon Onderko has 644 yards and 11 touchdowns and Hunter Merritt added 572 yards and eight touchdowns.
Through the air, Onderko was 40 of 92 for 412 yards with six touchdowns and 10 picks and wideout Tyler Bartlett collected 18 catches for 175 yards and five scores.
Wright knows the challenge will be stiff, but thinks his team has grown enough to erase the sour taste of the team's last playoff venture - a 41-21 loss to Oil City in 2010.
"This group has grown up a lot since their sophomore season," he said. "Back then, they were involved in completely different roles and mostly helping on special teams. Now, they are front and center to our success on a weekly basis. I think one thing they have learned the most was beginning to trust each other, their coaches and this system.
"Our expectations haven't changed here at Warren. We always set out to be a competitive football program who expects to improve on a weekly basis and produce people who are ready for success beyond high school. I guess the one thing that has changed is the way we have gone about doing it."
NOTE: Parents and fans of the Warren Area High School football team will be holding a "send off" for the team at 3:30 p.m. Friday in the WAHS parking lot. The team will be departing for Corry Area High School and its playoff game with Conneaut at 4 p.m. The public is welcome to attend.