Kickoff 2018: Dragons open season hosting Fairview in revenge game

Warren senior quarterback Jake Kupchella and the Dragons take on Fairview tonight.

There’s no way to sugarcoat that the Warren Dragons thought they were much better than a 2-8 team a year ago.

Starting tonight, they have the opportunity to write a new script, and they are eager to do so.

“I think everyone (is excited,” said second-year coach Mark Morelli. “From what I understand the community is excited, the kids in school are excited, even though school hasn’t started yet. Of course our team is excited. I think that excitement is reflected in our practice this week.”

They welcome the Fairview Tigers to War Memorial Field tonight for a 7 p.m. kickoff. The Tigers were 3-6 a season ago and have a new coach (Nathan Liberty), and they are excited to write a new chapter themselves.

Here’s some things to watch when the two teams take the field tonight.

Ryan Arnold averaged 20.5 yards per reception for Warren last season.

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Getting Defensive

There’s no getting around the fact that the Dragons weren’t good on defense last year. They gave up an average of 42.2 points per game, a mark that put them toward the bottom of District 10.

There is reason for optimism, however, beginning with what is a very strong linebacking core of seniors Marvin Bryant and Aidan Morrison on the inside and sophomores James Swanson and Micah Passmore on the outside.

Morelli noted that the defense played well in last week’s scrimmage against Punxsy, but that the Fairview duo of quarterback Mason Bender and running back Chris Mohra present a stiffer challenge.

“There’s some promise there with our defense,” Morelli said. “Our outside linebackers are a little bit more athletic. I think we’re going to be a little bit more aggressive and physical. The other thing I’ve come away with through camp is that our kids understand our system a lot better this year.”

Justin Eck and Collin Salapek are anchors at defensive tackle, while Jamo Douvlos will be a fixture at end.

In the secondary, Devin McMeans returns from injury to bring a jolt of playmaking and athleticism to the back end, along with corners Ryan Arnold and Alex Anderson.

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Fairview’s 2-headed monster

Mohra is a workhorse at running back, carrying the ball 214 times for 1,184 yards and nine touchdowns a year ago, which included five 100-yard games. Bender, meanwhile, is more of a runner than a thrower, but is one of those quarterbacks that has the ability to extend a play when it seems like there’s nothing there.

Bender missed part of last season due to injury and is an excellent overall athlete, playing on the Erie Steelheads baseball team with Passmore this summer that dominated a large portion of it’s competition throughout the Mid-Atlantic.

“The kids understand what they’re going to be up against when it comes to Mason Bender and Chris Mohra,” Morelli said. “From that perspective, the kids realize that they’re going up against two of the better athletes in District 10. Their mindset is to keep them under control and in our peripheral vision and what they’re doing at all times. The X-factor is Bender and his ability to turn a broken play into a big play. That’s something that drives coaches up the wall.”

Fairview’s offensive line isn’t big, but they are a physical unit.

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A plethora of offensive weapons

Warren offensive coordinator Greg Miller has a lot to work with.

Jake Kupchella is one of the most talented quarterbacks in District 10. The 6’3″ senior, who has been courting the interest of college coaches, has taken on even more of a leadership roll this season, especially from a vocal standpoint.

“We’ve been pushing on Jake to be the leader, the engineer to make everything go,” Morelli said. “Jake wants to play college football and I emphasized to him that coaches are going to look for leaders and quarterback is a leadership position. This is your team and it’s going to go where you decide to lead it to. He’s picked up on that, he understands that. It’s an honor, all four of those kids (fellow captains Morrison, Eck and McMeans) getting voted to be a captain. That says something about their personality and that their teammates look up to them.”

Bryant returns in the backfield, accouting for over 1,000 all-purpose yards as a junior, including 764 yards rushing on 7.4 yards per carry.

And Kupchella and Bryant are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to offensive talent.

McMeans returns at receiver, a huge boost to the passing game. He is quick and sure-handed, and will be a go-to target for Kupchella.

Arnold and Anderson were thrust into duty as sophomores in 2017, and made quite an impression. Arnold is a big-play threat, averaging 20.5 yards per reception a year ago. Couple that with the size and athleticism of the 6-2, 200-pound Morrison at tight end, and it’s quite the arsenal.

And that’s not including Passmore, who you might say is the Swiss Army knife of the offense. He will get the ball in a variety of ways both in the running and passing games.

“We have six or seven kids that are capable of doing a lot of damage,” Morelli said.

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Offensive line comes into focus

Warren knew it had a pair of solid bookends at tackle returning in Eck and Salapek, but the guard and center positions were up for grabs.

Those questions have been answered by Douvlos and Jake Hayes at guard and Alex Zeigler at center.

Douvlos was previously in the backfield, but his tough and tenacious style of play certailniy fits on the offensive line.

“We moved Jamo to guard and he’s one of those kids that will do anything for the team,” Morelli said. “Brent Young is out with an injury. Alex Zeigler will be at center, and he has really picked up the slack. Jake Hayes is going to be at right guard. They’re working together and I think they’re doing a really good job.”

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Learning from heartbreak

Last season, the Dragons took the lead late in the fourth quarter at Fairview, only to watch the Tigers come down and score in the final seconds to win the game.

It’s a feeling that stuck with them, and one they are intent on reversing.

“If we learned anything it’s that we have to play four quarters of football,” Morelli said. “We had a 19-7 lead at halftime and we didn’t play four quarters and they came back. One of the more heartbreaking losses our kids have faced in a long, long time. In the back of their minds, I think they want to make up for that.”

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Liberty takes over

Liberty had success turning around Cochranton’s program, and is widely considered to be a slam dunk hire for the Tigers as he attempts to do the same with them.

“Any time you play a team with a new coaching staff, you have to do your research on what that staff did previously. We’ve done that,” Morelli said. “We feel that we’ve had a good week of prep. The kids grasp what we’re trying to do and we’ll go from there.”

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Excitement of opening night

The Dragons have a great atmosphere at War Memorial Field, but haven’t tasted victory at home since a 26-22 win over Grove City at the end of the 2015 season, going 0-10 since.

They’re excited and intent on changing that.

And so is their coaching staff.

“It’s the opening game, it’s a home game. We haven’t won at home in a few years. On top of all that. It’s just trying to get the season off on the right foot and come away with a win,” Morelli said.

“If you don’t get excited, even after 38 years of coaching, you shouldn’t be coaching anymore. I always get excited. I’m a passionate coach, that’s my personality. I love football and I get into the game and that’s the way I believe in playing the game. You have to play with excitement and enthusiasm. You only have four years of high school football and you have to give it your all. I think our team is going to come out Friday night and give it their all and we’re looking for them to make some big plays and hopefully turn the game in our favor.”