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Apollo-Ridge seeks spot among Class A's best

| Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013, 8:56 p.m.
Erica Dietz | Valley News Dispatch
Apollo-Ridge's Tre Tipton sprints down field during a scrimmage against Burrell at Apollo-Ridge High School on Wednesday, July 24, 2013.
Erica Dietz | Valley News Dispatch
Burrell's Cody Wolfe looks for an opening during a scrimmage against Apollo-Ridge at Apollo-Ridge High School on Wednesday, July 24, 2013.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
Apollo-Ridge quarterback Jesse Zelonka looks to avoid a tackle during practice in Kiski Township on Monday, August 12, 2013.

Rarely is a football team's summer schedule analyzed, but Apollo-Ridge's clearly was enhanced to prepare it for what lies ahead.

When teams beef up their pre-camp workouts, it's usually a sign that they deem themselves capable of competing against high-caliber opponents.

The Vikings took part in seven-on-seven passing tournaments at Pitt and St. Francis, winning the latter by beating Valley in the finals.

Some of the top teams in the WPIAL were at the Pitt league, and Apollo-Ridge held its own.

“We want to compete for a conference championship; that's the goal of each team in this conference,” coach John Skiba said. “We feel we have a team that can reach this goal.”

Apollo-Ridge dropped to Class A last season and surged back into contention. But don't think that came with contentment. The Vikings want more — much more.

“Last year, both our football and basketball teams did well,” senior dual-threat quarterback Jesse Zelonka said. “You're coming back through town, and there's fire trucks and big groups of people at the plaza downtown. We want that to continue.”

The Vikings finished 6-4, tied for second in the Eastern Conference and made the playoffs for the first time since 2007.

“Last year was great for our kids but also our school district,” Skiba said. “The faculty was charged up, the administration, everyone involved with the district was excited by what we were able to accomplish.”

Nine starters return on offense and eight are back on defense, making it hard to argue that the Vikings aren't the front-runner in the conference.

The offense has been tweaked, with Skiba switching to a pistol formation, the scheme used last season by the San Francisco 49ers and quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

Zelonka said the change gives an already potent unit — the Vikings averaged nearly 30 points per game last season — even more elbow room.

“There's a lot of designed plays out of the zone option,” said Zelonka, who threw for 1,457 yards, rushed for 671 and accounted for 27 touchdowns. “It allows the offense to spread out, and we get all of our receivers on the field at once. It's going to be good.”

It's no secret that rising junior wideout Tre Tipton will be the go-to target. He's drawn attention from Penn State and Tennessee, among others.

Tipton caught 39 passes for 786 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. Double teams will be common, but the Vikings have other receivers in junior Alex Smith, senior Dillon Tones and tight ends Dom DiBernardo and Christian Leonarski.

The backfield will feature senior Lonny Wells, junior Jonah Casella and senior Ben Gemballa.

“The true key to us being able to function will be the play of our offensive line, which has the potential to be very good,” Skiba said. “But you know what they say about potential. Our offense will be wide open and hopefully high-scoring and fun to watch.”

Returning linemen include senior tackle Cody Joyner (5-foot-11, 230) and senior center Garret Hooks (5-8, 200).

“We do have some beef up front, but it's very inexperienced beef,” Skiba said. “My biggest guys are sophomores and freshmen.”

Sophomore Eric Moran is 6-5 and 300 pounds, but needs game reps like 6-foot, 255-pound sophomore Kyle Nothnagel got as a freshman.

Gemballa and Wells, both power runners, also anchor a defense that is strong at linebacker. Add senior Zach Weinel to that mix.

Nothnagel and Joyner are defensive ends with big-game experience.

Tipton, Smith and Zelonka are standouts in the secondary.

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