City League teams to be more balanced this season
Heading into the 2013 season, the consensus among most City League coaches is that there is no overwhelming favorite to win the six-team division title this year.
Even though Perry is the defending champion and has won eight league titles since 2000, and USO has made appearances in the championship game in each of its first two years, the coaches still can't tab a front-runner.
“I think this year's pretty balanced,” Perry coach Bill Gallagher said. “Allderdice, Brashear, USO, they have a lot of returning players, and they're always strong. Personally, I feel this is a very balanced year.”
Allderdice coach Jerry Haslett echoed that opinion, and given the City League's schedule — in which each team plays at the South Side's Cupples Stadium — no team will sneak up and surprise anyone else.
“There's really no clear-cut favorite, and if you come watch a City game it's going to be 14-13, 21-20 because we see each other play every day,” he said. “Every coach is at every game. You see each other five, six, seven times a year. You're not fooling anybody.”
Another reason for the overwhelming sense of preseason parity is no team returns its starting quarterback from last season.
With such a void in experience at a marquee position, whichever team can best develop its new starting signal-caller should have a leg up on the competition.
“I would think the quarterback that comes into his own is really going to be the one to lead his team to a potential City title. … Which quarterback steps up and can command that huddle and respect of his teammates will be the team you're looking at seeing in late October and early November,” USO coach Lou Berry said.
First-year Carrick coach Craig Aguglia added: “I do think the school that can get the take on the passing game will probably dominate the City League.”
Aguglia comes to Carrick after spending the past 10 seasons as an assistant coach at Brashear. Aguglia's Carrick squad, along with a Westinghouse team led by coach Monte Robinson, fell short of the playoffs last season and hope to jump-start their programs this year.
“I think Monte (Robinson) does a real nice job over at Westinghouse with what he has,” Brashear coach Rick Murphy said. “Craig (Aguglia) is new, so it will be interesting to see what he can do over at Carrick.”
Gallagher added: “Hopefully, Craig Aguglia will get their program rolling, and it will be a pretty balanced, good and tough league.”
Gallagher's program got a shot in the arm last season with the closing of Oliver and its players migrating to Perry. Brashear reaped the same benefits with the closing of Langley.
That change in the City League landscape, coming just two years after Schenley and Peabody closed and merged to form USO, was a period of transition that seems to have stabilized as this season approaches.
Murphy is optimistic his Brashear team can rise above the rest this season after all the shuffling among schools.
“Last year was a transition year with the combination of Langley closing and some of our other kids being re-districted to other places, so I think the kids jelled well together, and we really like some of the kids we're bringing back,” he said.
Coming off a season in which they advanced to the City semifinals, the Dragons will look to get back to that point and beyond while relying on some new players on offense.
Replacing graduated quarterback Bishop Gethers and tailback Patrick Ferguson will be no easy task, but Allderdice certainly does not lack depth at either position.
The quarterback competition is a four-player race, with junior Alex Schneider the only option with game experience after backing up Gethers. He is competing with a trio of sophomores in Timothy and James Jackson as well as Dujuan Dugger.
“My quarterback position is up in the air right now. … You never know, we could have a sophomore playing or we could have a junior playing,” Haslett said. “It's really not bad for us here in the next year or two.”
Allderdice will feature two speedy running backs — Marquis Martin and senior Antonio Thomas. Martin's speed was evident in the City League track championships, where he was third in the 100-meter dash with a mark of 11.73 seconds.
The Dragons also feature an impressive duo at receiver as Jamir Powell and Joe Graham are returning starters.
Haslett considers Graham, a 6-foot, 190-pound junior, to be a potential Division I prospect.
“(Graham) and Jamir started 12 games already, so that should help them out,” Haslett said.
The offensive line looks to be a strong unit, led by tackle Brody Miller (6-3, 280), a three-year starter. He will be joined by tackle Robert Smith (6-3, 270) and guard Talon Scott (6-3, 225). Despite his size, Haslett said Scott is an elite athlete, possessing about as much speed as his quick tailbacks.
The Dragons also feature a strong secondary as Powell and Graham play cornerback, and Martin lines up as a safety.
It's no secret where Brashear's strength lies this season.
Returning four starters on the offensive line — three-year starters Scott Evans and Jordan Maben and two-year starters Cody Wagner and Jeff Arnold — the Bulls' front will be a force.
“At any high school, especially in the City, that's what wins games,” Aguglia said of Brashear's front five. “I coached those kids on the line there for the last three years, and I know what they have and what they've produced.”
That line will be charged with blocking for first-year starting quarterback Angelo Reed, who takes over for Russell Paige.
After last season ended in a playoff loss to Perry, Murphy cited a few aspects the Bulls can improve upon.
“I just think we need to have some guys step up in leadership roles that are going to push some of the younger guys. … Last year, one of our major problems in a lot of games that we lost were turnovers,” he said. “We shot ourselves in the foot a lot, so we have to be able to take care of the football.”
Defensively, the Bulls will be strong up front with Maben and Evans playing on the defensive line along with senior three-year starter Diondre Faulk and two-year starter Mike Ignasky at linebacker.
Faulk enters the season having garnered some Division I interest.
“We're bringing back a lot of guys in the front seven on defense,” Murphy said. “We're hoping those guys will step up and make a lot of plays.”
Aguglia enters his first season at Carrick attempting to change the culture surrounding the football program.
Coming off a winless season, rebuilding certainly will be no easy chore, but Aguglia is hopeful.
He has focused on players' academic standards, offseason routines and schemes on the field.
Aguglia is optimistic that things are starting to turn around after his team's impressive outing at the Brashear passing camp and thanks to having a few newcomers come out for the team.
“I think the kids are excited about the change because a lot of the kids are telling me we're doing things a lot different, so they're excited,” he said.
Senior quarterback Davon Cruse returns to a starting role after being academically ineligible last season. He will be handing the ball to junior tailback Joe Kalsek.
“He's your typical scat back,” Aguglia said. “He's a tough, hard-nosed kid, and we're relying a lot on him.”
Center Jesse Reid and tackle Keith Davis are four-year starters and team leaders and will anchor the offensive line. Returning starters at wide receiver Sean Martin and Lavar Chapman will try to make plays on the outside.
But the Raiders' best player might be Hakeim McKenzie III, a transfer from Pasadena, Calif., who will play fullback and linebacker.
“He's a leader, a hard worker. … We're expecting big things out of him,” Aguglia said.
With plenty of support from the school and its administration, Aguglia likes where the program is heading.
“Our goal is to show that we're starting a program that we mean business,” he said. “Are we going to win a City championship in the first year? Probably not, but we're in that rebuilding stage.”
After losing a wealth of talent at the skill positions last season, the Commodores will rely on the leadership of their core group of seniors to repeat as City League champions.
Gallagher said several seniors have stepped up through the offseason conditioning program, aiding in the team's preparation. He cited tailback Gary Reid, offensive lineman/tight end/linebacker Aaron Brown and guard/defensive end Kip Humphries as players who have emerged as senior leaders.
“I think we are a team that's hungry that is trying to find itself,” Gallagher said. “Our senior leaders are going to take us wherever we can.”
The battle at the quarterback position is a three-man race between Shawn Rutherford, Desean McGhee and Mondo Hardy.
“The quarterback job's wide open,” he said. “We have three young men fighting for it, and they all bring attributes to the position, and we're just going to have to see how we come out of camp. Any one of the three that win the position, they will have earned it.”
Reid will be the team's starting tailback, and Jujuan Bird, Antoine Long and Kevin Griffin will line up at wide receiver.
“Our kids just love to compete. … They just like to play,” Gallagher said. “They really don't care who we play.”
After narrowly losing the City League title game, 9-6, last season, USO enters the 2013 season relying on speed and athletic playmakers on both sides of the ball.
“We have a number of guys at the skill positions who have a lot of experience,” Berry said.
Senior Abner Roberts returns at tailback after impressing at 7-on-7 camps over the summer. Roberts, the City League champion in the 100-meter dash, will complement one of the league's biggest offensive weapons in wide receiver Marcus Johnson.
The senior wideout hauled in 27 passes for 497 yards and four touchdowns last season and will try to lead USO to a second league title in just three years of existence.
“Marcus has deceiving speed. He has great hand-eye coordination, he makes phenomenal plays in space and possesses the ability to make plays after the catch,” Berry said.
But without an experienced quarterback on its roster, Johnson may have to start behind center instead, depending on whether a potential transfer joins the team to replace graduate Akil Young. Clay Moorefield also is vying for time at quarterback.
“When we look at this season, we don't possess a quarterback that has any playing time within our program. … It's pretty much wide open,” Berry said.
Defensively, USO's strength is in the secondary as Roberts and Johnson will start at cornerback and free safety, respectively.
Berry believes the key to getting back to the league title game will be his playmakers' continued ability to play fast.
“We expect the kids that were with us last year to play a lot faster,” he said. “It took them a while to gain their own identity, to trust what they saw on film so we expect them to play a lot faster, and that's what I'm seeing from Abner Roberts and a number of guys at the skill positions.”
Despite missing the playoffs last season, Robinson is optimistic that his Westinghouse team can take a step forward this year.
“I'm definitely looking forward to this year,” he said. “We've got a new crop of guys, but we're still fairly young. We've got a good nucleus of seniors coming back, so I'm excited about that.”
Running back/linebacker Raphael Drummond will lead the way for the Bulldogs this season. A promising athlete, Drummond is yet another City League tailback who excels in track, finishing as the runner-up to USO's Roberts in the 100-meter dash.
“I'm looking for him to really carry the load offensively and defensively,” Robinson said.
Westinghouse finds itself in a similar position to the rest of the league at quarterback in that last year's starter Ronald Brown transferred.
Senior Richard Harris will move from wide receiver to compete for the job with sophomores Darnell Jordan and Elijah Bey.
“We're going into it as an open competition,” Robinson said. “Even with (Harris), he's a decent athlete and he's a senior so we're giving him the opportunity, but it's not in stone that he's going to be the quarterback.
“Our hope is that one of them really takes the lead on that, and we can really spread our talent out at other positions.”
While Westinghouse has the smallest roster of any team in the City Legue, Robinson is confident the Bulldogs can compete if they stay consistent.
“Like every year, we want to make a push for the City League playoffs and that's our goal,” he said. “We feel like if we can get in, we have just as good of a chance as anybody else.”