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Conference favorites Apollo-Ridge, North Catholic square off in Week 1

| Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013, 1:11 a.m.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
Apollo-Ridge running back Ben Gemballa breaks through the line during practice in Kiski Township on Monday, Aug. 12, 2013.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
North Catholic's Ronnie Meder works out Monday, Aug. 12, 2013, in North Park.

To North Catholic and Apollo-Ridge, their showdown Friday night is more than just the season opener.

Much more.

Treating the game with any less regard than that of a conference championship would seem unfair.

After all, these are the top two returning teams in the Eastern Conference, the pair expected to push each other until Week 9 — which seems like the more appropriate time for such a hype-filled matchup.

North Catholic is No. 3 in the Trib Total Media Class A preseason rankings, while Apollo-Ridge checks in at a lofty No. 5 spot.

“Yeah, it's a heck of a way to start the season off playing the third-ranked team in Class A at their place,” Apollo-Ridge coach John Skiba said, “but it's a great challenge for us and a measuring stick to see where we are. They are a very experienced and athletic team.”

The bells and whistles will be out in full force, and there'll be no saving the best for last when the teams kick off at Stone Field, the current home of Cardinal Weurl North Catholic, which was renamed and will move from Troy Hill to a larger Cranberry location in 2014.

The Trojans' goals haven't changed. They want to repeat as conference champions and make a deeper playoff run.

“Goals are always the same, but we don't want to look past Week 1,” senior fullback/linebacker Jarred Fragapane said.

North Catholic reached the semifinals last season before falling to Sto-Rox.

Apollo-Ridge, though, wants some of that action. The Vikings went 6-3 last season and made the playoffs for the first time since 2007.

With most of their key players returning, they could be in a position to trip North Catholic early and call dibs on the window seat in the conference.

“It would be nice to play (North Catholic) later so all of our first-time varsity starters get all of their nerves and jitters out,” Apollo-Ridge senior quarterback Jesse Zelonka said. “But I would rather open up with (this game). It will be the tone-setter for us for the year.”

In last season's game, also played on opening night, then-sophomore running back P.J. Fulmore shredded the Vikings for 265 yards and four touchdowns on 32 carries in a 40-21 North Catholic win.

Apollo-Ridge fell behind 27-0 and allowed 350 yards in the loss. Things got chippy late as frustration set in.

Skiba said the revenge-or-bust rematch has made training-camp motivation easy.

“I know they didn't lose many players from a team that handed it to us last year,” Skiba said of North Catholic. “I believe we are a better team than what we put out there last year and guys have grown and matured to make us a team people consider a contender in this conference, which is what we want.”

North Catholic also has Fragapane, the bull-dozing run blocker who would have been a senior at Deer Lakes had he stayed. He returns to help power the Trojans' power running game.

Quarterback Ryan Kirby returns as well, although he could move to wideout as Aaron Sharlow moves under center.

Apollo-Ridge will counter with Zelonka, a dual-threat who rushed for 123 yards in last year's game, along with athletic junior receivers Tre Tipton and Alex Smith.

Tipton is getting Division I attention.

The offense will switch to a pistol formation with more zone reads and, potentially, a more balanced look.

“Apollo-Ridge is a really good team with solid players like Tipton and (Zelonka),” Fulmore said. “To beat them, we will have to work hard in practice and play as a team. We will also have to slow down their air attack because they have big-play receivers and a good QB.”

Skiba said his team's chances in such a big game could hinge on whether it can go on the road and handle the heat — pun intended.

“Like every Week 1 game, it comes down to endurance,” Skiba said. “Week 1 is usually the hottest day of the season and kids are fighting to catch their breath and fight through playing 48 minutes for the first time, even after going through heat acclimatization in 70-degree weather.”

Apollo-Ridge brings back nine offensive starters. Its main gaps to fill were on the line. North Catholic, meantime, has four starters back on the line.

“We are going to have to work together, and the line will have to communicate up front offensively,” Zelonka said. “Also, our defense will have to lock their running game down.”

Bill Beckner Jr. is the local sports editor of the Valley News Dispatch. Reach him at bbeckner@tribweb.com.

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