Don’t doubt the 2009 edition of the Reading Rangers football team — or you may just be its next victim.
Head coach Rick Bailey realizes that a plethora of stars from last season’s 12-1 state semifinals qualifier graduated, but he is a strong believer it is tradition, winning attitudes and training methods that breed success, not the names attached to his roster.
“I wouldn’t sell our team short, we expect to win. We might run into a team that is better than us, that might happen, but we can’t control that part of it, we control what we can,” he said. “I would never try and limit us and say ‘Yeah, we’re going to go 5-4 or 6-3’ or something like that.”
Marquee names like Trent Morris, Steven Smith, Ryan Dillon and JV Shinners are a thing of the past, to name only a few, but the 32 boys on this year’s roster are accustomed to winning, with a low threshold for anything less.
“Our seniors have lost three games in their entire football career and our juniors have lost just one game in their career (since the beginning of eighth-grade football). If we stub our toe we pick ourselves up and try to get better,” Bailey said. “Our ultimate goal is to win the Big Eight title, because if you win the Big Eight title you’re going to get in the playoffs and when you get in the playoffs your goal is to keep winning, so that’s what you’re after.”
To continue to stake its claim as one of the county’s premier gridiron giants the Rangers will have to count on a much-revamped running game and offensive line.
Reading graduated two 1,000-yard rushers in 2007, only to have three players surpass the 1,000-yard mark in 2008 in Trent Morris, Trevor Ryan and Brian Rauth.
Only Rauth returns and he will go from being the third option to being the feature back.
He averaged right around 10 yards per carry last season, but Bailey knows teams will be focusing on him, making life much more difficult in the backfield.
“He’s going to be the feature guy so we’ve talked to him in terms of working hard; instead of 15 carries he might get 25 and those 25 are going to be a lot more strenuous than what you got last year because defenses will be keying on him,” Bailey said.
Junior Matt VanNuys will offer a bit more powerful look in the backfield at 5-11, 191 pounds, and transfer Billy Julian will be another option as well, Bailey said. The 5-7, 183 pound senior from Edon, Ohio moved to the area, as did his junior brother William, who is 5-7, 209 pounds and will see time at offensive guard and defensive end. A third Julian, 11th-grader Jimmy, is 5-9, 207 pounds and he is slated to play at guard and defensive end as well.
“(Billy’) is a good ball carrier. He started as a freshman down in Edon and he had a nice game against us as a sophomore,” Bailey said.
The offensive line returns only two of its five starters and it will have a little smaller, athletic look compared to last year. Taylor Miller and James Piner are the senior stalwarts on the line, with a whole host of other athletes looking to make a splash.
Miller broke his leg early last season, but fought his way back onto the field by the end of it and Bailey said his toughness and determination help him maximize his potential.
The Julian brothers provide options, as do Tyler Ferrier and Mike Kovacic, who saw time on the line in 2008. Zack Tankersly and Matt Waterman are juniors who Bailey “calls big bodies who proved themselves on JV and have a lot of potential.”
Bailey will also count on solid blocking from tight-end Alex Eastwood as he tries to figure things out with different personnel than a year ago.
“We’re still working on our packages where we can spread teams out. We’re used to having guys out there spreading wide like JV (Shinners), Trent (Morris) and Sam Creel, and the year before, guys like Jeremy Southworth and Bobby Blythe,” he said. “So right now we look pretty solid with our tight formations and strong running formations, but we need the spread formations too and that’s the part that looks a little different right now, mainly because we have bigger guys and we’re utilizing the tight ends.”
One asset all of Reading expects to be improved over last season is senior QB Joe Hubbard, who really came into his own as he built confidence in the latter stages of the ’08 campaign. He scored a key two-point conversion in a dramatic week nine win over Pittsford and he was extremely efficient in playoff victories, prior to the season-ending loss against Ubly.
Bailey said Hubbard has newfound faith in himself this season and is easily one of the conference’s upper-echelon signal-callers.
“I think Joe’s whole thing started our second game last year, against Quincy. He got out of the pocket, scrambled around and fired a bullet for a touchdown,” he said. “At the time we said we have ourselves a quarterback, because in the first game against Camden(-Frontier) I think we went like 1-for-7 passing, it was ugly. It just progressed from there.”
Bailey said he expects more big plays from Hubbard this year and he’s anxious to see him use his elusiveness and quick feet a little more. With the confidence Hubbard has been displaying in the preseason that shouldn’t be an issue.
“Just (the other day) Joe told us, ‘Last year I thought it was me holding us in the beginning of the year, but this year it’s not me.’ And it’s obvious because now he’s telling everybody else where to go,” Bailey said.
Despite losing its five leading receivers from a year ago Bailey can rattle off the names of plenty of guys he expects to make contributions to the aerial attack.
He said he plans on using more two tight-end sets, in which he’ll utilize the abilities of sophomore Chad Berger and juniors Jordan Dieterle and VanNuys, along with the super-mismatch maker Eastwood.
His main receivers lack height, but have plenty of speed to show off.
“Our little quick guys, Bryce Jackson, Trevor Shafer — he didn’t play for a few years — he’s fast, a good athlete and he’s catching the ball real well. Nate McClellan was the JV quarterback and he’ll play some receiver and quarterback,” Bailey said. “They’re just not names people know yet, but they’re names people will have to pay attention to on opposing defenses.”
His own defense will try and replace the natural instincts of a guy like Morris at linebacker, but senior leaders Ferrier and Piner are known for their big hits and constant motors.
As of right now Bailey has 13 players slated to share time in the secondary, including Rauth and Jackson.
The defensive line will rotate five to eight guys in and out, with guys like Tankersly and Miller on the inside and Eastwood, Dieterle, and the Julian brothers on the outside.
Despite all of the experience and camaraderie the Rangers have, Bailey said his team must dominate the line of scrimmage more than ever to have anywhere near as much success as last season.
“Right now we have one-and-a-half or two or whatever you want to call it returning (on the offensive line), so that group has to gel. They have to know who they are blocking and they have to get off the football,” he said.” Also, we need to have a defensive mindset of getting to the football. We can establish that in practice, we just need a hungry attitude.”
When it comes to attitude, Bailey recalls one unforgettable moment from their season-ending loss to Ubly last November.
With the game out of reach for all intensive purposes, Ubly scored yet another second-half touchdown and Bailey’s troops hung their heads. With all they had been through and accomplished in a few shorts months Bailey saw it as the perfect opportunity to grow as a team, as well as young men.
“We pulled everybody together right then and talked about playing the way we wanted to play. It didn’t change the outcome of the game, but it changed the way we played,” he said.
“We had a moment where we were feeling sorry for ourselves and at that point it had become obvious we weren’t going to win, but to their credit they regrouped. Shortly thereafter we scored and we at least competed again. We had a moment there where we kind of grew and realized what we are capable of.”