WEST LAFAYETTE -- Hopes for a fourth straight Inter-Valley Conference championship at Ridgewood High could well come down to how successful veteran coach John Slusser and his coaching staff are at finding some new skill position players to replace some key performers lost to graduation.
The Generals finished at 8-3 overall last season, including 5-1 in the IVC to capture their third straight league title under Slusser who enters his eighth season as the gridiron leader of the Orange and Black. Ridgewood advanced to the OHSAA Division V playoffs, falling to Lucasville Valley in the opening round.
Graduated from that squad are a trio of valuable offensive players in Trent Lingo, Chris Saylor and Dakota Albertson.
Lingo was the Generals' leading rusher last season, churning out 912 yards on 154 attempts with 10 touchdowns, while Saylor connected on 85-of-163 passing attempts for 1,246 yards with 14 touchdowns as the RHS quarterback. One of Saylor's favorite targets was Albertson, who hauled in 25 receptions for 472 yards and seven TDs.
"We're still looking for some playmakers on offense," Slusser said. "This in the first time in the last three years that we go into the season not knowing who our go-to guys will be on offense. so this is something new for us around here."
A pair of key losses on the defensive side of the ball for the Generals include last year's leading tackler, linebacker Jake Ziegler, who racked up 110 tackles (84 solo, 26 assists) and fellow 'backer Evan Jones, who is now playing in the Big Ten at Michigan State.
A total of 18 lettermen return, including nine seniors as the Generals try for the IVC "fourpeat".
Players who will be looked to fill those all-important skilled position slots begins with junior Ryan Lowe (6-3, 190) who will take over as the Generals' signal-caller. Lowe saw limited duty as Saylor's understudy last season with a 5-of-12 passing effort for 61 yards and a touchdown.
"Ryan is a talented kid who understands our offense well," Slusser said. "He has a real good delivery of the football and has a good grasp of the entire offense."
Slated to see duty in the backfield for the Generals are seniors Brett Mitchell (5-9, 155) and Dillion McPherson (6-0, 152) along with juniors Garrett Bethel (5-8, 169) and Seth Bergeron (5-9, 160).
"Garrett is not the breakaway threat we have had the last few years," Slusser said, "but he is a tough kid who is hard to bring down. Brett is probably our most versatile back. He's a big play threat when he gets the football while Seth and Dillon are both well-rounded backs.
"All four figure to see some time in the backfield for us," Slusser said. "It could very well be a rotation unless somebody gets hot running the ball and we ride him for a while."
In the battle at the receiver spot, a two players -- seniors Kody Hains (6-0, 152) and Josh King (6-2, 173) -- have jumped to the forefront at the split end position for the Generals.
"Both Kody and Josh are unproven at receiver right now," Slusser said, "but they both have shown some flashes during practice. We're hoping with some valuable playing time they will grow into solid receivers for us."
Senior C.J. Grove (6-4, 191) will hold down the tight end position, having moved over from center last year.
"C.J. is a big target and has a knack for finding the open spot," Slusser said. "I'm looking for some solid play from him this year at tight end."
Its along the offensive line that Slusser feels will be an area of strength for his Generals.
RHS will have a trio of returning starters in the trenches -- seniors Chris Davidson (6-4, 245) and Ben Newell (6-0, 245) manning the offensive tackle slots while senior Jeremy Shamel (5-8, 190) will again play an offensive guard position. Holding down the other guard post will be junior Jared Lindig (5-9, 192) while junior Andrew Vaughn (5-11, 177) will be at center.
"It feels good to have three starters back on the O-line," Slusser said. "As a group, our line is big and pretty versatile and, hopefully, we can open up some holes and give our new skilled position guys a real boost as they grow into their new roles."
On defense, Slusser again feels the line will be an strength.
Grove will lead that group from a defensive end spot and he brings a great deal of leadership with him.
"C.J. is a vocal leader on the defensive line," Slusser said. "He knows what's going on out there and helps to get everyone on the same page."
At the other defensive end slot will be Davidson while Newell and junior Jake Eckleberry (6-0, 320) will hold down the interior at the defensive tackles.
"We're real big on the defensive line," Slusser said. "If we can figure things out, we could be a real tough line to move off the ball."
A pair of juniors who figure to see some time along the defensive line, according to Slusser, are Vaughn and Tommy Layman
See RHS, page 17
Bethel and Shamel will be at inside linebacker for the Generals' "Silver Hammer" defense, while Bergeron and senior Ryan Cogion (5-8, 153) will patrol at outside linebacker.
Mitchell and McPherson will lead the Ridgewood secondary from their safety positions, while King, sophomore Alex Croston (5-10, 160) and Hains are battling for spots at cornerback.
"Our secondary is a good athletic group," Slusser said. "It's a mix of experienced and young guys who all have the potential to make plays and that's just what we hope they do -- make plays."
Mitchell will handle the placekicking duties for RHS, while either he or Lowe will serve as the Generals' punter.
"Our kids play hard and fly to the ball," Slusser said. "That's just something we expect here at Ridgewood, and the kids do a great job with that. They are a hardworking group and we just need to continue to improve each and every day we take the field. We're not going to change our philosophy around here. We are going to run the football and play defense."
Slusser's coaching staff consists of Jamie McCrea, Jason Prater, Todd Cabot, Chris Cabot, Jake Lahna, Nate Carpenter, Ryan Gress, Chad Massie, Dusty Shroyer and Mike Masloski.
In the IVC race, Slusser points to Garaway as a team that could potentially derail the Generals' stranglehold on the league title.
"Garaway returns a lot of kids and will be tough," Slusser said. "Malvern should be there also, and I can see Strasburg and Sandy Valley who could surprise some people."
Ridgewood opens the season Friday with a road trip to Buckeye Trail.