WEST LAFAYETTE -- A year ago, the Ridgewood High football team saw it's nine-year playoff run come to an end, so this time around head coach John Slusser's squad is focused on starting a new streak of reaching the Ohio High School Athletic Association postseason.
While the Generals managed at winning season a year at 6-4, the RHS winning tradition has the expectation bar set pretty high for the Orange and Black.
"Quite simply, last year was just not good enough...not around here," Slusser, who enters his ninth season guiding the Generals' football program. "Last year was the first time we missed the playoffs in nine years. We fully intend to get a new playoff streak going starting with this season. The kids have worked really hard in the offseason and have come in really hungry to get back to the playoffs."
Ridgewood returns a total of 19 lettermen this year led by three-year letterwinner senior Garrett Bethel (5-9, 178), who was the Generals' leading rusher last year with more than 800 yards and he also led the team in tackles with over 100 from his linebacker slot.
"We will be counting on Garrett for a lot of offensive production this year," Slusser said. "He was our leading rusher last year, so he will carry the load for us again this season. He's a real hard nosed running back. He's not afraid of contact and can get you the tough yards when you need them."
The problem is Bethel will not be available until week two after serving a stint with an United States Army basic training program over the summer.
"Of course it's not the ideal situation to start the season without one of your top players," Slusser said. "Garrett had a great opportunity and I'm happy for him, but we will sure be happy when he gets back. He provides us a lot in the leadership department as well as what he brings on the field."
Slusser is also counting on getting some big contributions running the football from junior letterman Alex Crosston (5-11, 165), who provided some solid play last year.
"Alex became a big part of our offense in the second half of the year last season," Slusser said. "He got some opportunities and took advantage of them last year. He gives us that real big-play threat every time he gets his hands on the football."
Juniors Zach Donley (5-10, 185) and Tommy Montague (5-10, 184) are battling to fill the fullback role until Bethel returns, and should benefit from the extra playing time according to Slusser.
Others who could see time in the Generals' backfield include sophomore Billy Bailey (5-9, 166) and senior letterman Cole Zeigler (5-8, 143).
Another key returnee on the offensive side will be senior two-year lettermen Ryan Lowe (6-3, 201), who is back at quarterback for RHS.
"Ryan is the brains of our offense," Slusser said. "He was our starting QB last year and he has all the tools to be a great player. He just needs to continue to improve with his decision making, but I have a lot of confidence in him."
Ridgewood will also benefit from bringing back a veteran offensive line, returning four starters along with getting back senior Andrew Vaughn (6-0, 180) who opened last year at center, but went down in week one with an injury and missed the rest of the season.
"We lost Andrew last year in the first game," Slusser said, "so getting him back is a real plus for us. He was doing a real nice job last year."
Vaughn will line up at left guard this year with seniors Jared Lindig (5-8, 214) at center, Tommy Layman (5-11, 231) at right guard, Jake Eckelberry (6-0, 310) at right tackle and junior Blake Feldner (6-2, 310) at left tackle.
"It's a real comfort to have that kind of experience back on the offensive line," Slusser added. "In the trenches will be a strong area for us, both on offense and defense this year."
Senior two-year letterman Tevis Whitt (6-0, 179) will hold down the wing back position for the RHS and will also serve as the placekicker for the Generals on field goals and extra-points.
"Tevis did a nice job for us last year," Slusser said. "As a two-year letterman, he has the experience you want out there on the field. He's a hard-working kid who gives us great effort each time he takes the field."
Junior letterman Matt Slaylor (6-3, 175) has emerged as the leading candidate at the split end position, while also vying for playing time at that spot are sophomore Austin Lowery (6-0, 162), junior letterman Thor Reed (5-9, 158), senior letterman D.J. Varian (5-9, 162) and junior Joey Kraska (5-9, 167).
On the defensive side, the Orange and Black are hard at work learning a new scheme this season.
"It's hard to tell right now where the defense is with learning a new scheme," Slusser said. "It really doesn't help for us to be missing our leading tackler (Bethel), but the kids are working hard and playing with great effort."
Comprising the Generals' defensive front will be Vaughn and senior letterman Laken Bluck (5-11, 192) at defensive ends with Layman and Eckelberry inside at defensive tackle.
Sophomore letterman Brice Hammond (5-10, 165), Ziegler and Bethel when he returns will occupy the linebacker slots. Until Bethel gets back, the duo of Montague and Lindig are battlling to fill that void.
"Brice is a real tough kid... he lettered last year as a freshman,"
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CoCContinued Slusser said. "He's got a shot to be a real good player for us."
In the defensive secondary, it will be Varian, Crosston and Lowery at cornerback while Donley, Whitt and Bailey will play the safety position.
With 11 seniors on the team, Slusser feels good about his group of veterans he has to work with.
"Our senior class is a real hard-working group," Slusser said. "They have been one of the most enjoyable groups I've ever coached, I've had a lot of fun working with this group."
Rounding out the Generals' roster are sophomores Cole Lillibridge (5-9, 147), Garrett Foster (5-9, 188), Chase Merryman (6-2, 174), Dustin Carr (5-10, 223), Chancey Johnston (6-0, 260), juniors Logan Slusser (5-11, 150), Derek Ridenour (6-1, 167), Jarret Art (6-3, 170), Phillip Shannon (5-9, 165), Ben Hostetler (5-10, 184) and Kelly Barthalow (5-9, 285).
Freshman on the Generals' roster this season include Jhett Slusser (6-0, 142), Michael Kelly (5-9, 143), Trent Harrison (5-11, 171), Javon Merrill (5-7, 131), Ray Davidson (6-1, 179), Ronnie Weese (5-10, 143), Kyle Bethel (5-7, 138), Colton Bethel (5-4, 113), Kevin Bethel (5-7, 144), Nathaniel Thompson (6-1, 190), Brice Haines (5-10, 140), Caleb Bowman (6-1, 247), Blake Hamilton (5-9, 209), Abram Buckler (5-6, 140), Keith Leindecker (6-2, 221), Kasey Bethel (5-8, 151), Wes Vanfossen (5-9, 165) and Caden Edie (5-10, 181).
Slusser's coaching staff includes Jason Prater, Mike Mazloski, Todd Cabot, Chris Cabot, Jake Lahna, Nate Carpenter, Chad Massie, Ryan Gress, Dusty Shroyer, Chad Lahna and Sam Carpenter.
Last year, the Generals slipped to a third place finish in the Inter-Valley Conference with a 4-2 mark, once gain not good enough for the proud and tradition rich RHS football program.
"We expect to contend for the IVC title every year, so last year was disappointing around here," Slusser continued. "We have won eight out of the last 10 titles and that's kind of what people expect from Ridgewood football.
"The IVC just seems to get stronger and stronger each year," Slusser added. "Both Garaway and Malvern have turned into state powers in the last few years and we like to think of ourselves in the same way. It will be a dogfight every night in the IVC, but we will be ready and expect to get back on top at the end.
"We have everything geared toward week one against Trail," Slusser said. "That's where are focus is right now. To get started off on the right foot and that starts with opening at home with a win."
Ridgewood will open the new season on Saturday hosting Buckeye Trail in a non-league match-up.