WEST LAFAYETTE -- Graduation hit the Ridgewood High football team hard following last year's impressive 9-2 gridiron season.
The Generals lost a total of 18 seniors, and included in that total was a whopping nine three-year starters for the Generals.
"We lost a whole lot of talent from last year," RHS coach John Slusser said. "Any time you lose nine three-year starters, it's going to be a big blow to your team. We have a lot of holes to fill this year and we've got some kids working hard to step up and fill those holes."
Leading the list of departed veterans is Keith Leindecker, who earned all-Ohio Division V first team as well as first team all-Eastern District and all-IVC honors last year; Braeden Smith, all-Ohio second team, all-Eastern District first team and honorable mention all-IVC; Javon Merrill, all-Ohio special mention, all-Eastern District first team and honorable mention all-IVC; Rayven Davidson, all-Ohio special mention, all-Eastern District first team and second team all-IVC; Jhett Slusser, all-Eastern District and all-IVC second team.
"That's a lot of experience to replace," admitted Slusser. "Those kids were not only winners on the football field, they were also just great kids who worked very hard for the success they enjoyed."
Slusser, who enters his 13th season guiding the RHS program, will be blessed with some solid numbers in his search for new players to fill the void with the Generals boosting a total of 48 players on the roster.
"That's not bad numbers," Slusser said. "We're used to having pretty good turnout of players despite not being a really big school."
Included in that total are 11 lettermen back in the fold, led by senior two-year veteran Kolton Alexander (6-1, 183), who will take over at quarterback for RHS.
Alexander takes over for Jhett Slusser, who was the Generals' starting QB the last two years and guided RHS to an 19-4 record, with an IVC title and a playoff win.
"Jhett was a great leader for us the last few years," the coach/proud father said of his son. "He did a great job of leading the team and gave us some big plays with his feet."
Now, however, Slusser says it's time for Alexander to step into the spotlight and is confident he will be ready for the opportunity.
"Kolton is our best player coming back. He's a really talented kid who can sling the football," Slusser stated. "He's had to wait two years playing behind Jhett and now it's his turn to lead this team."
In limited opportunities last year, Alexander completed 5-of-10 passing attempts for 166 yards with a TD. On the ground, he racked up 123 yards rushing on 18 carries with a pair of TDs.
Back to anchor the Ridgewood offensive line that Alexander will be operating behind are a pair of two-year lettermen in senior brothers Seth (5-11, 166) and Ian Schwab (5-10, 168).
Seth will be the Generals' center, with Ian holding down right guard along the offensive front.
"We will be looking for Seth and Ian to lead the way on the O-line for us," Slusser said. "They are both talented kids who have plenty of experience in playing in some big games."
Filling out the Ridgewood starting offensive line will be sophomore letterman Chase Minet (5-11, 174) at left guard, with junior Lance Bradford (6-3, 201) and sophomore John Evin (6-1, 217) manning the offensive tackle slots.
Other battling to see playing time on the offensive line are sophomores Logan Smith (6-1, 204) and Cody Thompson (6-1, 236) along with freshman JJ Durr (5-10, 201). Durr is a transfer from neighboring Newcomerstown who Slusser feels could contribute at some point during the season.
In the Generals' backfield, the workhorse figures to be sophomore letterman Kaden Smith (5-11, 184) who got some meaningful playing time last year as a freshman.
Smith churned out 385 yards rushing on 46 totes with four TD runs a year ago.
"Kaden stepped in about halfway through the year after we had some injuries and did a good job," Slusser said. "He sort of got his feet wet at the varsity level and we are expecting even bigger things from him this season."
Also in the mix in the backfield for RHS will be senior letterman Jason Stubbs (5-11, 176) and sophomore Isaiah Lamneck (5-9, 147).
"Both Jason and Isaiah could get some carries for us," Slusser added. "Kaden will carry most of the load running the ball, but I feel that duo gives us some depth behind him."
Looking to be the main targets for Alexander in the passing game are a trio of senior two-year letterman -- Zach Wright (6-0, 157), Jarett Slusser (6-3, 181) and Tyler Caudy (5-8, 156).
Wright hauled in 10 receptions for 147 yards with a TD to lead the Generals returneees.
"All three of those guys started for us last year," Slusser said. "We are confident in their abilities, and they will be out there making plays for us."
Looking to break into that receiving group will be a pair of talented sophomores -- Connor Kunze (6-2, 153) and Koleten Smith (5-9, 136) -- along with senior Nick Morton (5-11, 164).
A returning offensive weapon for Ridgewood is junior two-year letterman Keith Claxon (5-11, 173), who has been the Generals' placekicker the last two years.
"We feel Keith is one of the better kickers around the area," Slusser said. "We have a lot of confidence in his ability to come through when we call on him."
Claxon could also see time at wide receiver and defensive back for RHS in addition to his kicking duties. Handling the punting duties for RHS will be Caudy.
"I think we are pretty good at our skilled positions on offense, especially at QB with Kolton," Slusser commented. "We've got some athletes who can throw and catch the football a little."
On the defensive line, Evin and Bradford will handle the defensive tackle spots, with Stubbs and Seth Schwab outside at defensive end with the first group.
Depth along the defensive line will come from sophomores Noah Smith (6-0, 197), Logan Smith, Dakoata Markley (5-11, 321) and Thompson along with a pair of talented freshmen - Zach (6-1, 257) and Bryce Prater (6-1, 252).
Slated to patrol at linebacker for the Generals are senior letterman Logan Shroyer (5-11, 176), Ian Schwab, Minet, Durr and freshman Deontae Brandon (5-10, 152).
In the secondary, Slusser says a total of seven players are vying for five spots including Alexander, Wright, Slusser, Caudy, Smith and sophomore Isaiah Lamneck (5-9, 147).
Completing the Ridgewood roster are senior Jordan Orlando (5-8, 251); juniors Michael Kyle (5-7, 136), Cody West (5-6, 161), Ricky Workman (5-7, 141), Andrew Getchey (5-11, 179) and Peyton Barker (6-2, 156); sophomores Colten Hursey (5-10, 132), Memphis Cutshall (5-8, 137), Jacob Evin (6-1, 153), Blayden McCoy (5-11, 143), and George John (5-10, 221); and freshmen Ethan Stroup (5-5, 109), Curtis Varian (5-9, 134), Javan Belt (5-9, 121), Calvin Kohman (5-5, 114), Alex Christian (5-8, 151), Brett Untied (6-0, 142), Cody Durbin (5-9, 219), Caleb Sanders (5-4, 163), Marcus Leindecker (5-11, 181), Brock Farver (5-3, 143) and Dominic Ridenour (5-11, 223).
With the lack of overall experience, Slusser feels his senior leadership will be a real key and feels his 10 seniors will be up to the task.
"Our seniors are doing a good job of setting a good example of what it takes to be successful," Slusser stated. "That group is used to winning and knows what it takes in work ethic and preparation. That's what they are bringing to the table and have been doing a great job. The young guys just need to learn the lessons and fall in step with their leadership."
Slusser's coaching staff includes Jason Prater, Mike Masloski, Todd Cabot, Chris Cabot, Jake Lahna, Nate Carpenter, Chad Lahna, Dusty Shroyer, Chad Massie, Ryan Gress, Sam Carpenter and Chad Carroll.
Despite the new look of the Inter-Valley Conference this season with the addition of several new teams, Slusser says the goal at Ridgewood will remain the same.
"It is what it is," Slusser said about the conference. "Our first goal is always to win the IVC, always will be. We don't plan on changing our approach."
"We look forward to competing with some new teams," Slusser said. "We will just go out each week and do our very best and let the chips fall where they may. Our guys are built that way...just go out, play hard and compete."
New opponents include league foes Indian Valley, Claymont and Tuscarawas Valley along with Coshocton. Those game replace Malvern, Tuscarawas Central Catholic and Sandy Valley (all in the IVC's other division) as well as River View.
Ridgewood kicks off the 2017 campaign at home Saturday night against IVC newcomer Buckeye Trail.