By Tom Williams
Nothing means more to this year’s Fitch High School football seniors than keeping the traditions started by Phil Annarella.
“It’s been rough, but we’ve been doing the things that he would have wanted us to do,” linebacker/quarterback Nate Leskovac said. “This is unusual — we’re fighting through adversity.”
Christian Armstrong, the Falcons’ lone two-year letterman, said, “There’s something missing, for sure, but we want to keep the same traditions.”
On June 8, Annarella, the Falcons head coach for 12 seasons, died.
Jon Elliot, the Falcons’ offensive coordinator for the past two seasons and Annarella’s longtime assistant, is the Falcons’ interim head coach.
At Annarella’s calling hours at the school on June 14, Elliott said, “I’d trade anything for him to just be here right now so none of this was taking place.”
Elliot has 32 years of coaching experience, but this is his first head-coaching opportunity.
“It’s a good opportunity to carry on Phil’s legacy,” Elliot said.
The Falcons have 13 lettermen returning as well as 10 starters (four on offense, five on defense and a kicker).
The Falcons went 8-3 last season to finish sixth in Division I Region 1. They traveled to Euclid in Week 11 where they lost, 35-0.
This year, the Falcons have dropped to Div. II.
The offensive line has the most experience. Lineman Justin Stainfield started all 11 games in 2018. Ryan Connors, Kyle Moore, Tom Rader and Payton Short received playing time up front. “A couple of them started a couple of games,” Elliot said.
Elliot said the quarterback and running back positions will be staffed “by committee.”
Leskovac will get the first shot to line up behind center.
“He’s experienced and a more physical player,” Elliot said. “But because he starts defensively, Devin Sherwood can handle playing quarterback. He did very well in our [first] scrimmage.
“He’s got an opportunity [to become] a pretty good quarterback.”
Senior running back CJ Woodberry had a couple of starts last fall. Another contender is his classmate Shawn Mayes who has recovered from a broken leg suffered in a junior varsity game last season.
Also in the mix will be sophomore Tyree Mitchel.
At wide receiver, junior Todd Simons is expected to be healed for the opener after suffering a preseason injury. Others are Chris Scott, Isaac Bethel and Kyree Long.
Elliot said all will play defense so “there’s a couple of younger guys that probably will get some reps just because we’ve got to get [the others] breaks.”
Armstrong will anchor the Falcons’ defensive line.
“I just love hitting people, that’s my passion,” Armstrong said.
Rader and Joe Perez will join him up front.
“We can almost platoon those guys”’ Elliot said.
Leskovac and Stainfield will play inside linebacker. Leskovac expects to be “blitzing a lot. There are some interesting [plays] in our defensive book. Hopefully, they help us stop [opposing offenses}.”
Mayes will start at outside linebacker.
“Right now, we don’t know who will start at the other [outside position],” Elliot said.
Carlo Walters returns as the Falcons’ kicker.
To honor Annarella, Leskovac said the players will wear wristbands that say “character, consistency and heart.”
Elliot plans to call the offensive plays. Joe McMahon is the defensive coordinator and Steve Zielinski is in charge of special teams.
Elliot said one of Annarella’s mantras was to be prepared.
The biggest change for him over the last two months “is being a little more organized on both sides of the ball.”
He said assistant John Jones helps him with administrative duties.