BY DAN STICKRADT
Since last making the playoffs in 2004, Troy Athens has dropped out of the spotlight. The Red Hawks have had just one winning season in the past six years and only nine victories the past four campaigns combined.
Part of that is coaching, as the Red Hawks have had three head coaches in the past six years. Part of it is philosophy.
Josh Heppner is attempting to make some changes in 2011 and try to right the ship. The goal is to give Athens its first winning season since 2004, when the Red Hawks finished 7-4 and reached the second round of the postseason.
“I think one of the big things is that this is our third season here as a staff and the players have a better understanding of what to expect,” said Heppner. “When I first came here (in 2009), the seniors were checked out. That was their third coaching staff in three years. I’m trying to have to learn a whole new system three years in a row was frustrating.
“I think another thing we need to change is the team concept. I think we put too much emphasis on individuals last season,” Heppner continued. “I think a lot of the kids were expecting Jake Duzey to carry us to the promised land. A team can only succeed if every player does their part.”
Duzey, an All-State Dream Team selection last season, is now at Iowa. But the foundations of a solid season are in place and the Red Hawks will feature a more balanced attack this season as compare to last season when Athens finished 3-6, including 1-6 in the OAA Red Division.
Senior Ben Bartnowak is back for his third season at quarterback and has bulked up to a sturdy 6-foot-1 and 230 pounds. Bartnowak has improved his passing accuracy, which will be key because the Red Hawks do have weapons and depth at the skilled positions.
Junior Lonnie Jaynes (5-11, 205), a transfer from Rochester Adams, senior Matt Fitzpatrick (5-11, 205), senior Lonnie Bolden (5-10,190), junior Ivan Kharachenko (6-1, 185), junior Sam Haskell (5-9, 150) and senior Kris Gervin (5-8, 195), a transfer from Orchard Lake St. Mary’s, will all rotate time in the backfield or as slot receivers. Seniors Jake Spinec (5-10, 150) and Brandon Neal (6-1, 170) and junior Joe Shields (5-11, 155) are three other capable receivers that will receive some time.
“Last year we used Jake Duzey and Joe Kemp a lot and teams really keyed on stopping those guys,” said Heppner. “This year we have 8-9 guys that we can use. (Bartnowak) will have plenty of options, so we’ll keep teams guessing on who we go to.”
Athens returns several linemen and have one of the larger lines in the entire OAA. That should give the offense plenty of time to operate and control the line of scrimmage.
Senior Andrew Aurand (6-4,290) is an intelligent blocker and the third year starter is a Division I prospect. He’s joined by junior tackle Jalen Thomas (6-4, 260), senior guards Joe Colo (6-2, 260) and Corey Thai (6-2, 270) and senior center Aaron Hazen (6-1, 205).
Senior Sandy Mouch (5-11, 155), a starter in soccer, is the team’s top kicker.
On the defensive side of the football, Aurand, Colo and senior Tony Shayoka (6-1, 195) will anchor the line. Fitzpatrick, Jaynes, Kharchenko, Hazen and senior Josh Allen (6-3,185) will from the linebackers unit, while Bolden, Haskell and Shields will all spell time in the secondary.
There are a few other holes to plug, as the Red Hawks graduated 22 starters.
“We have athletes. We have size. We have speed. Now, we have to try to improve as a team,” said Heppner. “We need to have good team chemistry and I think we’re seeing more of that than the past two years. Those little things can go a long way.
“Our goal is to contend in the league and reach the playoffs. But we can’t do that without every one doing their part,” added Heppner. “I think this group of guys is buying into that.”
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