A-K Valley football notebook: Underclassmen adapt quickly for Apollo-Ridge

Thursday, September 14, 2017 | 4:54 PM

At Apollo-Ridge, the kids are all right — or perhaps even better than that.

The Vikings, who start four freshmen in Jacob Fello, Klay Fitzroy, Logan Harmon and Keighton Reese after losing a significant number of contributors from last season's team, ran their record to 3-0 with last week's 27-19 nonconference victory at Beaver Falls, the defending WPIAL and PIAA Class 3A champion. They took an early 14-0 lead and held off a late Beaver Falls comeback.

Coach John Skiba called the victory “huge” for his players' confidence.

“We jumped on them early, and our momentum carried us through,” Skiba said. “Now, we made some mistakes like we always do. We could have had a chance to go up 21-0, but we screwed around and fumbled the ball in their end … but we're young, and we have those growing pains.”

Apollo-Ridge, which finished in second place in the Allegheny Conference last season, had questions after the graduation of Duane Brown, last season's Valley News Dispatch Offensive Player of the Year, leading rusher Brett Coleman and other key contributors Jeremy Dibernardo, Danny Orkwis and Daylon Wells.

With senior quarterback Kyle Fitzroy and senior lineman Joe Sodowski, both three-year starters, leading the way, the Vikings' young guns are filling the void. But even Skiba copped to feeling surprised about how quickly the underclassmen are adapting.

“With them, you don't have to repeat things over and over again,” Skiba said. “They listen, and they want to get better, and they actually pay attention. They'll actually study film. They watch a lot of film. They buy in, and that's what makes it a lot easier.”

The Vikings (3-0, 1-0) face the meat of their schedule in the coming weeks: six consecutive Allegheny Conference games, beginning with Friday's contest at an improved Shady Side Academy (1-1, 1-1).

“I'm glad we got to see Beaver Falls because of what we're going to see this week with (Shady Side quarterback) Skyy Moore and (Dino and Mason Tomlin) and those kids,” Skiba said. “They're very skilled, they're a very good team, they're a confident team right now. They're going to give us issues. Coming down the road, we have a grind the next six weeks. It's not going to be fun, and these kids are going to have to grow up fast.”

Holding the line

Although Highlands' skill players drew plenty of attention after last week's 47-point offensive performance against New Castle, the Golden Rams' linemen effectively did their jobs, as well.

The starting line — seniors Lukas Lamer (right guard), Marcus Sienko (right tackle) and Mario Sienko (left tackle) and juniors Ethan Jones (center) and Daniel Thimons (left guard) — helped senior Jermaine Jett surpass 100 yards rushing in a Week 1 victory over Ambridge and kept quarterback Seth Cohen clean as he passed for a school-record 412 yards and seven touchdowns in the double-overtime loss to New Castle. Sophomore Jacob Waner also has played.

Through two games, the linemen haven't allowed a sack.

“Compared to last year I take a lot of pride in it,” Marcus Sienko said. “Considering that last year we were kind of considered the weak point on the team, it feels good to be the strong point on this team.”

Many of Highlands' skill players graduated after last season, but the line returned most of its experience. All five current starters saw significant time last season.

“The experience is huge because even if one of us goes down, you've still got experienced kids stepping in, like (senior Chance Pittman) or (sophomore Nick Cichello),” Mario Sienko said. “Chance got playing time last year. It's nice having the experience there and a little sense of confidence.”

First-year coach Dom Girardi brought a new playbook to the table, requiring more versatility from everyone on the offense, linemen included.

“I like it a lot better because even though we've got multiple sets, we have so many things we can run out of each set, even though they almost look the same,” Lamer said. “We can run passes, we can run different directions, and our backs have the full capability to cut back and go which way they want.”

Lamer said the line started slowly in the game against Ambridge but showed improvement against New Castle, and they hope to keep that growth going.

“I really like the attitude they have,” Girardi said. “From Day 1, they've been hard workers. They're extremely coachable, and they're just doing everything we ask them to do.”

On the trail

Fox Chapel senior lineman Jesse Cohen is gaining interest from colleges at the Football Championship Subdivision and Division II levels.

The 6-foot-4, 250-pound tackle recently picked up his fifth offer, from Division II Seton Hill, to add to his list. He also holds offers from FCS programs Dayton and Stetson and Division II schools Edinboro and West Virginia State.

Cohen said he has visits scheduled for Edinboro, Seton Hill and Slippery Rock, where his older sister Lacey is a member of the women's tennis team. He recently took a trip to Saginaw Valley State (Mich.) and also has visited Bryant twice.

Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer.

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