Apollo-Ridge follows Freeport’s formula for early-season success

Wednesday, October 4, 2017 | 5:15 PM

A team heavily reliant on underclassmen after losing its top playmakers to graduation takes the Allegheny Conference by storm, winning four of its first five games to get back into WPIAL playoff contention.

Sound familiar? It should. The storyline is playing out in the Alle-Kiski Valley for a second consecutive season.

One year after Freeport made an early postseason push with a big batch of sophomores, Apollo-Ridge is doing the same with a crop of freshmen. The Vikings' Jake Fello, Klay Fitzroy, Logan Harmon and Keighton Reese are this year's version of Freeport's Austin Romanchak and Conor Selinger.

There are even the grizzled veterans: Apollo-Ridge seniors Kyle Fitzroy and Joe Sodowsky are filling the roles Noah Freeman and Travis Wisniewski did last season for Freeport.

“I see them like we were last year, but they're probably, I would say, (they have) a little better skill set as a whole group,” Freeport coach John Gaillot said. “We're pretty much equal there between the two. … That's a talented team that's just young. They're going to get better.”

Apollo-Ridge is hoping its similarity with Freeport ends with personnel, as the Vikings are seeking a better finish to the season than what the Yellowjackets experienced in 2016. Freeport lost its final four games after a 4-1 start a year ago to miss the playoffs, as it dealt with injuries.

To avoid a similar fate, Apollo-Ridge (4-2, 2-2) needs a bounce-back performance from a 35-21 loss last week against Seton LaSalle. A loss to Allegheny Conference front-runner Freeport (4-1, 3-0) would put a damper on the Vikings' playoff hopes.

“Friday's going to be an absolute awakening for a lot of our guys,” Apollo-Ridge coach John Skiba said. “They haven't been in this position where we're going to be all over the place with different bodies, trying to fill holes and plug holes and see what we can do against a very good football team away at a very good place to play.”

Freeport learned from its disappointment. Now a year older and more experienced, the Yellowjackets are making a push for their second Allegheny title in three seasons.

After a blowout nonconference loss to Aliquippa in Week 3, Freeport bounced back by rallying to beat Shady Side Academy and blanking Burrell to stay a half-game behind Seton LaSalle in the conference race.

“They don't get rattled,” Gaillot said. “They never bat an eye.”

Romanchak, a dual-threat junior quarterback, Selinger, a bruising running back, and speedy senior wideout Jake Sarver lead the Freeport offense, and the defense has two shutouts in three conference games.

“We know our assignments, we have a key the entire game and we just play with our key and shine as a defense,” Freeport sophomore Garret Schaffhauser said. “Defense wins championships. That's our motto, and we just live by that.”

Apollo-Ridge has some offensive uncertainty. Kyle Fitzroy, a three-year starter at quarterback, returned against Seton LaSalle after missing a game to injury and had some struggles, passing for 72 yards while getting sacked 10 times. Harmon, a standout running back and linebacker, left with an injury in the second half and is uncertain for this week.

“It's going to be the chance to make the playoffs, so we've got to come out and get the win,” Reese said.

Apollo-Ridge's 36-7 victory over Freeport last season started the Yellowjackets' season-ending losing streak. But Skiba said the Yellowjackets are bigger, faster and more aggressive than that team.

Freeport's depth also could become a factor. The Yellowjackets roster includes more than 50 players, and that made a difference as the Yellowjackets wore down opponents such as Deer Lakes and Shady Side Academy in the second half.

Skiba expects a difficult battle Friday night. He lives within Freeport's school district and is friends with Yellowjackets defensive coordinator Todd Durand. One of Skiba's assistants teaches at Freeport.

“There's a lot of familiarity with our kids and our players and our coaches,” Skiba said. “It's a tough one. Obviously, they're very good, and I can't see them not being in contention for the top in the conference. We have our hands full. We're going to have to work our tails off.”

Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer.

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