EATON — Times have been rough for the Eaton Eagles football team of late: their last two seasons combined for a 5 -15 record since going 7-3 in 2013.
But there is hope in Eaton to turn the tide and make an impact this season.
Second-year head coach Brad Davis is back at the helm. Davis has been on the staff at Eaton since 2004, and was defensive coordinator since 2009.
“Obviously, in terms of wins and losses, we were not very successful,” said coach Davis. “However, we were in on several of those losses, which led to one of our focal points for the 2016 team. Those games just came down to a few key mistakes, or turnovers, and the games went the other way. We stress the importance of every play, and we want the guys to know that every game comes down to a handful of plays. Players don’t know when those plays are going to occur, so we have to go hard and play with great effort all of the time to take advantage.”
As with almost every program, players come and go due to graduation or simply failing to return to play. The most significant this season were All-SWBL second team player Shelby Ward and Honorable Mention Damon Willard.
“Losing Willard, a four-year starter, is a big hole because of his playing experience, leadership, and understanding of the program,” said Davis. “Four-year starters in football are very rare and difficult to replace. Ward, Josh Bulach, Matt Todd, Darius Spears and Tyrell David were all two-way guys for us, so we have some holes to fill there. Also, Drew Moore, Brian Conard, and Austin Hartzler were involved primarily with offense or defense, but contributed to special teams too.”
Eleven total lettermen return for the 2016 season. Those players include Lew Bowser, KJ Melling, Donnie Nicodemus, Vaughn Welcome, Ghye Wilson, Jordan Lewis, Spencer Reynolds, Tyler Schmidt, Chase Smith, Aaron Tolliver, and Kaleb Wilson. Forty-one total players are on the roster, including seven seniors, 14 juniors, 14 sophomores, and six freshmen.
The Eagles return starting quarterback Bowser, who earned All-SWBL first-team honors last season. He passed for 1,109 yards, which was fourth best in the conference. A two-year letterman, he figures to be a factor for the Eaton gridders.
“I think we will do better this year,” Bowser said. “Last year was a disappointment for us. We have a bit more commitment from guys this year so we should be good. I want to take advantage of my experience from last year, learn from my mistakes and just play hard.”
Nicodemus earned second team All-SWBL at special teams. He will play defensive end and offensive tackle this year. He is one of only three players who enters the season with two letters on their playing history.
“My personal goal defensively is to get more tackles and be more of a leader to help other players what to do and to do the same offensively,” Nicodemus said. “Football has influenced my life since I was a kid, I couldn’t be happier with my life because of football.”
Melling was named honorable mention last year and is the third player to see playing time since his sophomore season. He is slated to play guard and linebacker.
“Last year, it seemed like we didn’t have much commitment from several players,” said Melling. “This year, I expect everyone to give it their best every day and on every play. I want to give the team my best. I play three sports to help improve my game. This is my last year in school. It gets a bit emotional when I think about it, how everything will be my last time to do something. So it’s a motivation to make the most of everything I can.”
Wilson is a senior wide receiver and corner back for the Eagles.
“I think my abilities that we do everyday in practice and in the off-season have helped make me a better player,” Wilson, who first started playing football in third grade, said. “As a senior, I need to be a leader and step up my game for the underclassmen who are looking up to me and hope to be the best they can be.”
With Bowser, sophomore Ryan Venable ( 5-7, 140) will man the quarterback position this year. The offensive backfield looks to be crewed by Connor Gowanny (Sr), Seth Hodapp (Jr), Caleb Puckett (So), Peyton Sutton (So), and freshman Logan Chapin (5-8, 145).
The receiving core will be led by lettermen Wilson and juniors Jordan Lewis (6-1, 172), and Aaron Tolliver (5-10, 176). Adding depth will be Braydon Shanefelt (Sr), Alex Almeyda-Roe (Jr), Peyton Miller (Jr), Chip Parker (Jr), Michael Watkins (Jr), Noah Foust (So), Jaxon Reynolds (So), Logan Sizemore (So), Jordan Turner (So), Chris Weadick (So), and freshman Zac Schmidt.
The offensive line looks to have six letterman who may man the front positions. Returning players include Melling, Nicodemus, Welcome (Sr), Spencer Reynolds (Jr), Tyler Schmidt (Jr), Chase Smith (Jr) and Kaleb Wilson (Jr).
On the defensive side, Nicodemus, Welcome, Lewis, Reynolds, Schmidt, and Wilson are expected to be starters. Adding depth to push for playing time are juniors Christian Michael, Seth Mt.Castle, Logan Wysocki, sophomores Logan Coleman (5-10, 283), Jared Emrick, Foust, Nick Imhoff, Adam Minton, Dylan Noland (5-11, 279), Nick Smith (5-11, 284), and freshmen Michael Ashman and Matthew Austin.
The linebackers will be led by Melling and Smith. The rest figure to be freshmen Chapin and and Jarod Lee, with sophomore Sutton.
The secondary is loaded with a large number of players. Bowser and Wilson are returning lettermen. Junior Tolliver figures to be a starter. The rest of the pack includes senior Gowanny, juniors Almeyda-Roe, Hodapp, Miller, Parker, Watkins, sophomores Buckett, Reynolds, Sizemore, Turner, Venable, Weadick, and freshman Zac Schmidt.
”Depth is an issue at all position groups,” Davis said. “We have to do a great job in keeping our guys healthy, fresh, and ready for Friday nights. There are 16 newcomers to the program, including freshmen, which is good and bad. Its good that kids are wanting to part of the program, but a lot of these guys are brand new to football, or at least haven’t played for a few years. The learning curve is a little steeper, and gaining an understanding of the schemes — but they’ve done a pretty good job so far through camp.
“We expect to compete and win every game,” he said. “We refuse to lower expectations due to low numbers or a bad season or two. Eaton has a strong football tradition. We expect a lot from our guys and I think the community expects a lot from us to. We want to improve every day. We want to be prepared and we want the guys to focus on the process and let the results take care of themselves.
“Our program philosophy and our coaching philosophy begins with the team first. Its not about I or me, but we and us. We want and demand physical, disciplined, and tough football players who are committed to the school and the program. We expect our players to conduct themselves with class and poise on and off the field.”
Eaton kicks off the 2016 football season against Greenville, who defeated the Eagles last season 30-20, at 7 p.m. Friday.
Reach Oliver Sanders at 937-683-4062 or on Twitter @osanders_RH