ELYRIA -- Last season was a renaissance for Elyria Catholic football.
After nearly a decade of frustration and mediocrity, a thrilling playoff season highlighted by a stunning last-second, first-round victory over Anna served notice that Lorain County’s dominant team of the 1980s was back.
With 17 returning letterwinners on last season’s team, then first-year coach Brian Fox had plenty to work with. This year, with much of that elite talent graduated, Fox has plenty of challenges in front of him if he hopes to match or surpass last season’s success.
The cupboard is not empty, however. A big, experienced offensive line and a trio of all-state candidates at wide receiver will give Fox and the Panthers offense plenty to work with.
The line averages 6-foot-3, 281 pounds and is anchored by senior Division I prospect Branson Taylor (6-8, 330) at left tackle. Taylor will be joined up front by senior David Leeper (6-0, 255) at left guard, senior Darrius Randleman (6-1, 290) at center, junior Ryan Roark (6-3, 295) at right guard and sophomore Hayden Gerhart (6-2, 250) at right tackle.
Fox expects big things from his big offensive line.
“That group, right now, is the strength for us,” he said. “From the seniors down to the sophomores, I’m so enthused by those guys right now. It almost ruins practice because we’ve got to find ways to get them better looks because right now we have these freshmen going against them.
“Having them be the strength of the group … that’s always who you need. You need to have talented quarterbacks and all that, but it’s always got to be the offensive line.”
The biggest question mark for the EC offense will be at quarterback, where junior Steven Navalinsky (6-2, 195) is set to start despite never before having taken a varsity snap. But Navalinsky is confident he can get the job done after backing up Cameron Engrish last season.
“Sitting behind Cam, getting taught by him and Coach Fox, has helped me a lot,” Navalinsky said. “Cam really taught me a lot over the last two years. Reading defenses is becoming a lot easier as opposed to my freshman year when I really didn’t have to do it.
“I watch a lot of film, and watching film with Cam last year really helped me. You have to know what to look for, what the reads are and how to react. Cam really taught me how to do this.”
Navalinsky has plenty of weapons outside. Junior Jaret Frantz (6-4, 200) is a Division I prospect who caught 23 passes for 375 yards and five touchdowns last season. Senior Connor Trockley caught 19 passes for 378 yards and four touchdowns while Jack Griffin (5-10, 160) was all-state at cornerback last season and should see a bigger role on offense.
“Having the receivers we do have is going to make life easier for Steven,” Fox said. “We can rely on the run game and we can isolate the receivers because of that. That means there will be less decision-making for a young quarterback.”
Fox was effusive in his praise for his receivers, including senior tight end Nate Damron.
“(Frantz) is 6-foot-4, he’s got a 6-foot-7 wingspan and he went 4.68 (40-yard dash) at Toledo’s camp,” Fox said. “He looks so smooth and he’s a different person, physically. He was talented last year, but this year he’s an altogether different animal. He’s ready to earn a scholarship in the first four weeks.
“Connor didn’t play football the year before last, and he’s come in and the kid’s just a physical freak. Damron is taller than Jaret and he’s got the same 6-7 wingspan. That kid has been jumping out of the gym and catching everything. Then we have returning all-state Jack Griffin. I’m still trying to figure out how we’re going to get all these kids on the field. We have six legitimate all-conference candidates at wide receiver.”
Frantz made a habit last season of coming up big in critical situations. He caught the game-winning touchdown in a late-season game at Bay, then set up the winning touchdown in the Panthers’ first-round playoff win over Anna.
“I like being the guy that makes the big catch," Frantz said. "It’s a big role, but I know I can handle it. We have a talented group of receivers and I have every confidence any one of them can make a pressure catch when the game is on the line.”
Senior Chris Jackson (6-2, 200) has big shoes to fill at running back. Leighton Banjoff rolled up 1,740 rushing yards with 23 touchdowns a year ago, while Jackson carried the ball 40 times for 245 yards.
“Chris has an incredible attitude,” Fox said. “He has DI attention and he was a backup running back last year. He’s 6-foot-2, he’s 205 and he went 11.1 in the 100 (dash) his sophomore year. People wonder if he can run inside, but he averaged 6 yards a carry last year. It’s not like we have a completely unknown quantity, but the challenge will be how he can carve out yards when they’re not there.”
On defense, the Panthers will rely on four returning starting linebackers and Griffin at cornerback.
Damron is the team’s leading returning tackler after making 103 stops, 29 for a loss, with 8.5 sacks last season. Luke Costantino racked up 96 tackles with two sacks and an interception. Jackson and Josh Miller, both with 44 tackles last season, will be joined by Leeper to form a solid linebacking corp.
Griffin will lead a defensive backfield that will be a mix of veterans and newcomers. He picked off five passes, broke up 12 and scored a pair of defensive touchdowns a year ago.
The Panthers will have something new to deal with after last season’s success … expectations. With traditional power Buckeye joining the Great Lakes Conference, there will be no weeks off for the Panthers -- especially being the smallest school in the league.
“We aren’t focused on what anybody else thinks, we’re focused on being the best team in the state, week in and week out,” Costantino said. “We aren’t worried about who is now in our conference or who is where, we’re just focused on being the best team in the state and going out every night and performing.
“It feels like now that we’ve created the culture we’re sustaining it. We’re building on it and that’s what we have to do every single day.”
Contact Mike Perry at 329-7135 or email@example.com.