Aurora -- The Greenmen enter the 2013 football season coming off two appearances in the state semifinals in 2011 and 2012.
If the gridders are to make it a third straight appearance in the final four, they are going to do so behind the play of basically a whole new group.
Gone are guys like Zach Smierciak, Zach Quinn and Jake McVay -- all off to play Division I college football -- along with 14 other starters from the 2012 team that finished the season12-2.
"The last two years we've lost tremendous classes and tremendous players," said AHS head coach Bob Mihalik, who enters his 13th at the helm with a career record of 102-40. "It's been good for us. We've had a good offseason filled with competition at almost every position."
Although there are many holes to fill in the departed senior class, the cupboard is definitely not bare.
LOOKING AT THE OFFENSE
Leading the team will be a quartet of seniors who were a big part of the success the Greenmen had last year -- quarterback George Bollas, do-everything-guy Kirk Janoch, fullback/defensive lineman Romel Pollard and offensive/defensive lineman Justin Wazbinski.
Bollas, who verbally committed to play at Kent State next year, started at quarterback last year and grew as the season went along. The struggles he showed at the beginning of 2012 are a distant memory as he matured into a guy who carried the team during the playoffs. Those are experiences that should make him even better in 2013.
"Georgie grew and matured last year," said Mihalik. "Last year, he had a lot of help and he didn't have to win games for us early on. But those guys are gone now. He showed he is capable of winning games for us by putting us on his back in the playoffs and he is ready to lead us this year."
While Bollas is one major focal point of the offense, the other will be Janoch. Mihalik said Janoch will line up all over the field -- at tailback, wide receiver and slot.
"We are going to move him around, get him on some miss matches and give him space to make plays," said Mihalik.
As for other playmakers in the Greenmen attack, Mihalik is relying a group of inexperienced, but talented players.
At tailback will be senior James Mackell, along with Janoch. Senior Mitch Lackey will get the start at fullback, but senior Brendon Kimes and Pollard also will see time in the backfield.
"We are going to be more 'by committee' this year," Mihalik said. "We have a solid group led by George and Janoch who will get the job done."
Bollas will throw the ball to another group of inexperienced receivers -- junior Joe Dinardo and seniors Anthony Quaranto, Andrew Rinicella and Patrick Heraghty, along with Janoch.
"They are group that is very explosive, but we don't have that sure handed guy," said Mihalik. "We got a lot of guys who can make big plays, but we need them to be more consistent at the routine play."
Senior Luke Calcei -- the last of a long line of Calcei brothers -- will get the start at tight end, with junior Mike Stratton as his partner.
The success of Aurora's offense will, once again, be keyed by the play of the "hogs," or offensive linemen up front. Wazbinski will lead the offensive line from his right guard spot after starting every game last season.
Joining Wasbinski on the right side of the line is senior Mike Nemeth, who will start at right tackle and will be backed up by junior Brandon Zamary.
Seniors Chad Jubell and Griff Petersen are in a battle for the starting center spot, a battle Mihalik said is 50/50 as of Aug. 23. "They are splitting reps and we'll see how it plays out," the head coach said.
There is another battle for the left guard position between juniors Brian McNamara and Nick Ferrando. The left tackle spot was won by senior Aaron Rataj.
"Aaron worked his butt off this offseason, has really made the commitment and has become a pleasant surprise. He's earned it," said Mihalik.
Rataj will be backed up by sophomore Josh Burger and Mitch Deininger. "We are pretty deep on the offensive line," said Mihalik. "Even the backups have been impressive."
In years past, Aurora has been talented enough to use a variety of offensive formations and looks. Mihalik said he hopes that to be the case again, but they are still working though what works for them.
"We are still trying to find our identity," he said. "We had some good success [in our scrimmage] against Elyria. "We've done some old things, we are doing some new things; a lot will depend on our new skill kids."
LOOKING AT THE DEFENSE
During Aurora's run of eight straight playoff appearances, a stingy defense has been key. Most years, that defense was led by an aggressive, hard hitting, tackling machine of linebackers.
This year, they will start four linebackers with zero experience in their basic 4-4 look, as the team lost all four starting linebackers from last year and their top five tacklers. "We've got some holes to fill," said Mihalik.
If anyone can find the best way to fill those holes, defensive coordinator Brian Wervey is the man to do it.
Janoch, who played safety last year, will move to one outside backer spot. The opposite outside position will be filled by another guy who played defensive back last year -- junior Alex Smierciak. "Both played a lot last year, but not at that position," said Mihalik.
The inside linebacker position is the big question mark. "We have a bunch of guys competing for the two positions," Mihalik said. "We don't know who it's going to be, but we need someone to step up."
The guys competing for the spots are Quaranto and Kimes, along with juniors Mike Stratton, Brian Kingure, Ryan Devine and sophomore Nolan Sotka.
The other two areas of the defense -- the line and the secondary -- should be strong for the Greenmen. The d-line has the most returners with three starters back in Wasbinski, Pollard and Zamary.
Jubell, McNamara, Petersen, Calcei , Burger, Deininger and junior Mason Brady also will see time on the line. "We will run a four-man front most of the time and we have lots of depth," said Mihalik. "We won't miss a beat when we rotate guys."
In the secondary, Mihalik has been very pleased with the work of his cornerbacks. "We feel we have two shut down corners," he said. "We played a lot more zone last year but this year we will be able to play more man and press."
Those corners are Dinardo and Mackell. Backing them up will be junior Nick Settecase and senior Tom Branstein.
Lackey will be the team's safety with sophomore Parker Blunt and junior Sam Filkouski backing him up.
"It seems we've always had those guys to just plug in at linebacker and not miss a beat," said Mihalik. "Now we have the guys but they don't have the experience. We need them to step up and become playmakers. Even so, we have the guys to be pretty good defensively."
Handling the kicking duties will be junior Joey Melchiori and punting will be done by either Melchiori or Smierciak.
SOME OTHER INFORMATION
This will be the second to last season the Greenmen will compete in the Chagrin Valley Conference. The CVC voted in the late spring to move on without Aurora and Kenston.
That may give Aurora even more incentive to win yet another CVC crown. They have won or shared the title seven of the last eight years.
The Greenmen also will look to extend their playoff run to nine seasons and win their third regional championship -- this year in Division III -- the same division they were in when they won the state crown in 2008.
However, because of the realignment in high school football, many of the same teams Aurora saw in D-II the last few years will join them in D-III.
"We really haven't talked about all that," said Mihalik. "It'd be a mistake to and just added pressure. But I know it's on their minds. They want to keep the tradition going and don't want to be the team that ends the playoff run. We have the same goals every year -- win the CVC and make the playoffs."
If all those things aren't enough, maybe playing for a fallen teammate will give the team a little extra motivation. This is the year Paul McGhee would have been a senior. His life was claimed in a single car accident in November 2011.
The team will wear 57 (McGhee's number) on their helmets, and no player will wear 57 on his jersey 57. McGhee will be an honorary captain, along with Bollas, Wasbinski, Janoch and Pollard.
"It's going to be a tough year for those guys," said Mihalik. "The kids will be playing for him."
As for the CVC, Mihalik thinks it will be strong top to bottom. "Chagrin Falls and us are at the top, but others have made strides or will be pushing us," said Mihalik.
West Geauga and Perry return the most starters, and Kenston made a surprise playoff run last year and has that to build on coming into 2013.
"It's going to be a five-team race," said Mihalik. "It's going to be fun going back to having a lot of teams in the mix. It makes every week and every game that much more important."
Aurora opens Aug. 30 at home against Twinsburg and will play another home game Sept. 6, then travel to Revere on Sept. 12. The Greenmen open their CVC schedule by hosting Chagrin Falls on Sept. 20.