Aurora -- The Greenmen gridders have a big fall ahead -- competing in the Chagrin Valley Conference for the final season and hoping to secure a 10th straight playoff appearance.
Joining the Suburban League next year will bring new opportunity, but veteran mentor Bob Mihalik has unfinished business before that happens.
Mihalik enters his 14th season as head coach with a 112-42 record, and has a slew of talented athletes and a veteran coaching staff. Competing for an eighth Chagrin Division title in the last decade, Aurora (10-2 in 2013) will have to replace another outstanding senior class.
Last year, the Greenmen shared the Chagrin Division crown with Chagrin Falls at 6-1.
"We hope to compete for a league title and qualify for the playoffs again," said Mihalik, who lost 19 lettermen to graduation, but returns 29 letterwinners. "I think the CVC outlook will be a five-team race between Kenston, Chagrin, West Geauga, Perry, and us."
The Division III Greenmen open the season Aug. 29 at Twinsburg, which went 2-8 last year. Scrimmages against Elyria, Willoughby South and Lakewood helped AHS prep for a tough non-league slate.
Quarterback -- Gone is first-team All-NEO Inland District signal caller George Bollas, who is on the Kent State University squad.
He compiled 2,678 total yards and 30 touchdowns, passed for 1,355 yards, had 6 interceptions and 1,323 rushing yards for a 7.4-yard average.
Two quarterbacks could see action this fall -- senior Alex Smierciak (6-foot-1, 170) and junior Nolan Sotka. In 2013, Smierciak was 4 of 6 passing for 66 yards, a TD and no interceptions. He also ran six times for 27 yards. He is an all-district outside linebacker as well.
Sotka is a promising underclassmen who has size (6-3, 205) and a lively arm. "We have a two-way battle here," said Mihalik, who also is the offensive coordinator. "I think a cause for concern is that other than [senior wide receiver] Joe Dinardo, we have all new skill position players on offense," he said.
Backfield -- Another returning all-district linebacker -- senior Ryan Devine (5-10, 180) -- will take on more offense responsibilities this fall, playing at tailback. He had 13 carries for 84 yards and a TD last year.
Mihalik stressed that speedy junior Ben Nelson (5-11, 180) also will play tailback, while fullbacks are junior Austin Piunno (5-10, 215) and sophomore Alan Arslanian (5-10, 180), and slotbacks are junior Parker Blunt and senior Nick Settecase (5-8, 160).
Others who may see action are senior Brian Kingure (5-8, 165), junior Dylan Marder (5-9, 175) and sophomore Chris Vanzo (5-11, 175).
Receivers -- Dinardo (5-10, 170) had a big season in 2013, and will get many more touches with the loss of all-district player Kirk Janoch (1,076 total yards).
Last year, Dinardo amassed 762 all-purpose yards and seven TDs with his receiving (24 catches for 297 yards and four TDs), rushing (12 rushes for 78 yards and two TDs) and return game.
New starters are junior wideout Mitch Evans and rangy senior Sam Filkouski (6-3, 180), while senior Mike Malone (5-8, 155) will gets reps at wideout along with junior Craig Conley (5-11, 155). Tight ends are seniors Nate Stafford (6-2, 240) and Mike Stratton.
Offensive line -- This will be a strength for Aurora, which promises to have a strong blocking front wall with strong tight ends, even with the graduation loss of first-team all-district right guard Justin Wazbinski.
Returning linemen are seniors Brandon Zamary and Brian McNamara, and junior Josh Burger (6-4, 290). According to the mentor, new starters in the trenches are seniors Angus Nietert (6-3, 210), Mitch Deininger (6-2, 250), Nick Ferrando (6-1, 215) and Stephen Pigza, who also can play tight end after catching 10 passes for 195 yards and four TDs last year.
Also seeing time on a good-sized front line will be junior Colin Garnek (6-2, 245) and senior Derek Angelo (6-2, 215). "We will have good overall experience on the offensive line," said Mihalik.
Front -- Aurora's defense should be one of the best in the CVC, and the line is active and has size. Gone are all-district end Romel Pollard and Wazbinski, but Zamary and McNamara return and are two of the best in the CVC.
Zamary (6-2, 255) is one of the strongest players on the team and was a first-team All-NEO Inland District pick a year ago. He was in on 98 tackles, with seven sacks, five tackles for losses, four quarterback hurries and a fumble recovery.
McNamara (6-3, 230) is also back with Ferrando, who saw action in 2013. Deininger also will start, and others who will see action are Angelo, Burger, Stafford, Piunno and Garnek.
"I think we have a strong and experienced defense returning," said Mihalik.
Linebacker -- This is a spot where Aurora is loaded. Janoch will be missed, but Stratton was a first-year starter and had a banner year, making first-team all-district.
Stratton (6-1, 200) led the team with 125 total stops, including 60 solo tackles. He had a team-high 10 stops behind the line, four caused fumbles, four sacks, three QB hurries and two interceptions.
Devine is another topnotch backer who will return after placing second on the team in tackles with 108, including 49 solos. Using his speed, he was a second-team All-NEO Inland District player, who added seven sacks and four tackles behind the line.
Smierciak also shined and was honorable mention all-district with 74 stops, nine tackles for losses, three sacks, and two picks. Pigza is the new starter at 6-1, 205. Subs include Settecase, Nelson, Arslanian, Sotka and Marder.
Secondary -- The Greenmen need to gain some experience and depth, but talent is there. Dinardo returns, along with Evans (5-11, 180), who came on strong at cornerback last year with 41 stops, two interceptions and a team-high seven pass deflections.
Dinardo and Evans have solid speed, while Evans is strong in run support. Blunt is a new starter and could be a playmaker with his 5-11, 180-pound frame. The staff will also will use Conley, Malone and Filkouski.
Special teams -- This should be a team strength with the return of senior kicking specialist Joe Melchiori (5-10, 185), junior placekicker Andrew Seidel and punter Smierciak.
Melchiori was 42 of 47 on extra point kicks and a perfect 4 for 4 on field goals. Seidel was 7 of 10 PATs subbing for the injured Melchiori .
The return game is in solid hands with Dinardo, who had 387 return yards and a 25.8-yard average on kickoff returns with one score. Evans will assist in the return game with Nelson and Settecase.
Other key Aurora seniors are: Xavier Medley (RB-DL), Ian Behra (LB-TE), Tyler Groth (DL-OL), Will Martino (DL-OL), Dean Hayden (OL-DL), Martel Tinsley (OL-DL), A.J. Suchovsky (OL-DL) and Mason Brady (DL-OL)
Coaching staff -- Brian Wervey is the defensive coordinator and also helps with the linebackers and offensive line.
More coaching experience returns with John Calcei (defensive backs, offensive backs), Victor Ricketts (lines), Nick Kukarola (wide receivers, linebackers, JV offense), Jay Price (defensive line, QBs, JV defense), Mark Dingman (volunteer kicking coach), Danny Myers (freshmen defense) and Tom Mental (freshmen offense).
Middle school coaches are Dave Keckan, Ken Cardaman, Adam Hoover, Mike Romito and Jason Lewandowski.