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Aurora gridders eye conference crown, 12th straight berth in postseason competition

by STEVE BATKO | CORRESPONDENT Published: August 24, 2016 1:00 AM
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Aurora -- Graduation losses were costly, but Aurora High looks to have another successful club as the high school football season kicks off.

The Greenmen handled the transition to the Suburban League American Conference last year with positive results in a 9-2 co-championship campaign that saw them qualify for the playoffs for the 11th straight year.

"We were fortunate to win the league in 2015," said veteran coach Bob Mihalik.

Only state playoff competitor Medina Highland beat Aurora in league play in a wild 38-28 game.

Despite graduating 18 players, Mihalik is excited about this fall. He hopes the team can stay healthy after an injury-riddled season, and noted the goals will remain the same.

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"Our goal is always to win the league, and that will not change," he offered. "We also hope to compete for another playoff berth. Once you qualify for the playoffs, the goal is a deep run and a state championship."

Aurora returns 12 starts from last year among 48 lettermen. The season opener is Aug. 26 against Solon at Veterans Stadium, with kickoff at 7 p.m.

The following is a position-by-position outlook:

OFFENSE: Aurora runs a multiple set that lost some key playmakers to graduation from a group that averaged 36.1 points and 330 yards a contest despite the injuries.

QUARTERBACK: Last year's first-year starting QB Nolan Sotka made special mention all-Ohio and developed quickly. He suffered an injury, battled back and has graduated.

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Sotka threw one interception the entire year while connecting for 19 scores and 1,338 yards. He ran for 375 yards and 2 TDs.

Two players return after limited play a year ago -- senior Mac Austin and junior Evan Fromwiller.

Austin started when Sotka went down and was solid in a big win over previously undefeated Copley.

"Mac and Evan are battling for the starting spot," explained Mihalik. "Austin probably has a slight edge early on."

For the year, Austin was 3 of 7 passing for 43 yards. Most importantly, he didn't throw an interception.

The 6-foot-1, 195-pound Austin has 4.6-second speed in the 40-yard dash. He ran for 127 yards and 3 TDs.

"Mac led us to victory over undefeated Copley in week 8 when Sotka was hurt," said the coach.

"Austin really worked hard in the off-season. He understands our offense and makes great decisions. He is an accurate passer and one of the fastest kids on the team."

Fromwiller is almost as fast as Austin, and directed the junior varsity team to an undefeated year. On the varsity, Fromwiller (5-11, 185) ran for a TD and 63 yards.

"He is a very athletic player who can extend plays with his feet when the pocket breaks down. Whoever does not start will be an integral part of the defense," Mihalik said.

BACKS: Despite Ben Nelson being injured for most of the season, Aurora managed 204 yards rushing per game.

Chris Vanzo showed potential at tailback when Nelson went down. The senior will get more touches this year.

Vanzo (6-0, 200) led with 8 rushing scores and 483 yards on 87 carries. "Chris is the starter at tailback," proclaimed Mihalik.

The primary backup will be senior Ben Stawicki, with Trent Bollinger and Brock Mancini providing depth.

Bollinger (6-0, 165) is a senior who had one TD last year. A junior, Mancini (6-1, 195) offers some power.

Senior fullback Bubba Arslanian may carry a bigger load as a runner, blocker and receiver. He had had 247 yards and 3 TDs, plus 9 catches for 89 yards.

Junior Cole Miller (1 TD) is a backup fullback, along with juniors Jimmy Kish and Brent Henderson.

RECEIVERS: Parker Blunt graduated after grabbing 12 catches for 226 yards and 2 TDs. He had 7 total TDs.

Wideouts Craig Conley and Mitch Evans also are gone, as is tight end Andrew Seidel, who had 3 TDs.

However, junior wide receiver Gavin Blunt (6-2, 190) led Aurora in catches (20), yards (454), TDs (10), and yards a catch (22.7) and will play a big role this year.

Jonathan Blue (5-11, 165) is a starter at slotback, but the versatile Stawicki will see plenty of action, too.

Blue, a senior, had four catches for 57 and 2 TDs rushing. Senior Brian Barefield and junior Drew McVay also could see time.

Joining Blunt as wideout starters are senior Jimmy Richards (5-11, 175) and junior Jared DeMicco (5-11, 180). Depth comes from senior David Donley and junior Dino DeRoia.

Platooning at tight end will be junior Nate Smierciak and senior Kyle DelRosa, but a trio of seniors offer relief in J.T. Rose (6-1, 195), Thomas Arnold (6-2, 180) and Josh Loudon (6-1, 175).

OFFENSIVE LINE: First team All-Ohio tackle Josh Burger has graduated, along with standout guard Collin Garnek, center Albert Pietrangelo and tackle Vinny Verbiar.

AHS has experience at guard with seniors Caleb Tinsley (5-11, 215) and Will Lovell (5-11, 190), plus at tackle with seniors Lucci Quaranto (6-1, 235) and Holden Semancik (6-3, 250).

Junior Montana Nietert (6-3, 255) is the new starting center, while junior John Retton (6-0, 170) is the top sub.

Aurora has good size as junior Mason Copley will see a lot of time at tackle and is 6-5 and 240 pounds, while backup guard Sonny Quaranto stands 6-foot-9 and 305 pounds.

The staff is looking for consistency as senior David Avenmarg (5-7, 195) is a top sub at guard, and versatile senior John Hanna (6-0, 170) offers depth at tackle and also can play guard.

DEFENSE: Using a multiple defensive set, Aurora looks to be strong after allowing just 93 yards rushing a game last fall.

DEFENSIVE FRONT: Burger made all-district and will be missed, along with Garnek, who was honorable mention, and Verbiar.

There's experience with Lovell, who was fourth on the team with 58 stops, 4 sacks, 3 tackles for losses, 3 QB hurries and a fumble recovery.

Semancik produced 19 tackles, 3 QB hurries, 2 stops behind the line and a sack.

Team captains are Arslanian, Lovell, Austin and Semancik.

Tinsley also will play in the defensive trenches along with Copley, Nietert and Lucci Quaranto.

"They all will rotate through on the front," said the coach.

LINEBACKERS: Honorable mention all-district inside linebacker Dylan Marder has graduated, but first-team all-district linebackers return in Arslanian and Gavin Blunt. Arslanian (6-0, 210) made second-team all-Ohio.

From the outside, Arslanian led Aurora with 140 tackles and 13 tackles for losses. He added 4 caused fumbles, 3 QB hurries, 2 sacks, 2 fumble recoveries, 2 passes defensed and a pick.

Gavin Blunt returns to outside linebacker after having 21 stops, 6 passes defended, 3 tackles for losses and 1.5 sacks.

Austin is a solid prospect at outside backer. He had 24 stops with 4 tackles behind the line. Vanzo adds depth on the inside, along with Kish (6-2, 186).

Miller, 5-10 and 205 pounds, is back again on the inside and gives Aurora superb experience. He was third in tackles with 87 and led with 5 QB hurries, plus had 8 tackles for losses, 3 fumble recoveries and 2 sacks.

Henderson (6-0, 190) will play at inside linebacker, along with Bollinger and Mancini. Battling for time on the outside are Austin, Donley (6-0, 166) and DeRoia (6-2, 195).

SECONDARY: Aurora will miss Parker Blunt and Evans, who were honorable mention all-district in 2015, plus Conley, another starter. The team needs athletes in the deep back rotation to gel quickly.

Stawicki (6-1, 210 pounds) is the starter at safety, along with Fromwiller. Stawicki was fifth in solo tackles (15) and had 24 overall, while Fromwiller had a pick.

Battling for time at cornerback is Blue, plus

Richards, Barefield and DeMicco. Blue (23 stops) and Richards (17) saw some action. "They all will play at corner," said Mihalik.

Barefield (5-8, 160) and DeMicco are solid prospects, while McVay also could be used. DelRosa and McVay (5-10, 150) are slated for depth at safety.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Aurora returns first-team all-Ohio punter Gavin Blunt and impressive junior placekicker Robby Albrecht.

Blunt, who averaged 38.0 yards a punt, also is a threat in the return game. He had 336 yards on returns with a kickoff return TD.

Albrecht was honorable mention all-district. He was 50 of 50 on PATs and 7 of 10 on field goals with his longest being 37 yards.

DeMicco, Barefield, Stawicki, Arslanian and Vanzo help in the return game.

LEAGUE: Aurora was 5-1 in the American Conference and co-champ with Copley (9-2), which exploded for 40.7 points a game. Only Highland (4-2) beat Aurora.

"We enter our second year in the Suburban League and there will be no off weeks," pointed out Mihalik. "Every team is capable of beating us on any given night."

Barberton (7-3, 3-3) piled up 35.4 points a game and is a team to watch, with Kent Roosevelt (4-6, 2-4) and Tallmadge (2-8, 2-4). Revere (3-7) hopes to snag its first league win.

Aurora opens league play Sept. 16 at Kent.

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