LUCASVILLE, Ohio — The Valley Indians have won three straight seasons worth of regular season games, won three straight Southern Ohio Conference titles and have appeared in two straight OHSAA regional finals in the past few years. However, in 2014, the Indians will have something they haven’t had for the past five seasons: a veteran quarterback.
Bryan Rolfe returns as the Indians starter after winning 11 games as a replacement quarterback in 2013. He’ll be the first Valley quarterback to start a second season since Blake Yates. Last season, he stepped in as a replacement for Yates and led the Indians to 11 wins and an appearance in the Regional Finals.
“As the season went on he became a playmaker for us, not only with his arm but with his feet,” said Valley head coach Darren Crabtree. “We’re going to expect more things from him this year. We’re going to add some things to his plate that can utilize his ability.”
Rolfe is just one of a number of players from the Class of 2016 that will have a big impact for the Indians this season. Starting center Drew Wolford returns to anchor the offensive line. Brice Romanello will take over at tight end and defensive end, while handling kicking duties, and Blake Howard will rotate time between wide receiver and running back.
“Our junior class is a very strong class for us,” Crabtree said. “They’re going to have to help quite a bit this year and next year.”
While Valley’s junior class looks strong on both sides of the football, it’s senior class is thin on numbers. The Indians list just six seniors on their entire roster.
“A lot of the time we’ll only have two seniors on the field,” Crabtree said.
At any given time, one of those seniors figures to be Alex Loop. The two-year defensive starter returns for his final season at a new position: linebacker. He had previously spent the past two seasons on the defensive line, but at 5-foot-10-inches and 210 pounds, his physique is better suited as a linebacker. On the offensive side of the ball, Loop will once again line up at fullback, where he gained over 600 yards from scrimmage a year ago.
As one of the few seniors on the team, Loop knows it’s up to him to set an example for his younger teammates.
“I want to help guide these younger kids,” he said. “I guess it’s just how our mindset is this season. It’s going to be: How good do we want to be this season?”
Along with Loop, Wolford will also make the move from defensive end to linebacker, making the linebacking corps the strength of the Valley defense. But while the moves will make the Indians’ best defender more mobile, it leaves some big holes on the defensive line.
The Indians will feature a completely new set of starters along the front four this season. Romanello and Gavin Yazell have locked up starting spots at defensive end, but a four-man position battle for the defensive tackle spots still rages.
“There’s a bunch of guys: (JD) Dejarnette, Tye Steward, Nathan Riehl, Blake Brewer,” Crabtree said. “No one has stepped forward yet at this point, that’s a concern as a defensive line.”
The same holds true for the Valley offensive line. While Wolford and tackle Jordan Spradlin return to their starting roles, the other half of the line remains a big question mark. According to Crabtree, Blake Brewer, Ethan Cline, Nathan Riehal and Dejarnette are battling for two open spots.
“The first three weeks are going to tell a lot about us, especially as an offensive line,” Crabtree said. “These guys have worked extremely hard, the sooner they can come together the better we’ll be.”
Whoever wins a starting spot will be rewarded with three tough opening games: A Thursday-night, opening-week showdown with Portsmouth at home, a home matchup against Ohio Valley Conference favorite Coal Grove and a road matchup with Piketon, a rivalry that will be renewed for the first time in nearly a decade. From that point forward, the schedule doesn’t get any easier.
“I think this year the, SOC is maybe as competitive (as it has ever been) from top to bottom,” Crabtree said. “I don’t know if you would consider Wheelersburg a favorite coming in, they lost a ton of kids too. You put us, Minford and West together along with Waverly, I think it should be a fun year in the SOC.”
Area fans have had October 24 circled on their calendars since the schedules were released. Valley will face Wheelersburg for the first time since last season’s classic battle. Last season, the Indians squeaked by the Pirates 10-7 thanks in part to a late red zone fumble recovery by Valley. While the Indians hoped the rematch would take place on their home turf, a scheduling quirk will force them to travel south to Wheelersburg once again.
“We’ve won out there two of the last three years, so our kids don’t have that fear or awe feeling of walking into Wheelersburg,” Crabtree said. “We’ve proven we can win out there. That goes a long way when you’re dealing with high school kids.”
Alex Hider can be reached at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1931 or on Twitter @PDTSportsWriter