PDT Sports Contributor
IRONTON, Ohio – For the past four decades, the winning pedigree that the Ironton Fighting Tigers have built has been considered by many to be the best of any football team in the Tri-State area.
However, many people would think that after a season that ended in a 3-7 mark and resulted in Ironton’s first sub-.500 season since 2007 (and second in three decades), one would expect the Fighting Tigers’ expectations to be tempered down a bit from previous years.
The Ironton football program, however, is not your normal, run-of-the-mill high school team. It’s where football – and the expectation of winning, which comes with the tradition that has been built over the past four decades – never dies.
That factor is especially true when a team returns two key cogs in its starting backfield, its top returning receiver and its top lineman — all of which have the Fighting Tiger faithful as motivated as ever to return to the promised land. In addition to the set of key players, Ironton will be breaking in an artificial turf field for the first time in its storied history.
Head coach Mark Vass believes the hype, as the former Ironton standout raved about his team’s preseason work ethic as well as the added maturity that the players have developed from getting a year older.
“We’ve had a good offseason,” Vass said. “One, we have put on a lot of weight and speed, and then from a maturity standpoint, we had a lot of 15 and 16-year old kids that were playing last season, and they’ve shown a natural progression on their growth spurts. We’re pretty optimistic.”
Quarterback Tristan Cox will return to direct and orchestrate the Ironton offense in 2014 after starting for the Fighting Tigers last season. Vass says that Cox’s growth as a leader in the offense has been one of the keys for Ironton during the offseason.
“I think that Tristan’s matured a lot from last year,” Vass said. “He’s been one of the standouts to me during camp because he’s taking care of the football, and his progressions when going through routes has been better. I’ve been really happy with his leadership and his quality of play so far.”
Behind Cox, the running back position is expected to be a loaded one once again for the Fighting Tigers, as D’Angelo Palladino and Tanner Price will return to lead the charge from the tailback positions while Desmond Young and Jeremy Bodmer are back to contribute at fullback for Ironton.
Palladino did not play in a contest for the Fighting Tigers until Sept. 27 against Portsmouth after transferring from South Point. However, he proved to be a force for Ironton over the final six games of the regular season and routinely eclipsed 100 yards rushing during the latter half of the 2013 season.
“D’Angelo’s a pretty talented kid and is just naturally gifted,” Vass said. “He’s put on a good 15-20 pounds of muscle and looks strong, but he’s still got the same amount of speed and quickness that he had before. He’s ready to go and is anxious to show everybody what he can do (this season).”
The Fighting Tigers are also expected to have a wealth of experience back at the tight end slots, as Lucas Campbell and Joe Bowling are returning for their junior and senior years, respectively, while Hunter Weber will add more depth and size behind the pair with his six foot, 185 pound frame.
Issac Sherman returns to spearhead the charge on the offensive line for Ironton after battling with various injuries last season, and will be joined by sophomore guard Tyler Webb and junior center Brock Midkiff-Sands in the trenches.
However, the remaining guard and tackle slots have not been decided yet, as Ronnie Artis, Hunter Klaiber and Caleb McKnight are competing at one guard slot while Hayden Robinson and Chase Hankins are entrenched in a battle for the second tackle position.
“They’re doing a nice job, but nobody’s really standing out yet,” Vass said of the ongoing battle between the five players. “It’s a good problem to have, though. At least you have a little bit of depth; it’s not just a freshman or a sophomore coming in to fill up a hole (at a position).”
Many of the same players that are starting on offense for Ironton will also start on defense and are expected to play the majority of the snaps on both sides of the ball, especially in the defensive front seven. Bowling and Campbell will start at both defensive end positions and will be joined by a mixture of either Sherman, Webb, Hankins, Robinson, or Gage Riley at the defensive tackle slots. McKnight or Midkiff-Sands will work the nose guard position while Bodmer and Young will lead the Fighting Tigers from their linebacker slots.
As far as the secondary is concerned, Palladino is expected to start at one of the cornerback positions while Cox and Price will be the free and strong safety in the Ironton defense. The other cornerback position has yet to be decided, as Richard Crockrel, Isaiah Brickey-Scott, Jake Issac, Chase Rowe and Hunter Weber (who is also expected to help out at linebacker) are competing for the final cornerback slot.
For many years, the Fighting Tigers have never had to worry about a kicking game, because frankly, they never had a full-time kicker. That will change this season as Luke Kelley, who joined the team late last season, will perform the kicking duties for Ironton in 2014, while Cox or Kelley will punt if need be.
No matter what the preseason expectations are at each spot, there is one thing that is for certain: regardless of the expectations that have been placed on this year’s version of the Ironton Fighting Tigers, the program has a lot to prove this season.
“I know that we have a lot to prove this year; especially if we want to get back on track,” Vass said. “The players are doing a nice job, but they know what’s at stake; not just for me or for them, but for the program. I know that they’re buying into it, because they believe in it, but it’s going to take a lot of hard work throughout the season in order for us to accomplish our goals.”