For the Piketon Redstreaks, the 2013 football season may have been a blessing in disguise.
After winning its first playoff game in school history in 2012, Piketon lost 16 of its 22 starters due to graduation. Hampered by youth and inexperience, the Redstreaks limped through a difficult 2013 season with a 4-6 record. But while the team experienced growing pains, it provided valuable playing time for the future leaders of the team.
“We took some lumps last year but we gained a lot of experience,” said Piketon head coach Tyler Gullion. “You cant replace experience.”
Where Piketon had only three returning starters last season, they will have 16 players back from their 2013 season. More importantly, the Redstreaks’ experience comes at key positions.
Junior quarterback Devon Brewster got more than enough experience in Piketon’s pass-happy spread offense in 2013. He led the Scioto Valley Conference by completing 66.3 percent of his passes in 2013, as he finished with over 1,400 yards on the season.
Brewster will also have some familiar faces to throw to this season. Aaron Southworth and Stefan Thacker combined for over 800 yards last season, a total they hope to break in 2014. After the duo developed an impressive on-field chemistry with Brewster a year ago, Gullion is excited to see what they can do this fall.
“It’s a second year throwing and catching,” he said. “(Brewster) will know where they like it, where the ball should be and when it should get there. That’s a big plus.”
Guillon also said the Redstreaks were very limited in terms of offensive schemes in 2013. This season, with an experience core of skill position players, he hopes to add many more dimensions to his spread offense this fall.
The Redstreaks also have plenty of experience in front of Brewster: Four offensive lineman return from last season’s squad. But while the names in the trenches may sound familiar, Piketon’s lineman may be hard to recognize in person. An offseason of hard work in the weight room has paid off for the front five.
“Their strength and quickness is all much improved,” Gullion said. “We expect a lot out of them. Last year we got pushed around, this year we have to be the ones controlling the line of scrimmage.”
While Piketon’s spread offense places heavy emphasis on the passing game, Gullion hopes to be a little more balanced than the Redstreaks were a year ago. However, they will need to find a way to replace 2013 rushing leader John Bivens,who racked up 860 yards on the ground last season. Senior Ethan Fremdner, who scored three touchdowns in eight games a year ago, will step up as the feature back for Piketon this season.
“He’s going to have to carry a lot of the load, so we’re going to have to lean pretty heavy on him,” Gullion said.
Piketon’s wealth of experience isn’t just limited to the offensive side of the ball. The Redstreaks will return all of their front seven starters from a year ago, led by middle linebacker Matt Smith. The junior recorded a team-high 88 tackles last season, and will look to continue his success in leading Piketon’s vaunted 4-3 defense.
As one of the largest football programs in the area, the Redstreaks dress about 50 players. With such a deep roster, they usually try and avoid having starters play both ways. Southworth is an exception to that rule. As a defensive end in his junior season, he recorded 50 tackles and led the team with five sacks in 2013.
“We’ve got a lot of depth, we don’t play many guys both ways,” Gullion said. “But he’s the one that’s going to have to play a lot both ways for us. We’ll rely heavy on him.”
Perhaps the only question mark on the defensive side of the ball for the Redstreaks is the secondary, and even then half of last year’s starters return. However, Piketon is still searching for teammates to join Stefan Thacker at cornerback and safety.
“Ethan Yoakem is coming back off of injury and Eric Mullins and Riley Harris are all vying for playing time. Andre Pettiford is also fighting for a spot,” Gullion said. “We’re just trying to mix and match right now.”
Perhaps the Redstreaks’ only significant loss to graduation came in the kicking game. After three stellar years of service, former kicker Chris Jones signed with Virginia Military Institute in the offseason. Suddenly, Piketon is scrambling to replace a major scoring threat.
“That’s a big hole. We are still searching, we have three or four guys that are still trying out,” Gullion said. “You kind of take it for granted. Now, we don’t have that.”
Piketon hopes that the kicking game won’t come back to haunt them this season, especially early in the season against their tough non-conference schedule. Their Week 1 match up against a greatly improved Waverly team is sure to get all of Pike County fired up, and a Sept. 12 home match with Valley also looms large on the schedule.
“If you want to be the best, you have to play the best. It’s a pretty tough schedule, but that’s the whole purpose,” Gullion said.
Last season, Paint Valley, Zane Trace and Westfall all took a share of the Scioto Valley Conference title. With no clear favorite and experience across the board, the Redstreaks figure to be in the mix for the title all season long.
Alex Hider can be reached at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1931 or on Twitter @PDTSportsWriter