YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – This high school football season will mark the first for the newly formed Eastern Ohio Athletic League. The league formed by former members of the Inter-Tri County League will feature Columbiana, East Palestine, Leetonia, Lisbon, Southern, United, and Wellsville, along with former OVAC member Toronto. The league, minus Toronto, resembles the old Tri-County League with all of rest of the members being from Columbiana County.
Last year Columbiana, Leetonia, Lisbon, Southern, and Wellsville competed in the ITCL’s White Tier with Lisbon capturing the league title and qualifying for the state playoffs. Toronto also qualified for the postseason with an impressive 8-2 record. East Palestine and United participated in the ITCL’s Red Tier.
“As to the new league, it should be interesting,” Columbiana coach Bob Spaite remarked. “You know it’s the old TCL just minus Crestview and Toronto in, so a lot of familiar faces. Some good old rivalries.”
“I like it,” East Palestine coach Tony Foster stated. “When I was in school that was our league. That was the TCL with just the one change there. Take Crestview out and put Toronto in there. People ask ‘how do you feel playing these different schools’? But we’re not different schools. We’re all pretty familiar with one another.”
“I think we’re a division 6 and 7 league, so I think it’s real competitive,” Lisbon coach Jim Tsilimos said. “We’re looking forward to it.”
“I like the natural geographic rivalries that the new conference creates. Every week is going to be a challenge,” United’s Michael Demster added.
Lisbon lost several key starters from last year, including quarterback Colin Sweeney, running back Jason Thompson, and linemen Jake Liberati and Bailey McCullough. However, they will return seven starters on both sides of the ball, so they have enough experience to have a very successful season.
After switching to an option offense last year, Tsilimos feels his offense is ahead of where they were at this time last year, “I think we’re a little bit ahead. We’re playing a lot of newer players, but they still ran the offense at the j-v level. So, we feel we are about a half step ahead of where we were last year.”
East Palestine returns stand out quarterback Parker Sherry to lead the Bulldogs offense. Sherry led the ITCL last year with over 1,900 passing yards and 18 touchdown tosses. His favorite target Branden Kemp also returns along with 6 other offensive starters. They return 6 starters on defense.
Although Toronto is relatively unknown to most of the EOAC members, they have participated in the OHSAA playoffs the past three years. This year the Red Knights will be a young team with only six seniors, but they also have 46 kids out for football, a good number for a division 7 school.
They will be led by senior receivers/defensive backs Jake and Nathan Keenan, running back Juston Patterson, and lineman Luke Fogle. The Knights are coached by East Palestine alumni and former Wellsville coach Eric Meeks who holds a 128-94 record as a head coach.
“We’re not as familiar with Toronto, but I’ve known coach Meek for a long time. He’s going to have a fundamentally sound and well-coached team. Even though we haven’t played them much, I’m pretty familiar with coach Meek and his product,” Foster remarked about Toronto.
“They are a bit of an unknown,” Tsilimos admitted. “There is some uncertainty there. They are well-coached and some tough kids. They will bring a good brand of football into the league.”
Columbiana will be without standout quarterback Mitch Davidson for the first time in four years as he has graduated with practically every Clipper offensive record. Spaite will have a major rebuilding job this year as the Clippers only return three offensive starters and four defensive starters.
United, on the other hand, returns a lot of experience with 22 lettermen, including seven offensive and eight defensive starters. Nathan Mikell and Cade Wood return at quarterback and running back while four of the five linemen return for their third year as offensive starters.
Southern Local will field eight starters back on both offense and defense in 2017. Senior quarterback Tyler Milhoan returns along with running back William Grodhaus. The Indians also return three of the five offensive linemen along with three senior wing backs and receivers.
Wellsville lost stand out quarterback Justin Miller and receiver Michael Shope, but they will return Derrick Suggs along with several linemen as they try to improve on their 5-5 record from last season. As always, the Tigers will be athletic and a dangerous opponent for everyone.
Finally, Leetonia returns seven starters on both offense and defense. The Bears will be counting on quarterback Brock Simpson to lead the Bears as they hope to improve on last year’s 1-9 final record.
“As to a favorite, I know it won’t be us, but I’d say East Palestine or Lisbon,” Spaite commented. “This is handicapped by some of us not knowing much about Toronto.”
“Lisbon is going to have a good team. We always have a tough game with Columbiana. United and Wellsville are always going to have solid teams and Southern Local has some good things going on there. And Toronto, coach Meek always has a solid team down there. So it is going to be a challenge,” Foster remarked about the league.
“The league is wide open, but going in I think (East) Palestine is the team to beat along with Southern Local.,” Tsilimos stated. “Palestine and Southern have more players back than anyone else. On paper, these are the teams I think that are the teams to beat.”
“I would think that with the amount of skill that they have returning, and the preseason favorite for player of the year in quarterback Parker Sherry, East Palestine has to be this year’s preseason favorite,” Demster remarked. “However, you can not count out a Jim Tsillimos or a Bob Spaite coached football team. Although I don’t know much about Toronto yet, I know they have had some recent success, and I would anticipate they’d be in that discussion too.”