Team To Beat
*Akron Manchester (11-3, Region 15 champion, state semifinalist): The Panthers made the playoffs for the fifth year in a row and 21st time overall. Look for both streaks to continue. Expectations remain high. Head coach Jim France enters his 43rd season at the school with a mark of 360-94-3. Senior RB Mason Hayes (6-2, 200) returns after rushing for 1,019 yards and 26 TDs last year. Also back on offense are senior QB Pavin Parks (6-1, 180/1,538 passing yards, 11 TDs, four rushing TDs), senior RB Anthony Miltner (5-9, 170/240 yards, three TDs) and senior RB Dan Leemaster (5-9, 180/181 yards, three TDs). The defense is led by senior LB Logan Harvey (6-2, 200/80 tackles, nine sacks), LB Hayes (61 tackles), DB Miltner (58 tackles) and senior LB Sterling Jackson (5-11, 200/35 tackles).
Teams To Watch
*Beachwood (6-5, Region 15 quarterfinalist): The Bison can build around senior RB Nate Hamilton (5-11, 185) who has 1,711 yards and 16 TDs the last two years. Also back is senior QB Max Balazs (5-11, 185) who threw for 1,747 yards and 21 TDs last season.
*Columbiana Crestview (11-2, Region 15 finalist): The Rebels are 22-3 the last two seasons and have made the playoffs nine of the last 10 years. Their still waiting for their first regional title despite reaching the final last season. Crestview must replace nine first and second team All-ITCL performers. The good news? Senior RB Cody Mackall (5-10, 185) returns.
*Gates Mills Gilmour Academy (9-3, Region 15 semifinalist): The Lancers made the playoffs last season after going 3-6 in 2012.
*Gates Mills Hawken (6-4): The Hawks lost two games in OT and started 2-4 last year before making a stretch run. Several key building blocks are back including three standouts on defense in senior DL Josh Weil (6-0, 170), junior DB Cameron Mazzone (5-6, 135) and junior LB Logan Lair (5-11, 175). The OL is anchored by junior OL Jack Green (6-0, 185).
*Navarre Fairless (8-4, Region 15 semifinalist): The Falcons are coming off a historic season in which they earned the program’s second playoff berth (first since 1999) and won the school’s first playoff game (51-42 over Black River). More history could be made soon. Fairless must replace record-setting QB Hunter Wells (3,558 yards and 33 TDs) but it does return four of its top five receivers, including senior TE Austin Weyandt (6-0, 185/56 rec., 960 yards, 10 TDs), senior WR Bryant Wickham (6-1, 185/62 rec., 890 yards, nine TDs), senior RB Jeremy Mahaffey (5-11, 175/44 rec., 434 yards, four TDs) and junior WR Christian Simmons (6-2, 190/21 rec., 285 yards, TD). Mahaffey also rushed for 1,119 yards and 18 TDs. Defensively, Weyandt (119 tackles) leads the unit from his LB spot. Other key contributors are senior DB Carter Casperd (5-11, 180/80 tackles) and junior DB Hunter Napier (5-9, 155/ 60 tackles).
*Youngstown Liberty (7-4, Region 15 quarterfinalist): The Leopards are looking to make the playoffs for the third straight time for the first time since 2004-06.
*Youngstown Ursuline (4-6, Region 15 quarterfinalist): The Irish have played in five of the last seven regional finals and have won four. Senior ATH/LB Vito Penza (6-3, 225) holds an offer from Eastern Michigan.
Keep An Eye On
*Hanoverton United (5-5): The Eagles and 13-year head coach Mike Ward (79-52) will build behind an OL that features three two-time All-ITCL selections in seniors Lucas Cooper (6-3, 220), Charlie Smith (6-1, 275) and Eric Blosser (6-2, 230).
*Lutheran West (6-4): The Longhorns won four of their last five games a year ago and hope to carry that momentum over to 2014. Head coach Dave Stupka (11-9 in two years) returns a talented dup in senior TE/LB/P Andrew O’Hara (6-4, 215) and senior DL/OL Nik Kessel (6-4, 245). O’Hara had 146 tackles, 28 catches, six TDs and 18 punts inside the 20-yardline last season. Kessel had 65 tackles and 10 TFL. Other contributors will be senior OL/DL Travis Spillane (6-6, 295), senior TE/DE Eric Hillenbrand (6-4, 215; 52 tackles) and QB/CB Nick Knudsen (6-1, 170; three INTs).
*Middlefield Cardinal (6-4): The Huskies will feature junior DL Lester Troyer (6-0, 205).
*Wickliffe (3-7): The Blue Devils have a good one in senior RB Tiontay Phillips (5-9, 205/two-time All-CVC).
Also In This Region
Independence (6-4); Black River (7-4, Region 15 quarterfinalist); Grand Valley (5-5); Pymatuning Valley (5-5); East Palestine (0-10); Garrettsville Garfield (5-5); Canton Central Catholic (5-5); Girard (6-4); LaBrae (5-5); Massillon Tuslaw (2-8); Warrensville Heights (0-10); Campbell Memorial (3-7); Harrison Central (5-5); Sandy Valley (5-5); Warren Champion (3-7)