NILES, Ohio (WKBN) – Niles closed out last season with another winning campaign (5-4), the first time since 2005-07 that the Red Dragons have finished with back-to-back winning seasons.
Last fall, Niles registered a playoff win over Ravenna (35-21) before falling to Streetsboro in Round 2.
This year, the Red Dragons will have to find success without the services of their quarterback Zack Leonard, who finished his career as the school’s all-time leader in passing yards (3,862), passing touchdowns (36) and total touchdowns (65).
Niles opens the season August 19 with a special Thursday night matchup with rival Howland.
2020 Record: 5-4 (4-2, T-3rd place in NE8)
Coach: Jim Parry, 4th season at Niles (16-13)
2020 Big 22: Zack Leonard
Previewing Niles’ Offense
Scoring Offense: 24.9 (34th in area)
Returning Starters: 7
Key Returnees: Kolton Christopher, SR/WR; Antuan Gardner, SO/RB; Andrew Hoffman, SR/QB; Brad Isabella, SR/OL; Matt Keeley, JR/OL
Key Losses: Alleni Fryer, WR; Zack Leonard, QB; Chase Sudzina, WR
Name to watch for: Antuan Gardner, RB
Zack Leonard has since graduated after posting another spectacular season with 1,401 yards passing and running for another 624 yards. He completed 56.3% of his passes (99-176) while throwing for 11 scores and only 2 interceptions. He also ran for 14 touchdowns.
Senior Andrew Huffman appears to be the leader to step into Leonard’s role as the team’s starting signal caller.
“Andrew has been Leonard’s back-up for the past two seasons,” Coach Parry said. “He’ll compete with some other athletes who play different positions for us.”
Last year, freshmen Antuan Gardner led the team in rushing with 637 yards on 124 attempts (5.1 avg) and scoring 4 touchdowns. Gardner also caught 6 balls and scored 3 touchdowns while amassing an average of 16.5 yards per catch.
“Antuan has had a great off-season,” Parry said. “He has shed some weight and put it back on in muscle. He spent this spring running track and I think that has been very helpful for him. With breaking in a new quarterback this year, we’ll lean on him more.”
As a sophomore, offensive linemen Matt Keeley was honored by being named to the First-Team All-League.
“We feel that our offensive line will be the strength,” Parry said. “Matt is our best linemen. We expect him to be one of the better players in the conference. Senior Brad Isabella is another outstanding lineman. He’s very strong and such a smart player.”
Previewing Niles’ Defense
Scoring Defense: 25.0 (32nd in area)
Returning Starters: 6
Key Returnees: Kolton Christopher, SR/DB; Noah Derr, SR/DB
Key Losses: Zack Cicero, DL; Alleni Fryer, LB; Jevon Tabor, DL; Curtis Taylor, LB
Name to watch for: Noah Derr, DB
Last year, Niles allowed 14.6 points per game in their five wins. This season, the Red Dragons will look to improve upon that figure without the likes of defensive linemen Zack Cicero (30 tackles) and Jevon Tabor, and linebacker Curtis Taylor (49 tackles).
“We feel that we’ll be strong up front, like on offense,” Parry said. “We have as many as ten players who can rotate on the defensive line.”
The biggest question mark will be at linebacker.
“We’ll be playing a lot of underclassmen who are talented, but we need to find a home for them as either inside or outside backers,” Parry said. “It’s an athletic group which should allow us for some flexibility in how and/or where we utilize them.”
2020 Northeast 8 Standings
South Range – 6-0 (9-1)
Poland – 5-1 (7-2)
Hubbard – 4-2 (5-3)
Niles – 4-2 (5-4)
Girard – 2-4 (4-6)
Struthers – 2-4 (2-5)
Jefferson – 1-5 (3-7)
Lakeview – 0-6 (1-7)