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).
“Six kids on each side of the ball that were starters for us, but we probably have eight or nine on each side that got significant playing time due to injuries for us,” said head coach Jim Parry.
Niles opens the season August 19 with a special Thursday night matchup with rival Howland.
“Our young guys need to grow up quick because we are relying on a lot of sophomores, we feel they are talented players,” Parry said. “Like I said, we gained some experience with the injury beg at the end of last year, but we need these sophomores to play more like juniors and seniors sooner rather than later. If we get off to a good start then the playoffs are a possibility for sure.”
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, freshman Antuan Gardner led the team in rushing with 637 yards on 124 attempts (5.1 avg) and scoring four touchdowns. Gardner also caught six balls and scored three 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)
“The season ended last year with us losing to our rival, and we have them in Week 1 so that is where our focus is,” Parry says. “If you do not take a loss to your rival school personally, then you are probably in the wrong business. I know as a coaching staff we feel obligated to this community to play well against Howland, and we failed in regards to that last year, so all hands on deck as far as getting ready for Week 1.”