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Expectations are higher than ever in Dave Miller's third season as Covington Buccaneers' head football coach - and with good reason as the Buccs return fifteen letterman from a 9-3 play-off team a year ago. Six of the fifteen letterman are seniors who have played a lot of football the previous two years under Miller.
This season, the expectation is for the Buccaneers to take their game to another level - meaning reclaiming the Cross County Conference title and a deeper run in the state play-offs.
"We've talked about that (the next level) as a team all the time," said Miller. "That's the goal of this football team."
And the Buccs understand the success of the 2009 season depends in large part as to how well the men in the trenches perform. Covington returns all but one of their lineman on both sides of the ball, many with two and three years of varsity experience.
"The line is a big part of what we do," Miller said with a smile. "The game still comes down to how well you block and tackle, so the line will play a big part in our success. If we can win the battle up front and stay healthy, we should be pretty good."
Seniors Ben Christian (6-0, 237 lbs.), Jordy Meyer (6-1, 199 lbs.) and Teddy Hale (6-2, 195 lbs.) and Junior Josh Boehringer (6-2, 197 lbs.) lead the charge. All four have started the previous two years under Miller, making for an experienced upper class.
Rounding out the group are sophomores Darren Clark (5-11, 186 lbs.), Brandon Powell (5-8, 221 lbs.) and Sam Christian (6-0, 229 lbs.). All three were thrown into the fire last season as freshman due to injuries.
Unfortunately for Covington, three-year letter winner Adam Craft (6-0, 197 lbs.) won't be able to suit up his senior season due to an injury suffered a year ago. But Miller and the team reserved his spot on the roster as Craft exemplifies what Buccaneer football is all about - hard work, commitment and effort.
"Adam is a big part of our team and him just being around is important to us," Miller emphasized. "It's a darn shame he can't play, but he's as big of a part of the team now as if he was able to dress."
Even without Craft, the Buccs are as athletically gifted in the trenches as any team in Miller's tenure and arguably in the past thirty years, which is saying a lot considering the teams Covington has fielded over the years. Including Craft, seven of the eight lineman play basketball, with Boehringer, Meyer, Ben Christian and Craft at the varsity level, proving they are all-around athletes.
"Those kids have worked very hard," Miller stated. "Hopefully they take pride in that and take the confidence from their preparation out on the field on Friday nights."
There's plenty of depth with several players having experience at the junior varsity level a year ago. Those players are junior Tyler Dollison (5-9, 159 lbs.), and sophomores Steve Blei (5-8, 163 lbs.) and Zach Henslee (5-10, 157 lbs.).
The athleticism continues with the underclassman as a talented group moves up from junior high, including freshmen Brian Olson (5-9, 158 lbs.), Cole Owens (6-4, 239 lbs.), Dylan Owens (5-10, 160 lbs.), Alex Bitner (5-8, 139 lbs.) and John Longenecker (5-7, 193 lbs.).
"The attitudes of our younger kids are outstanding," Miller praised. "A lot of that is the leadership we have, but a lot is also the character of those kids. You look at our attendance over the summer and we didn't have many misses, and that includes the younger kids."
And with the lineman leading the way it should make for an explosive offense considering the talent that remains at the skill positions, beginning with senior fullback Garrett Clark (5-10, 170 lbs.). Clark is coming off a breakout season a year ago in which he rushed for a team-high 1,288 yards and 18 touchdowns. He's also the strongest player of the team pound-for-pound as he's been a mainstay in the weight room over summer.
"There's a consistency in what Garrett has done this year, more so than last year," Miller explained. "He's become a leader vocally and with the way he does things. He's committed and cares about what we are doing and it shows in his effort. He's huge for us at fullback and will be a key force for us at outside linebacker."
Clark will be spelled at fullback by junior Cory Ely (5-10, 163 lbs.) and freshman Alex Baskerville (5-11, 160 lbs.).
Junior quarterback Jake Bitner (5-10, 162 lbs.) also returns after a stellar season in his first year under center. Bitner was second on the team in rushing with 895 yards, while passing for 489 yards in a run-oriented offense.
"Jake's obviously important to our offense being a two-year starter," Miller said. "He has great work habits and a great attitude. You never have to get on him for a lack of hustle."
Depth behind Bitner consist of sophomore Isaiah Winston (5-7, 132 lbs.), and freshmen Trent Tobias (5-8, 143 lbs.), Austin Angle (5-10, 118 lbs.) and Ryan Craft (5-9, 124 lbs.).
"Isaiah Winston is going to be a really good player for us," said Miller. "I coached a pretty darn good quarterback at Centerville by the name of David Flemming and Isaiah is ahead of where Flemming was as a sophomore. The good thing about it is Isaiah is one of our halfbacks too."
The Buccs have some speed at the halfback position with juniors Tyler Noffsinger (5-8, 140 lbs.) and Ben Wilson (5-9, 142 lbs), along with Winston. Noffsinger raised some eyebrows with his blazing speed in last year's state play-off games, while Wilson and Winston played key roles at the junior varsity level.
Also looking for action at the halfback spot are junior Lon Bitner (5-9, 139 lbs.) and freshmen Troy Cron (5-3, 106 lbs.), and Kyler Deeter (5-9, 130 lbs.).
Covington has several receiving targets on the edge with junior Sam Angle (6-0, 137 lbs.), Corey Haines (5-10, 141 lbs.) and Lon Bitner. Also in the mix are sophomores Sam Earick (5-9, 133 lbs.), Devin VanHise (5-9, 143 lbs.) and freshmen Gabe Mohler (6-4, 160 lbs), Austin Angle, Ryan Craft and Isaac Canan (5-9, 119 lbs.).
"Right now we are farther ahead offensively than we were at this time last year," said Miller. "The key for us is to keep improving with each day."
Defensively, the Buccaneers will play an attacking stye of defense under Dave Miller Sr., and the success could be determined by those in the trenches.
"Maybe the best way to describe our defense is it's a newer version of the old defense," Miller explained. "We still have the same base defense, but we attack more out of it with our down lineman."
Ben Christian, Josh Boehringer, Darren Clark, Sam Christian, Brandon Powell and senior Taylor Reames (6-1, 168 lbs.) man the interior line, while Teddy Hale, Jordy Meyer and junior Cory Ely and Garrett Clark round out the linebackers.
Providing depth in the front seven will be junior Tyler Dollison, sophomores Steve Blei and Zach Henslee and freshmen Cole Owens, Dylan Owens, Brian Olson, John Longenecker, Alex Bitner, Gabe Mohler and Alex Baskerville.
The secondary will consist of a host of players in Tyler Noffsinger, Jake Bitner, Corey Haines, Ben Wilson, Lon Bitner, Sam Angle, Isaiah Winston and Devin VanHise, with freshmen Troy Cron, Trent Tobias, Kyler Deeter, Austin Angle, Isaac Canan, and Ryan Craft.
"We'll be aggressive in the secondary too," said Miller. "We're not quite where we want to be execution wise on the defensive side of the ball because there are some new twists to what we are doing. But the kids have taken to the scheme and are picking it up very well."
Which all comes down to the attitudes of the kids on the roster.
"Our attitude as a team are unbelievable," Miller said emphatically. "It starts with the senior leadership and everyone else has followed in line."
Which is something Doug Swartz would be proud of. Swartz, who coached at Covington for 22 seasons and was the offensive line coach and defensive coordinator, passed away unexpectedly in May.
"Big Doug will be missed," Miller said. "He's such a great person who had a huge impact on the kids, particularly the upperclassman who have been with him for so long."
And the kids keep Swartz with them every step of the way.
"He's with us all the time," continued Miller. "We have a logo on our team shirt and hats and we'll have a decal on our helmets and a patch on our uniforms. And the kids end each break with a tribute to Coach Swartz."
A tribute Covington hopes lasts fifteen weeks of football.