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October 01, 2016
By: John Raffel

Ithaca set for challenging schedule, but could have enough talent to make another run


SPORTS:

SCHOOLS:

 

John Raffel

Sports Scen

 

Is this the season to stop Ithaca's state championship-winning football program? Nine regular-season opponents hope so, but they can't afford to be too confident, yet.

It's been a stunning run for the Yellowjackets since they were 11-2 and in 2009, the last time they suffered a regular-season loss. They then proceeded to go 14-0 in five of the next six seasons for the Division 6 state title. Their only blemish in that stretch was a 22-12 loss to Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central. But last year, an Ithaca team with a lot of returning starters regained the title with another 14-0 run and 27-20 win over Clinton in the title game.

It could be a challenging year considering, as Coach Terry Hessbrook puts it, “we lost a great deal” from graduation.

“We had a tremendous senior class,” he said. “Eight of those were three-year varsity players. On paper, you look at it and could say 'holy cow.' We lost a quarterback, running back, a lineman, defensive lineman, linebacker and defensive backs. It looks pretty bleak.”

But once his team takes the field, Hessbrook might be tempted to feel a little more optimistic about things.

“On offense, we have eight players that played a significant amount of time last year,” Hessbrook said. “They may not have all been starters. Only three were starters. But they play significant amounts of the game and played at a high level, were members of our special teams and members of our backup team which, during the regular season, got plenty of action. That's been the secret we've had over the years. A lot of players get time as sophomores in a backup role, so when they're juniors, they're ready to go.”

Greg Woodcock is a three-year returning player at linebacker to spark the Ithaca defense. Kyle Weaver is another three-year varsity player at wide receiver and defensive back.

From last year, six sophomores from the varsity are up as juniors, including Joey Bentley, a quarterback and defensive back; Seth Davis, a receiver and linebacker; Trey Chapin, a receiver and defensive back; Nik Jones as a lineman, who started 14 games as a sophomore last year; Colton Campbell at defensive back and wide receiver and kicker Adam Culp, who booted a school record 44-yard field goal last season.

“He also hit one in the semifinals in the snow against Traverse City St. Francis that put us ahead for the first time,” Hessbrook said. “You take those six kids who were sophomores last year and put them with the 12 seniors that have coming back, then it's like you have 18 kids returning. Granted, they weren't all starters, but they got to see significant playing time.”

It could be the most challenging nine-game schedule Ithaca has seen in a long time.

It opens with Clare and closes with Shepherd.

“Clare is a perennial powerhouse in Division 5 every year,” Hessbrook said, and “Jack Pine champs about every year. You can count on them being very well prepared and they have a ton of kids returning. We get into our conference which has changed drastically. We lost (former league members) Merrill, Carrollton and Breckenridge. We added Pinconning, which is going to be a long trip. We added Hemlock and Ovid-Elsie. Both teams have been successful in the TVC Central. Our schedule got significantly tougher.

“We close with Shepherd, which is always a rivalry game,” Hessbrook said.

Ithaca continues to play in the TVC West, and winning the conference title is the first objective, along with making the playoffs and having a long run. But Hessbrook realizes that opponents aren't going to feel sorry for the Yellowjackets losing a lot of starters. All nine opponents during the regular season realize what a feather in their cap it would be to defeat Ithaca. The Yellowjackets enter the season with a 55-game regular season winning streak.

“Our kids realize we'll make somebody's day if they knock us off,” Hessbrook said.  “We have to take care of business and prepare ourselves each day. There's a reason we've been able to do what we did over the last seven years.”