After so many "ifs," Hudson football returns to the field

Explorers look to return to playoffs

ROB BARRONE Correspondent
Hudson football's Jake Affelt (11) looks for running room at a recent practice.

“If” is one of the shortest words in the English language but one of the most used words in the year of COVID-19, especially in sports.

For Hudson and most other schools, the season has been an “if” since the schools shut down in the spring.

The Explorers, coming off a 7-4 2019 season that ended with a share of the Suburban League National Conference crown and a playoff appearance, were anxiously awaiting 2020. Hudson looked to get going after a 37-27 loss to Massillon Perry in the first round of the Division II state playoffs last November.

“Last year feels like five years ago, with everything that’s been going on,” fifth-year head coach Jeff Gough. “We were ready to play the next week after Massillon Perry. These guys have been hungry and ready to get back out there.”

Then came the pandemic and the plethora of ifs, including whether the state of Ohio would allow high school football.

“Our kids have been great. Hudson Athletics has been fantastic with following protocols; at the end of the day everyone wants to play … and be safe,” Gough said of a preseason like no other.

Hudson had to wait to get the nod from Govoner Mike DeWine and then revamped season the next day. The Explorers will open the season Aug. 28 hosting Nordonia.

A six-game regular season will be followed by the playoffs with everyone getting in. Opting out of a post-season is an option for schools and then following the format of baseball (and other sports) a loss in the post-season doesn’t mean the end of the year as teams can resume a regular season schedule through the 10th week.

Last year in the National Conference, Hudson, Wadsworth and Brecksville-Broadview Heights all went 6-1.

This year, the three teams are all among the favorites in a well balanced conference.

“There are no down weeks in our conference,” Gough noted. “Cuyahoga Falls runs an offense that is tough to defend — a grind it out ball-control offense. Twinsburg always plays us tough and it’s kind of turned into a rivalry game. Wadsworth — every year is one of the top teams in our league. They have outstanding talent and a great coaching staff. Brecksville is the lone team to beat us last year. Their quarterback Joey Labas is back; he was player of the year in our conference. Nordonia — coach (Jeff) Fox does a great job with their program.”

Hudson has a huge amount of returning talent (including 34 seniors) and tons of depth with 92 players in the program,  led by a staff that contains many Hudson alumni.

Gough, a 2006 graduate, will do double duty again this year after his breakout first season as offensive coordinator and running backs coach.

Jake Brandy returns as defensive coordinator. Addison Carbone coaches the defensive line and Dave Verhotz coaches the defensive backs. Andrew Livingston is back as the strength and conditioning coach.

Mike Sheridan is the offensive line coach and running game coordinator. Colt Pallay is the quarterbacks coach and co-passing game coordinator. Matt Margida is an assistant line coach. Jackson Parker is the wide-receiver coach, special teams and co-passing game coordinator.

In the coaches box every week will be Pat Weigel. The freshmen coach is Jeff Hildebrand. Joe Caniglia is defensive coordinator and Chris Kessick is the line coach for the freshmen.

After scoring a school record 405 regular season points last year with a hurry-up offense, the squad will be back at it with eight starters returning.

Up front Mason McLaughlin and Evan Knipp have gone on to play at the college level. There is a lot of talent waiting to pick up where they left off.

Seniors Orion Beh, Kevin Toth, Alex Movshin, Chris Slater and Colin Koennecke lead the way. Seniors Nate Myers, Joey Brainard and Sam Harvey along with sophomore Logan Hensel and freshman Tommy Ricard will give the Explorers depth in the trenches.

“Instead of losing players [to graduation], they helped fill the next position,” Gough explained. “We tried to use some rotations last year to help build for this year. We have five guys with varsity experience coming back. It’s a close group and they are hard workers.”

At wide receiver senior Luke McLaughlin is fourth all-time at Hudson with 1,153 yards receiving including a team-high 625 yards along with three touchdowns last year. Junior Colin Pierce had six touchdowns receiving and was second with 426 yards as a tenth grader.

Seniors Cade Tonozzi, Michael Johnston and Andrew Oscarson along with juniors Vince Matolka, Shane Kilfoyle, Aiden Lal and Ryan Evans will give Hudson depth there as well.

At running back, senior Drew Lightner returns after rushing for 1,090 yards and 17 touchdowns.

Lal started the season as the second string running back last year, but missed much of the year with an injury. Sophomore Ronan Spohn adds to the depth in the backfield.

At quarterback, senior Jacob Paltani returns after a monster season running the hurry-up offense for the first time. Paltani ran for 1.564 yards and passed for 1.372 yards and 11 TDs. His 23 rushing scores were a Hudson single-season record.

“We are really excited having Jacob back. He is a tremendous athlete and an even better leader. His work ethic is second to none,” Gough said.

Four quarterbacks line up behind Paltani; senior Jack Florig, Kilfoyle and sophomores Jack Jenkins and Jagger Pallay.

Depth abounds on the defensive side of the ball as well.

“Defensively we also have a number of guys back (nine starters) and the defensive staff is back. Coach Brandy is trying to be aggressive on defense, bring the fight to you and run to the football. The sky is the limit for those guys,” Gough added.

In the box, Gough listed 10 names that he expects to get plenty of reps. Seniors Jacob Clary, Brendan Demuynck, Chase Weber, Nick Peri, Joe Margida, Gage Scafe along with Slater and Beh. Juniors Ryan Pavia and Ian Krause also could see time.

At linebacker, the team returns their leading tackler from 2019 in senior Jonathan Heisa (115 tackles). Seniors Ben Coates, Matt Mehelic, Nick Jackson, Hayden Johnson and Lightner lead the way along with juniors Brennan Catania, Cash Halter and Lal and Spohn.

“Heisa and Coates are back and we are very deep at linebacker,” Gough explained. “It’s a really dynamic group; big and physical.”

In the backfield will be, seniors John Innamorato, McLaughlin, Adam Oscarson, Samoid Reed Jr., Jackson Thomas and Gavin Wervey; juniors Ryan Suydam, Evans and Pierce and freshman Ian Ludewig.

The special teams have very little change this year.

“Our kickers are [seniors] Jake Vidmar and Caleb Junko and our punters are Jake Vidmar and Caleb Junko,” Gough said.

The long snappers are Thomas, Evans and sophomore Blake Toth. Returning kicks will be McLaughlin and Pierce with Paltani returning punts.

Junko averaged 34.4 yards per punt last season. Vidmar was a perfect 53-53 on extra points last season and has 121 career points with 15 field goals.

Hudson football's Ian Ludewig follows his blockers at a recent practice.