By Jeff Harrison
It’s been a continuous upward ascent for the Shenandoah Zeps in the five years since Jesse Wells took over the coaching reins of his alma mater.
Everyone in Zep Nation is hoping that climb continues in 2020.
“It’s been very trying and very difficult,” admitted Coach Wells, referring to keeping things moving forward despite the uncertainty and limitations resulting from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, “but we live in a society where no one cares about your feelings so we’ve done everything that we could possibly do to get ready to play this season on time.
“It’s definitely uncharted waters because no one knows how to deal with it,” he continued. “We’ve talked about continuing to focus on what we can control and not worry about everything else. Our kids have handled it awesome all the way through, probably more maturely than some adults have.
“Our kids see our potential and they just want to play,” Wells added.
Senior leadership has been a big plus in the preseason for the Zeps.
“We have good leadership from a big senior class and our expectations for the season are high,” said Wells. “We’ve only had one or two classes here who’ve gone to the playoffs three times out of their four years and these guys are capable of doing that, so that’s been a driving force for them.”
The Zeps are coming off a fine 8-3 season which included a playoff appearance, with SHS falling to Waterford by a 38-20 score in Division VII, Region 27.
Making a deeper postseason run is a goal of this year’s team.
“We spent a good part of the preseason trying to evaluate what we needed to do as a program to take the next step,” said Wells, who sports a five-year record at SHS of 29-23 and an overall mark of 49-53 including five years at Meadowbrook. “ In the five years I’ve been here, we started as a team that wasn’t very good and transitioned into a competitive team and then into a pretty decent team. Now, we want to take that next step and not just make the playoffs – we want to make a run at a regional title.”
Stressing “team” play has been another point of emphasis.
“We always preach the team concept – family and accountability – and the mental side of high school sports is one of the most underappreciated things there is,” said Wells. “If you can master that, it sets you up for success.”
Depth and versatility are strengths of the Zeps this fall.
“We’re super deep,” said Wells. “We’ve got a lot of guys who’ve played a lot of football and some really good young ones, too. Last year, we tried to commit to the two-platoon idea and we’re trying to distribute the responsibilities again this year as much as we can.
“At times, we want to spread you out and use our athletes in space,” the Zeps’ boss related, “and there will be times we want to smash people in the mouth.”
Offensively, the Zeps have several key pieces in place, but need to final one more to complete the puzzle – quarterback.
SHS has two solid athletes with different strengths in seniors Dayton Hill (6-3, 155) and Tanner DeVolld (6-0, 190), both three-year letterwinners.
“Heading into the season, we needed to figure out the answer at quarterback,” said Coach Wells. “Both guys have good skill sets that are different, so we’ll utilize each of their strengths.”
Both will be on the field somewhere, with Hill also at receiver and DeVolld at running back.
Also at QB are sophomore Nathan Van Fleet (5-11, 190), junior Wyatt Rogers (5-10, 150) and freshman Kaden Palmer (5-10, 160).
The “go-to guy” in the backfield is senior letterman Briar Portman (6-0, 185), who returned after a year off with a breakout junior season that included 147 carries for 971 yards, 15 catches for 241 yards and 21 total TDs. For his efforts, Portman was first team all-Ohio Division VII and all-Eastern District along with honorable mention all-OVAC Class 2A.
Another veteran in the backfield labeled a “moveable piece” who can line up in multiple positions is senior Cade Denius (5-8, 170). He was the Zeps’ leading receiver with 25 catches for 427 yards and two TDs last fall. A three-year letterman, he earned first team all-Ohio and all-OVAC as well as honorable mention all-OVAC on defense.
Sophomore letterman Tyce DeVolld (6-0, 188) will also factor into the ball-toting along with junior Julius Kirk (5-10, 175), a two-year letterman.
Additional running backs are junior Tyler Bruer (5-10, 155); sophomores Chance Overly (5-4, 145), Eli Hand (5-10, 180) and Jacob Rich (5-7, 175); and freshmen Sam Townsend (5-10, 160), Brenden Portman (5-6, 130), Jacob Feldner (5-4, 140) and Jace Anderson (5-8, 200).
Two interior linemen converting to tight end this fall are junior Preston Mackie (6-1, 285) and senior Wyatt Miley ( 6-1, 185) – both two-year lettermen – while another regular there is sophomore letterman Hunter Schott (6-3, 230).
The wideouts are senior Robbie Cool (6-0, 165), a two-year letterman who transferred from Caldwell, and Hill when he’s not behind center.
Other receivers are senior two-year letterman Baylor Wentworth (5-8, 140); sophomores Ethan Carpenter (5-8, 125) and Lance Hill (5-6, 160), another transfer from Caldwell; and freshmen Hunter Yates (5-7, 140), Quinten LePage (5-1, 105) Tristen Rossiter (5-4, 110) and Weston Miley (6-0, 150).
Wells is particularly pleased with the preseason development of his offensive line.
“We lost some key guys who started multiple years on the line, but we had the best JV line we’ve ever had behind them last year,” said Wells. “ They’ve done a fantastic job with six or seven guys whose number one focus is playing on the offensive line.”
A seven-man rotation is expected along the O-line, featuring senior two-year letterman Chandler Warner (5-11, 190), senior letterman Dakota Hoover (6-0, 210), senior letterman William Langley (6-5, 220), junior letterman Gage Dimmerling (6-0, 250), junior letterman Xavier Hannahs (5-11, 260), junior letterman Alden House (6-1, 210) and sophomore letterman Jared Trenner (5-10, 215).
Other interior linemen are senior Josh Ingram (6-0, 310); juniors Caleb Scott (6-1, 205) and Jordan Langley (6-1, 150); sophomores James Freeman (6-0, 160), Jacob Crum (5-8, 200), Isiah Barraca (5-9, 250) and Joel Rataiczak (6-1, 170); and freshmen Axle Saling (5-7, 260), Kyle Boley (5-4, 130), Gage Glidden (5-9, 150), Tre Steele (5-9, 180), Nate Langley (5-10, 180).
On defense, the Zeps have undergone an alignment change.
“Defensively, our second-level guys are strong,” said Wells. “We changed our scheme from a 4-3 to a 3-4 look. The dynamics of our team has changed, so it fits our personnel better.”
Mackie is ticketed for the nose tackle spot, with Tanner DeVolld at the other tackle where he started the first five weeks last year before sitting out due to the transfer rule. The defensive end slot is a battle between William Langley and Warner.
Additional defensive linemen are Hoover, Ingram, Dimmerling, House, Hananhs, Scott, Barraca, Trenner, Hand, Crum, Boley, Glidden, Saling, Steele and Nate Langley.
The inside linebackers are Wyatt Miley on the strong side and Scott on the weak side while the outside ‘backers are Dayton Hill and Briar Portman. Portman had 65 total tackles (30 solo) last year.
Bruer and Kirk will also see extensive action at linebacker. Other LBs Rogers, Jordan Langley, Rich, Palmer, Feldner and Anderson, .
In the secondary, the all-stater Denius returns on the heels of a big season which included 82 tackles (50 solo).
Wentworth is back at field corner while Tyce DeVolld is the ‘bandit’ or weak side corner.
Weston Miley is at free safety along with Lance Hill.
The rest of the DBs are Cool, Carpenter, Overly, Freeman, Van Fleet, Rataiczak, Yates, Townsend, LePage, Rossiter and Brenden Portman.
Briar Portman will again handle the punting chores after averaging 38 yards per kick last season, with Dayton Hill and Cool as other possibilities. Kicking duties should come from Tanner DeVolld, Dayton Hill and Langley.
Graduation claimed several talented performers, headed by Easton Hitchens (first team all-Ohio D-VII, all-Eastern District and all-OVAC Class 2A) and defensive back Wesley Guy (second team all-Ohio D-VII, first team all-Eastern District D-VII, all-OVAC Class 2A). Both were selected to play in the BACF All-Star Game and Hitchens, now a member of the University of Mount Union football team, was also picked for the OVAC All-Star Game, but both contests were canceled.
Also departed are Briggs Schafer (special mention all-Ohio, first team all-Eastern District and honorable mention all-OVAC); Logan Waers (second team all-Eastern District, BACF All-Star Game selection, now at Muskingum University); Kendal Sherman (second team all-Eastern District, first team all-OVAC); Aden Laipply (second team all-Eastern District, BACF All-Star Game selection); Branson Van Fleet, Jason Flaitz and Kade Varhola.
Shenandoah’s coaching staff includes offensive coordinator Matt Weddle, defensive coordinator Eric Sholtis, Tyler Fitzpatrick, Daniel Connolly and newcomer Todd Morrison. The junior high coaches are Jan Mazgay and Nathan Abbott.
With the OHSAA opting to alter the season meaning just six games before the start of the playoffs, Shenandoah – which moved up to Division VI, Region 23 this season – made changes to the first three weeks which now include a road opener at Belpre before back-to-back home games with rival Caldwell and Cambridge. Weeks 4-6 remain unchanged – at Barnesville, home against Johnstown Northridge and at Buckeye Local.