RIDGWAY — For the past two seasons, the formula for success has been rather simple for the Ridgway football team — defense wins District 9 championships.
Since the 2017 season, in games when Ridgway has given up more than 16 points, the Elkers are 0-5. When they hold opponents to 16 points or less, they sit at 20-1, the lone exception being a narrow 14-11 defeat against Curwensville in 2017.
With that in mind, defense will once again be the focal point for Ridgway this season, as the Elkers look for a third consecutive District 9 title.
“We have some new faces in some new places, but expectations remain the same,” said Ridgway head coach Mark Heindl, who has been at the helm of the Elker program since 2008. “Our seniors set the stage for us last year, and now it’s time for this year’s group to take the reins. Each guy needs to do his job, and the others around him will do theirs. We’ve been very fortunate and blessed to have good guys each year.”
This year’s Elker defense returns six seniors to its group, including three linebackers — Robert Briggs, Austin Green and Tyler Watts.
Briggs, who led the team in tackles a year ago with 118, credits his coaching staff for the Elkers’ staunch defense, which gave up an average of just 13.53 points per game.
“We have one of the best defensive minds in the District with Coach Heindl,” he said. “He prepares us really well, and we prepare for the offense we play each week. We also pick each other up, and people do their jobs.”
In front of that experienced linebacking unit, the line brings back two seniors from last year’s starting lineup, Hayden Haupright and Damon Kelley. Kelley recorded nine sacks last season, the most on the team.
In the defensive backfield, safety Jake Wickett is the lone returning senior from last year’s starting group.
Wickett says the key for his unit, and for the defense as a whole, is to communicate and build each other up.
“We communicate a lot on the field, and we always have each other’s backs,” Wickett said. “If one of us misses a play, we pick each other up, and we bond on the field. I think it improves our play.”
On the offensive side of the ball, the Elkers are set at skill positions, but return just one starter from last year’s offensive line, guard Greg Simon.
The line still does feature some experience, though, as center Connor Graziolli lettered a year ago and is back for the 2019 campaign. Briggs will also be featured as a guard.
Those two will anchor a line unit tasked with protecting senior quarterback Paul Gresco and paving the way for Elker running backs.
Gresco is back after starting last season, and will look to build on the Elkers’ 11-2 campaign during which he threw for 1,379 yards, 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He completed 128 of his 203 attempts.
“Our defense always plays really well, so we need to do our part and score some points to help them out,” Gresco said. “Seven points a game won’t win, so we’re working our tails off to do our end of the job.”
Rejoining Gresco in the backfield from last year’s group are running backs Gabe Watts, Jake Wickett and Matt Dush.
As a sophomore, Watts led the Elkers in rushing last season with 747 yards and 10 touchdowns on 117 carries. Wickett added 534 yards and nine touchdowns on 109 carries.
Back at receiver is Green, who led Ridgway in receiving touchdowns last season with five. He hauled in 22 receptions for 289 yards during his junior campaign, which ranked second behind senior Daunte Allegretto’s 336 yards on 18 receptions.
Expectations remain high for the program both internally and otherwise. PennLive has the Elkers slotted as the No. 10 team in Class 2A in its preseason rankings.
Despite the high expectations and excitement surrounding the program, Heindl says his charges have to maintain a game-by-game focus and not look too far ahead on the schedule.
“Our kids are pretty humble,” he noted. “Last year is last year, and we know each week we get everybody’s best game, and we want it that way... You have to compete day in and day out, because the minute you take a backseat, somebody is going to you.”
Added Wickett, “You have to go in one week at a time, you can’t just look forward to the District championship, because you have to get there first. We need to focus on our role for each week, play together and smart, and we’ll be fine.”
The 2019 Elker campaign begins on Aug. 23 with a home game against St. Marys.
Assisting Heindl this year are: Mickey Delhunty, Joe Reseto, Rick Viglione, Jack Kifer, Brad Nida, Tony Defilippi, Brian Hinton and Adam Ehrensberger.
THE RETURNING starters:
Robert Briggs, senior, 5-11, 192, guard/linebacker
Matt Dush, senior, 5-9, 154, running back/safety
Austin Green, senior, 6-0, 170, wide receiver/linebacker
Paul Gresco, senior, 6-2, 192, quarterback
Hayden Haupright, senior, 6-2, 298, defensive tackle
Damon Kelley, senior, 6-0, 171, defensive end
Greg Simon, senior, 5-10, 194, guard/linebacker
Tyler Watts, senior, 5-9, 179, fullback/linebacker
Jake Wickett, senior, 5-7, 169, running back/safety
Gabe Watts, junior, 6-3, 183, quarterback/running back/defensive back
ALSO LETTERING were:
Connor Graziolli, senior, 5-11, 245, center
Cole Kilhoffer, senior, 5-10, 200, tight end/defensive end
Isaac Sidelinger, senior, 5-8, 175, fullback/linebacker
Josh Sorg, senior, 5-7, 155, running back/defensive back
Alex Bon, junior, 5-9, 179, tight end/linebacker
Dominick Cherry, junior, 5-8, 143, running back/defensive back
Ricky Delhunty, junior, 5-11, 156, running back/linebacker
THE PLAYERS, by position:
Quarterbacks: Gresco, G. Watts, Jonathan Hinton (so., 5-7, 158)
Running Backs: Dush, I. Sidelinger, Sorg, T. Watts, Wickett, Cherry, Delhunty, Haydn Yeager (sr., 5-7, 149), Camron Marciniak (so., 5-7, 154), Eric Salberg (so., 5-9, 160)
Ends/Receivers: Green, Kelley, Kilhoffer, Bon, Jack Cowan (sr., 5-10, 144), Ben Briggs (jr., 5-10, 149), Dominic Gaudino (jr., 5-5, 132), Michael Gresco (so., 5-9, 142), Isaac Rose (jr., 5-11, 190), Harry Snyder (jr., 5-9, 158), Dominic Allegretto (so., 5-7, 151), Will Howard (so., 6-0, 151), Tyler Merritt (so., 5-4, 138), Samuel Wolff (so., 5-6, 139)
Guards/Tackles: R. Briggs, Haupright, Simon, Austin Erich (sr., 6-3, 218), Austin Geitner (jr., 5-8, 175), Jake Kunselman (jr., 6-3, 270), Armandt Rosario (jr., 5-4, 151), Austin Scruggs (jr., 6-1, 265), Shawn Brendel (jr., 5-9, 201), Anna Duffield (so., 5-6, 170), Bailey Lewis (so., 5-9, 175), Kenny McKenna (so., 5-11, 200), Dan Park (so., 6-0, 181), Brayden Renaud (so., 5-10, 190), Gabe Sidelinger (so., 5-7, 144)
Centers: Graziolli, Bon, Hunter Wall (so., 5-7, 166)
Kickers: P. Gresco, G. Watts, Green, Allegretto
Ends: Erich, Kelley, Kilhoffer, Snyder, McKenna, Park
Guards/Tackles: Grazzioli, Haupright, Brendel, Geitner, Kunselman, Renaud, Rosario, Scruggs, Duffield, G. Sidelinger
Linebackers: R. Briggs, Green, I. Sidelinger, Simon, T. Watts, Bon, Delhunty, Lewis, Marciniak, Merritt, Salberg, Wall, Wolff
Defensive Backs: Cowan, Dush, Sorg, Wickett, Yeager, B. Briggs, Cherry, Gaudino, M. Gresco, Rose, G. Watts, Allegretto, Hinton, Howard
23 — St. Marys, 7 p.m.
30 — at Kane, 7 p.m.
6 — at Moniteau, 7 p.m.
13 — Bradford, 7 p.m.
20 — Brockway, 7 p.m.
27 — at Punxsutawney, 7 p.m.
4 — Clarion, 7 p.m.
11 — at Karns City, 7 p.m.
18 — Brookville, 7 p.m.
25 — at Union/Allegheny-Clarion Valley, 7 p.m.