The Northeast Ohio Conference has been arguably the best conference in the Cleveland area for many years when it comes to football. The playoff appearances by these teams have been staggering. The 18 team league will be breaking up after this season, with some of the teams moving to the "new" Lake Erie League next fall. The six team Valley Division of the NOC is often referred to as the "Big Boy League" and this year, at least in football, it rings true more than ever. It's brutal. Four teams can legitimately make the state playoffs, after four of them qualified last season.
The conference is far more than just returning state runner up Mentor. The Cardinals will be good again, but the gap is closing, and closing fast. Below is the projected finish for the six team Valley Division:
- Mentor.... The Cardinals reached the state championship game last season, falling the defending champion Cincinnati Moeller. Mentor will have to reload after losing quite a bit of offensive firepower in quarterback Cole Krzancic, and receivers Brandon Fritts and Cory Plavcan. Taking over for Krizancic behind center will be senior Jake Floreia. Despite losing Fritts and Plavcan, Mentor does return do-everything receiver Eddie Daugherty. The diminutive Daugherty (5 foot 7, 165 pounds) set a state record last season in the championship game by catching 18 passes for 164 yards, and threw for another touchdown. The Eastern Michigan commit will take on an even bigger role this season. Defensively, Mentor returns defensive tackle Nico Lautanen. The Bowling Green commit will lead an improved defense that will also feature linebacker J.D. Matsko, and cornerback Marc Walton.
- Hudson.... The Explorers burst onto the scene last season, qualifying for the state playoffs, before falling to St. Ignatius, in a game that was closer than the final score. They are loaded on both sides of the ball. They are led offensively by quarterback Mitch Guadagni. The three year starter is the straw that stirs the drink that is the Hudson offense. The Explorers will also be helped by the return of running back Jack Palumbo, who has missed the last two seasons due to injury. Guadagni's main receiving target will be senior Colton Whited. A big play threat, Whited stretches the field, with will open up running lanes for both Palumbo and Guadagni. Defensively, Hudson is very good in their front seven. Linebacker Matt Rightnour, and defensive tackle Dylan Carlson will anchor a stingy defense that controlled the playoff game against St. Ignatius for over three quarters
- Brunswick.... The Blue Devils qualified for the state playoffs last season, eventually falling to Mentor in the first round. Brunswick features one of the more explosive offenses in the conference, led by quarterback Steven Ficyk. The 6 foot 4 200 pound senior has all the makings of a Division I college quarterback. His main target is a another big time player in tight end Ethan Engelke. The Blue Devils will be able to score, but will they be able to stop anyone? If they can, they will be a dangerous team to content with. Two way lineman Tom Knuff, and safety Adam Weber provide experience and leadership, making Brunswick a "tough out" every week.
- Solon.... The Comets were another state qualifier from last season. Solon should be good, but are a year away from being real good, given the strength of its junior and sophomore classes. Two quarterbacks will share time in seniors Ryan Gallagher and Jake Laubscher. The strength of the team should be in its linebacking core, led by maybe the conference's best defensive player in three year starter John Sensibaugh. Juniors Zack Lesko and Tim Harmody, along with sophomore Jake McCurry fill out the talented unit. The Comets should be solid along the offensive line, led by seniors Gage Golic and Joe Rinicella, and junior Ben Peterson. Tyree Seals leads the receiving core. If the Comets can find a couple more playmakers on offense, they could surprise some people.
- Strongsville.... Larry Laird takes over this season after long time coach Russ Jacques stepped down. Laird has been succesful everywhere he has coached, and he has a big opportunity to turn things around at Strongsville. The Mustangs should be a solid team, led by three year starter at quarterback in Bobby Cole. Cole will have to learn a new offensive system under Laird, who likes to run the football out of multiple sets and motions. Defensively, Strongsville boasts two of the better players in the league in defensive tackle Austin Platt, and linebacker Richard Floyd. Look for Laird to put his stamp on the Strongsville program, and for the Mustangs to be a much improved team.
- Twinsburg.... The Tigers of Twinsburg are the only Division II team in the NOC, but that doesn't mean they won't be competitive. They are a solid program, and this year should be no different. They should be solid along both lines, led by junior Vince Jaskiewicz. Linebacker Joe Leondarides will continue the tradition at Twinsburg of having outstanding linebackers. The Tigers will have to find an answer at quarterback, but whomever it will be will be throwing to one of the best receivers in the area in senior Darius Jones. The Tigers will find out real quickly what kind of team they have as they open the season against three state qualifiers from last season in Aurora, Nordonia, and Avon.
Many people feel that the NOC will be a two team race between Mentor and Hudson. They may not be wrong, but each game in the NOC between these six teams will be a dogfight. The real intrigue good be with the performance of the OTHER four teams. Odds are, the third and fourth place teams in the conference will make the state playoffs.
Enjoy the NOC conference football season. It's as good as it gets in the Cleveland area.