By Adam Baum, Cincinnati.com
It’s not all that common for one conference to have two defending state champions in the same team sport. The Greater Catholic League South — a conference that has won 10 state titles since 2002 — can make that distinction with St. Xavier and La Salle, both returning as champions in Division I and Division II, respectively.
After becoming the first five-loss team in Ohio High School Athletic Association history to win a state title, St. Xavier enters the 2017 season with the most buzz, rated by MaxPreps.com as the No. 18 in its national preseason poll.
About five miles away on North Bend Road, under the leadership of new head coach Pat McLaughlin, La Salle's at work to keep an already historic run in motion, propelled by three consecutive state championships — the first Division II team in state history to ever win three in a row — and the Lancers' first outright GCL South title in school history last season.
With all the recent success, McLaughlin, who coached Princeton last season and Reading prior to that, said, “I try not to think about it. Everyone reminds you of it all the time that you’ve won three state championships. I’ve told these guys that they haven’t won any together. This collective group of coaches and players haven’t won any. I used the term the other day: I don’t think some of these guys have a chip on their shoulder; I think they have a boulder on their shoulder trying to prove that, whether it’s because they’ve had three different coaches some of these guys or they’ve won three in a row. This senior class … they’re trying to prove something and they have a lot to prove.”
The Lancers graduated some premier talent and they also have some coming back. Senior quarterback Griffin Merritt is back under center and he’ll have his favorite weapon back in 6-foot-7 senior tight end Josh Whyle, who’s verbally committed to Cincinnati.
La Salle’s strength — at least until McLaughlin gets his offensive system ironed out — will be the defense. Senior defensive lineman Zach Rumpke and junior linebacker Brody Ingle were both GCL South first team last season. Junior linebackers Garrett Bledsoe and Jarred Uran are also to back to give La Salle arguably one of the most experienced linebacker groups in the area.
The Bombers look like they have the most returning from last season, particularly at the skill positions on offense — guys like Wisconsin commit Chase Wolf, Cameron Specht, Andrew Wittrock, Matthew Fox, Chris Payne and Jared Kreimer — and up front on defense with UC commit Blake Bacevich, Bobby Jefferson, Sean Mesue and Will Childs.
St. Xavier head coach Steve Specht said, “Right now, I love our senior leadership. We’ve got a great group of seniors; I really saw them develop last year. Last year’s gone. We talked about it at the beginning of our first day of camp. I said, ‘This is the last time I’m even gonna mention it with you guys. This is the last time we’re talking about it … that is gone.’ It’s a new opportunity. It’s a chance for the seniors to write their book and how’s that gonna read at the end. It’s about getting better every single day.
“Playing wise, it starts with the quarterback. Anytime you bring the trigger guy back you’ve got a chance and Chase Wolf, I believe, is as good as anybody that I’ve coached. I think I’d put him up against anybody around the city, anybody in the country. He’s a talented young man and we’ve got a lot of skill around him. We brought back an awful lot of skill from last year’s team and I’m excited about that group. I’m really excited about our (defensive) front. We brought a bunch of guys back from our front six. We’ve got a couple really good corners. We’ve gotta figure out the offensive line. I think every season we say that. We’ve got to figure out our safety situation.”
While Elder and Moeller may be under the radar in the conference, each share in returning experience and big-name, coveted recruits.
The Panthers were a playoff team last season but exited in the first round. Like St. X, Elder sustained a number of injuries last season, which led to a lot of opportunities for unexpected players to earn experience.
Senior quarterback Danny Nieman leads an offense loaded with weapons, but they’ll need some new guys to help anchor the offensive line. Junior defensive end Spencer Bono emerged last season as a player, already landing an offer from Iowa. Senior Devon Slocum will also help out on an experienced defensive line.
Elder coach Doug Ramsey said, “I think our attitude is great right now. I think these kids are excited. You talked about last year. You think about it, we were 4-1 and lost probably our most productive offensive player in Jack Mazza (who's now a senior) in that fifth-week game. We’re 4-1, beat (Lakewood St. Edward) and a six-point loss to Pickerington Central, who was in the state semifinals, so we were playing well. Then we lose to X, bounce back and beat Moeller and then Danny Nieman gets hurt and we played a couple games actually with a third-string quarterback last year, so I think we’ve had a lot of guys who’ve played, who have experience. A lot of these guys they don’t like the way that the season finished last year. We go to Mason and lose that game 21-20 in the playoffs. I think there’s a lot of excitement for what these guys can do this year.”
Moeller missed the playoffs the last two years and the Crusaders are hungry to make it back. Junior Trey McBride should give Moeller consistency, as well as a capable dual-threat at quarterback. Senior running back Colin Thurman led the league in rushing last year and senior tight end Brenden Bates, a Kentucky commit, is always dangerous down the field. Junior Zach Carpenter will start on the offensive line for the third year in a row. Defensively, Aeneas Hawkins, a 6-foot-3 defensive lineman who recently committed to Penn State, is a problem for offenses, and he’s joined by four other returning starters on that side of the ball.
Moeller head coach John Rodenberg said, "Here's what I see our league as: first of all, it's a brutal stretch, but the other thing I see in our league is with everybody having a star player here and there, each team has one deficiency whether it's the (offensive line), whether it's the secondary, whether it's the linebackers ... each team has got one thing that they've got to replace and I think what it's gonna come down to is your star players are gonna be your star players ... that's why they came to this league, to be a star player. But, it's gonna be which coaching staff and which group of guys can speed up the development of that deficiency ... and that will be kind of what finishes off that team and makes that team a chance to be the league favorite."