It didn't take long to figure out that Plan A wasn't working.
After a loss to Bible Baptist dropped Hilton Head Christian Academy to 0-2, head coach Ryan Mitch knew he had to make a change. Two weeks in, Mitch was already facing the unenviable task of transforming a two-time defending state champion when his quarterback, Brad Meccariello, told him he couldn't throw due to an elbow infection. So he did the only thing he could: Mitch decided he would run the ball down the opposition's throats.
A switch to a diamond backfield produced immediate results, as the Eagles abandoned the air game and ripped off nearly 400 yards rushing. They wouldn't lose again until the SCISAA Class 2-A state championship game, a 30-27 loss to Florence Christian. With so much success, you'd expect Mitch to stick with the attack-by-land approach.
"No, no. It's done," Mitch said, leaning back in his office chair and laughing. "That was necessity only."
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The Eagles, a traditional SCISAA powerhouse that has won four of the last eight state championships, will undergo another set of big changes on offense in 2014. For the second straight season, the Eagles will have a new man under center.
This year's model, senior Ryan Barrett, will allow Mitch to do a lot more of what he originally intended last year's squad to do: Take to the skies.
"I'm a spread guy, but last year, we just physically couldn't do the things I wanted to do with throwing the football," Mitch said. "We'll be a lot more spread-oriented this year."
The spread, as anyone who has watched football's offensive transformation over the last decade will know, works by using the whole field to create gaps in opposing defenses. Those gaps are then exploited, but that is only effectively accomplished by a quarterback with a strong arm (to get the ball out wide, wider than traditional sets require) and an ability to make efficient decisions. In Barrett, Mitch thinks he has the answer, someone with arm strength and the ability to adapt quickly to his new position.
Mitch admitted that when Meccariello, who the coach raved about as a leader, and former running back Deo'Vonte Doe graduated, he worried who would step in to fill the leadership void. But a summer of workouts and weight room challenges has answered that question for him. Barrett, to Mitch's surprise, immediately took hold of the responsibilities that come with the most visible position on the field, and has shown no intention of letting up under pressure.
"As soon as spring hit, he kind of took over," Mitch said. " He just gets it. He's really taken on that leadership role which really surprised me. He's knocked it out of the park."
That, said Mitch, is one of the beautiful things about high school football. You just never know who will be ready to break out when the time calls for it.
The Eagles have lost several players from last year's squad, including Meccariello, Doe, Reese Dolyniuk, and DeAngelo Clark, the latter of whom transferred to Hilton Head Island High.
But Mitch remains excited about HHCA's prospects in 2014. The Eagles did suffer an early blow, however, when senior Luke Higgs opted not to play football this fall. Higgs, a 6-foot-2, 210-pound linebacker, was a late addition to last year's team, joining midseason and immediately excelling.
At least one opposing coach was sufficiently impressed by Higgs to inquire whether he'd take over at quarterback. Mitch admitted he considered it, but felt Higgs would be too valuable to take out of the middle of the defense. Now, without Higgs, Mitch will be looking for other players to step in and fill that void.
With Barrett, a veteran offensive line (four starters return) and the addition of a talented incoming freshman class, Mitch said he is more excited about this year's squad than last year's state runners-up. He expects strong challenges from Northwood Academy and local rival Hilton Head Prep, the latter of which he describes as the "toughest game of the year."
Most importantly, the former quarterback will feel more comfortable on the sidelines, back to his familiar spread scheme that was undermined so early in 2013. Perhaps this time, the system will be here to stay.
"I do expect us to win," Mitch said. "I expect us to be good."
Stadium: Eagles Field
Region: SCISAA Region 2-AA
Coach (years at school): Ryan Mitch (2nd year) 9-3
2013 results: 9-3, lost to Florence Christian, 30-27, in SCISAA Class 2-A state championship game
Key losses: LB Luke Higgs; WR/DB DeAngelo Clark (transfer); QB/DB Brad Meccariello; LB/OL Reese Dolyniuk; RB Deo'Vonte Doe
Key returners: QB Ryan Barrett; DL/OLB Mike Dillon;
Key newcomers: WR/CB James Bartholomew
THREE KEYS TO THE SEASON
Fill the defensive void: When Higgs opted not to play football in 2014, it left Mitch with a giant hole in the center of his defense. It will be up to others to pick up the slack. One candidate to help the cause is sophomore James Bartholomew, playing football for the first time. Mitch said he was impressed with Bartholomew's ability to pick the game up quickly, and by his willingness to hit. He should see some time at corner.
Take to the skies: Necessity forced the Eagles to employ a run-heavy diamond formation last year. Mitch, raised as he was in the spread offense, doesn't intent to go back to that approach. It will be up to Barrett and a cast of wide recievers to implement a more potent passing game.
Find a leader: The Eagles lost some significant production last year, but at a school as traditionally powerful as HHCA, there's no time for a rebuild. That means new players will have to step in and step up. Mitch believes this will work itself out, and has been pleased with the development of a few guys as role models in summer workouts.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Offense: Ryan Barrett, Sr. QB
Barrett has some big shoes to fill in taking over for departed former starter Brad Meccariello, whose leadership coach Ryan Mitch said will be sorely missed. But Barrett brings a new level of arm strength and throwing ability to the table that should allow the Eagles to employ a spread approach, as opposed to the run-heavy style it used in 2013.
Defense: Mike Dillon, Sr. DE/OLB
At 6-5, 210 pounds, Dillon gives the Eagles some much-needed height along the defensive line, but can also shift over to play outside linebacker. He is coming off a strong preseason, and his length makes it hard for quarterbacks to get throws over him.
Aug. 23 @ Hammond L, 49-13
Sept. 6 @ Bible Baptist L, 44-27
Sept. 13 DORCHESTER ACADEMY W, 29-28
Sept. 20 NORTHWOOD ACADEMY W, 48-41
Oct. 4 THOMAS SUMTER ACADEMY W, 54-14
Oct. 11 COLLETON PREP ACADEMY W, 42-21
Oct. 18 @ Thomas Heyward Academy W, 45-14
Oct. 25 @ Palmetto Christian Academy W, 45-36
Nov. 1 HILTON HEAD PREP W, 35-28
Nov. 8 THOMAS SUMTER ADACEMY W, 43-28*
Nov. 15 PALMETTO CHRISTIAN ACADEMY 45-26*
Nov. 23 Florence Christian L, 30-27*
HOME GAMES in CAPS (*Playoff game)
Date Opponent Time
Aug. 22 at Trinity-Byrnes 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 5 BIBLE BAPTIST 7 p.m.
Sept. 12 at Northwood Academy 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 19 FIRST BAPTIST 7 p.m.
Sept. 26 at Bethesda Day School 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 3 at Palmetto Christian 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 10 CHRISTIAN ACADEMY 7 p.m.
Oct. 17 THOMAS HEYWARD ACADEMY 7 p.m.
Oct. 24 ST. ANDREW'S 7 p.m.
Oct. 31 at Hilton Head Prep 3:30 p.m.
Player Position Year
Jack Allen OL/DL Soph.
Andrew Ballard WR/RB/LB Jr.
Ryan Barrett QB/S Sr.
James Bartholomew WR/RB/DB Soph.
Michael Dillon OL/DL Sr.
Chandler Edmonds OL/LB Fr.
Chris Edwards RB/DB Sr.
Connor Handy OL/DL Fr.
Evan Hill WR/DB Jr.
Joey Lankowski WR/DB Jr.
Ty Robinson OL/DL Soph.
Zeke Roulston WR/LB Jr.
Matthew Vangrouw WR/DB Sr.
Carson Viljac OL/LB Jr.
Ben Warner OL/DL Sr.
Holden Whitt OL/DL Soph.
Zack Whitton WR/DB Soph.
Cameron Wilder OL/DL Sr.
Reese Woods WR/DB Fr.