AS readers of the Tribune Chronicle sports section may have noticed, we have a countdown to the start of the high school football season (look up and to your right), and the concept sparked an idea about other lists.
With the high school football season 26 days away and the Mahoning Valley boasting several elite teams, it's hard not to want to rank the area's best teams. Maybe we'll throw in a few other grades just for fun.
Let's start with the best teams, and I'll give you a little insight on each one. This is going to be difficult because teams haven't even started two-a-days yet, so my apologies to anyone I leave out. Oh, and if anyone wants to tweet something - rude or pleasant - because of the inevitability of you disagreeing, my Twitter handle is @APstylz.
1. Hubbard Eagles
Hubbard has always been one of the most consistent football programs in the area (11 playoff appearances in the last 15 seasons), but the Eagles have yet to reach the state's final four during that span. This could very well be the year that changes, with four Division I recruits on the team, including L.J. Scott, one of the top running back prospects in the country (he recently committed to Michigan State). They lost their starting quarterback and a few other key players, so they have work to do, but with Ohio State-recruit George Hill (another RB), West Virginia-bound lineman Matt Jones and Toledo commit Tyler Taafe (TE/LB), the Eagles should be poised for a long playoff run.
2. Cardinal Mooney
Never count out the Cardinals. They seem to be in the state finals every other year. It's a given that their offensive line will be big, strong and powerful and they'll possess a good running back. Mooney lost stud RB Mark Handel, but it returns the fleet-footed C.J. Amill (1,210 yards, 11 TDs) along with quarterback Jon Saadey. If Saadey, a senior, can continue to provide balance with his passing, and the defense can be stout as usual, there should be another lengthy postseason trip in the Cardinals' future.
3. Western Reserve
Another one of the usual suspects when it comes to deep playoff runs, the Blue Devils have big shoes to fill at quarterback. Nick Allison (20 TDs, one interception in 2013) graduated, so someone is going to have to step up. Finding someone hasn't been a problem for coach Andy Hake in recent years, and with a solid RB returning in Evan Nesbit (755 yards, six TDs) along with top WR Joe Falasca (38 grabs, 928 yards, 15 TDs), the Blue Devils could be the class of the Inter Tri-County League once again.
4. Lakeview Bulldogs
No surprise that another consistent program is on the list. The Bulldogs return arguably the best quarterback in the area in dual-threat junior Angelo Marino. He ran for 640 yards and nine touchdowns, and his passing improved throughout his sophomore season, finishing 88 of 164 for 1,479 yards and 11 TDs. Now-senior running back Michael Mannella, a bowling ball-type of back, ran for 929 yards and 11 TDs in 2013. They're always good on defense, but they have holes to fill on that side of the ball. Still, Lakeview will almost certainly contend for another conference title and playoff spot.
5. Liberty Leopards
Not many schools boast the athleticism at the skilled positions like Liberty. Lynn Bowden shocked most of the area last year with more than 1,400 yards rushing as a freshman, but the Leopards lost standout two-way starter (QB/DB) Asim Pleas, and it's a mystery as to who will take his place under center. Still, it's hard to think there will be much of a dropoff after their second-straight playoff appearance, especially with Ursuline transfer Ben Phillips (the Irish's top receiver in 2013 with 23 catches and 398 yards) joining the Leopards. The offense should be fun to watch. Defense will be the question mark.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: McDonald, Brookfield, Austintown Fitch, Howland, Springfield and Ursuline.
Although it's really difficult to gauge the talent of more than 30 area schools, here's the top players at a few offensive positions: QB - Marino, Lakeview; RB - Scott, Hubbard (Hill and Bowden are second and not as far away as some may think); WR - Falasca, Western Reserve; OL - James Daniels, Warren G. Harding, and Jones, Hubbard; TE - I have no idea... Jimmy Graham, New Orleans Saints?
With that, enjoy the final days before pads start popping and the Friday night lights illuminate the skies. Be sure to reread this column in a few months to see how right I was, or you could just check the Fearless Football Forecast, which I intend on winning for a third time in my tenure at the Tribune Chronicle.