Don’t discount the power of the Dragons

The mounds of dirt are visible when you enter Dragon Drive, along with the yellow construction vehicles scattered around what was once Niles McKinley High School.

The dirt-filled landscape is soon-to-be paved into a vast parking lot – stretching out to East Federal Street.

The newly built high school sits in the back right of the acreage – a pristine building and source of pride in the Niles community.

To the left is Bo Rein Stadium, the once weathered grass surface is now being replaced with an artificial surface – so far completed from in front of the band shelter to midfield. The dirt infield still surrounds the bright green surface.

The construction has drawn the interest of the area as onlookers meander their way into the stadium – seeing what’s complete, envisioning what’s to come and dreaming of the 2013 Red Dragons season.

Last week, at a youth football camp held inside the Niles Wellness Center, this year’s Red Dragons did their own prognostications of the upcoming campaign – coming off a year where Niles made the playoffs in 2012. Niles (8-3) hosted its first-ever playoff game in school history and made the postseason for the first time since 2006.

“We have high expectations after what we did last year. We want to make the playoffs again,” senior wide receiver Jimmy Mullen said.

It’s lofty expectations for a Niles team that rejuvenated a community and has been inspired by second-year coach Brian Shaner, who has been a catalyst in bringing an upbeat tempo to the Red Dragons.

“He’s building a program for us, helping with the young,” Mullen said.

Shaner, his staff and players helped mold more than 60 children at last week’s camp – trying to solidify the program as its entry level.

This season’s varsity team isn’t listening to the naysayers, who are spouting off that last year’s 16 seniors – integral members of last year’s playoff run – are hard to replace.

“This point in the season, everyone in the state of Ohio has high expectations,” Shaner said. “We’ve been asked that question a lot, how you going to be? You graduated a lot. Our players have a chip on their shoulder. We did graduate a lot, but we’re going to work harder than we did last year. We’re going to do everything to be as good, if not better than we we’re last year.”

Last year, the Red Dragons relied on graduated senior Stefan Yuhas under center. The 5-foot-11, 175-pound quarterback rolled out of the pocket plenty of times – a dual-threat signal caller.

Enter senior Kyle Paden, who is a bit taller than Yuhas and spent last season as his understudy. This year, Paden is the favorite to take over under center for the Red Dragons. Paden will have a lion’s share of wide receivers on this year’s team.

“He’s going to be that guy no one really knows about until the season gets going,” Shaner said of Paden. “They’re going to say, ‘Wow, Niles got another one.’ “

This Red Dragons team doesn’t want to hear they’re rebuilding. They think they’re new and improved like the high school and field turf inside Bo Rein Stadium.

“We just work hard and focus, that’s the key – keeping expectations and setting our goals what we want to get for the season. That’s it. We’ve got to focus,” senior wide receiver Marcus Hill said.

It’s that focus that will temper lofty expectations with a heavy dose of realism. It’s not arrogance these Red Dragons exude, but it’s excitement deep within these Niles players and coaches.

Those expectations become reality on Aug. 29 when the Red Dragons invade Arrowhead Stadium to play Girard. And, it won’t be until Game 3 (Sept. 13) when Niles hosts West Branch that the Red Dragons play its first regular-season game on the new turf.

Niles wants to prove last year’s playoff season wasn’t similar to a one-hit wonder, but more like an established performer – long lasting like the turf inside Bo Rein Stadium.

“Niles kids are tough, hard working,” Shaner said. “There isn’t a big head on the team. We have a chip on our shoulder to be better than they were last year. You can’t have a big head and achieve that.”

It could be hard to discount the enthusiasm because the Red Dragons weren’t seen as playoff contenders last season.

“We always want to be the best we can and succeed,” Mullen said. “We have to live up to what we did last year, hopefully go farther in the playoffs.

“We think we’ll be as good as we were last year, if not better.”

The Red Dragons could finish the regular season 8-2 like last year, but more likely 7-3 and sneaking into the playoffs with a first-round road game. However, like Poland did last year as an eighth seed against top-seeded Marlington, it could be forseen that Niles could upset a team on the road as well and reach the second round for the first time since 2000. That season, the Red Dragons reached the Division II, Region 5 title game and lost to eventual state champion Olmsted Falls.