CLEVELAND, Oh - After a shortened regular season in 2020 due to the pandemic, the 2021 Saint Ignatius Wildcats are ready for a full ten-game season. 2020 without question, was a challenging year for all. Program-wise, the season began on a delay as the Wildcats did not take the field for their first game until September 12 and only played four regular-season games. The Wildcats did have success in the postseason, making a nice run until ultimately falling to the Medina Bees in the Regional Semifinal by the score of 33-26.
Despite a strange season a year ago, there are plenty of Wildcats returning in 2021. This team will see eight returners on the defense, with five returners on the offense. The Blue and Gold looks to build off the adversity from last season and have an excellent outlook for the opener. “I learned a lot from competing last year; it taught me to stay poised,” says senior quarterback Joey Pfaff. “I got my chance last year, but as a team, we have a lot to prove ourselves.”
Pfaff will have one of his favorite targets back with him in senior Steven Bodamer. Bodamer and Pfaff worked a significant amount in the off-season to get their timing down for the season. “Getting faster is always an emphasis; working out with coach Anthony Rubino helped,” explains Bodamer. “Also getting routes in with Pfaff to perfected timing.”
The Wildcats will play the most formidable strength of schedule in program history as their opponents’ combined record from 2020 was 63-19, two of their opponents won a State Championship (Archbishop Hoban and St. Xavier). “I feel confident of what we can do with a full off-season and preparation,” explains senior captain Peter Chalhoub. “Our coaching staff knows what to do, and as long as we trust the system and trust our preparation, we should be good to go.”
“This is why you come to play football for Saint Ignatius,” says Bodamer. “You don’t come here to play football to expect a cakewalk of a schedule; you come here to play the best of the best; we have nothing to lose, so it’s all excitement.”
2021 Position Breakdown:
Joey Pfaff is the returning starter for Head Football Coach Chuck Kyle’s ’69 program. The 6’5” 190 lbs quarterback earned the starting job late in the 2020 season. Pfaff led the Wildcats to two playoff victories against Solon and Euclid and hopes the momentum from last season will carry over into his senior season. Pfaff a year ago completed nearly 60% of his throws while accumulating 894 yards and six touchdowns. “Joey has shown he has experience from last year and the benefits from his junior year,” says Kyle. “He handles third and long situations well, can read the defense and convert.”
“I needed to get stronger and gain weight,” explains Pfaff on coming into his senior year. “I also built a great chemistry with the receivers and running backs; I played with Marty (Lenehan) last season, so that helps to come into this season.”
This will be the first season in coach Kyle’s head coaching career that he won’t have legendary offensive coordinator Nick Restifo Hon. ’19 calling plays after Restifo stepped away from football at the end of the 2020 season. Coach Kyle is confident in his offense coming into the 2021 season as they have made progress through the Solon and Canton McKinley scrimmages. “We have the capabilities of running the football, especially with Joey,” Kyle explains. “Our rush game will open up our passing lanes throughout a game.”
Backing up Pfaff this season will be junior Pierce Spencer. This is the first season on varsity for the 5’11 195 lbs quarterback after being the starter on junior varsity in 2020. “He is learning quite a bit at practice,” says Kyle. “He works hard and has great athleticism at the position.”
Joshua Papesh adds depth to the quarterback position and is only a sophomore for the Wildcats. “Papesh was phenomenal in the Canton McKinley scrimmage for JV,” Kyle says. “He has a great understanding of the offense and we’ll see how he develops.”
The Wildcats have excellent talent at the quarterback position with a nice balance of experience and youth coming into 2021.
Marty Lenehan is the clear-cut starter for the running backs heading into the 2021 campaign. Lenehan is coming off an excellent junior year where he rushed for 636 yards on 113 carries, reaching pay dirt seven times. On average, the tailback would gain 90 yards per game with pure grit running. “He is a leader,” says running backs coach Luke Baker ’17. “He coaches the younger players when he is not in and is the definition of what a captain should be for this program.”
Lenehan is a dual-sport athlete as he is also a member of the Saint Ignatius Rugby program. Lenehan won a State Championship at the end of his junior year with the Rugby Cats as that team went on to be National Runner-ups. Lenehan plays with the same amount of veracity on the football field that he does with Rugby. Lenehan is also a weapon out of the backfield for coach Kyle’s offense, as a season ago, he had six receptions for 68 yards.
“Getting out there and knowing what to expect coming into this season is important,” says Lenehan. “I’m coming into this season with calm nerves; last year was my first time getting my name called and my nerves were going crazy, but now I’m calm, cool and collected.”
There is explosive depth coming from the running back position with Joey Georges, Sean Martin and Steven Favazzo. Martin was brought up to the varsity level as a sophomore. The 6’1 165 lbs back seeks to be a crucial part of the offensive rotation of running backs.
WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS
The senior class of receivers and tight ends look to be unique for the Wildcats in 2021. Over the off-season, many of the receivers worked with Pfaff running routes and becoming comfortable with each other before practices even began for 2021.
When looking at the plethora of talent at this position, wide receivers coach Rodney Gallaway is thrilled to watch all of their hard work translate on the field. “The senior class last season didn’t get much time as juniors,” explains Gallaway. “Credit to them for continuing to put in hard work and putting in effort for their senior season.”
The Wildcats have strong senior leadership and talent on the receiver front with Steven Bodamer, Colin Vollmer and Patrick Tompkins. Bodamer, a season ago, had eight catches for 142 yards and one touchdown.
On the tight end front, the Wildcats return Sean Ward, who rotated and played alongside Nick Lamirand ’21 a season ago. Ward in 2020 had 25 yards on four catches and will be a massive target for Pfaff as he is 6’5” 230 lbs.
“The juniors are working hard too and giving us great looks,” Gallaway says. “Players such as Ryan Kennedy have been pushing teammates to get on the field and have emerged as a leader.” Other names for the juniors include Charlie Dunstan and Scott Broski. Dunstan will be a a threat for opponents with his speed on punt returns.
The Fraternal Order of Offensive Lineman (FOOLs) returns to guide the Wildcat offense in 2021 with new faces upfront. Ashton Montgomery and Brian Keane are the two returning starters from the 2020 season on the offensive line for the Wildcats.
“The Senior class has great leadership upfront,” says offensive line coach Paul Yappel. “The emphasis coming into this season for the offensive line is playing as one unit.”
The Wildcats offensive front consists of a lot of muscle and those men consist of 6’5” 300 lbs Brian Keane who is entering his third season on varsity. Montgomery comes into this season at 6’3” and 285 lbs. He is also entering his third season on varsity. Joe Ryland is 6’3”, 285 lbs entering his second season at the varsity level. William Witalis stands 6’3” 260 lbs and William Persiani stands at 5’10” 250 lbs as they both enter their second season on varsity. These seniors will all play a critical role in the offense.
“Last year was strange, and it’s a testament to our guys of what they did last season,” explains Yappel. “We got as much out of last year as we could, in terms of experience; I think that made us stronger for this season.”
The Wildcats front has made strides over the summer, and it’ll be tightening up the little things before the first game of the season in Springfield that will yield success for Saint Ignatius.
There is incredible talent coming from the defensive line this season, with athletes looking to bring star power up front and it all ties back to the senior leadership of the squad.
Peter Chalhoub will be the leader and catalyst of the defensive line in 2021. Chalhoub, a captain, is looking for a breakout year in his final season wearing the blue and gold. Chalhoub took a lot of experience away from playing alongside Bennett Adler ’21 a season ago. Chalhoub received his first opportunity late in the 2020 season and he shined, accumulating 13.5 tackles, with five of them being for a loss, 2.5 sacks and a forced safety. This will be Chalhoub’s third season on varsity and the 6’2 250 lbs defensive end will look like a nightmare for an opponent’s offensive line.
“Last season, I think the difference between the regular season and the playoffs shows what our coaches can do playing a difficult schedule,” Chalhoub says. “We play the top teams in the regular season, which makes it a routine in the playoffs to take on the top caliber teams in the State.”
At nose guard will be senior Thomas Wasinski. Wasinski, aka “Waz,” was a grinder during the off-season as he cut 20 lbs off of him and is significantly leaner and quicker off the block. He racked up 16 tackles in his junior season, 1.5 being for a loss and 1.5 sacks. You read your roster correct; Wasinski’s secondary position is running back. Coach Kyle’s offense may use him here and there on the goal line to beef up the front to punch the ball in for a score.
“The defensive line as a whole has worked incredibly hard this season and their intensity is high,” explains defensive line coach Mark Sullivan. “The energy they bring is contagious and it brings the defense together as a whole.”
There should be a nice rotation of linemen this season with Will Robinson, Joey Kause, Eugene Gibbons and Ryan Boomer will keep the legs fresh and the intensity high for the defensive front.
The Wildcats will continue to have an abundance of talent coming from the linebacker group. The Saint Ignatius faithful have enjoyed great hard-hitting defense from the linebacker spot for generations and that appears to continue in the 2021 season.
Christopher Aerni will start as the middle linebacker for the Wildcats this season and he is also a captain for the team. Aerni, a season ago, was in the rotation of backs with Nick Velotta ’21, Aidan Conway ’21 and Aidan Hubbard ’21 and made his name well known for the Wildcats defense. Aerni totaled 10.5 tackles, 3.5 of those for a loss, half a sack and one blocked kick. “He has always been a tough nose player and at middle backer, you have to be,” says linebacker coach and defensive coordinator Ryan Franzinger ’02. “He is undersized, but he has great instincts and doesn’t play small; he finds the football."
Aerni was a rotational linebacker a season ago and credits Aidan Hubbard '21 to his improvement of the position. “Hubbard was a great guy and an absolute animal on the field,” says Aerni. “Hubbard showed me how to play football because he was a physical guy.”
Returning from an excellent junior season is Gavin Berger. Berger, similar to Aerni, was in the rotation last season, bringing veteran leadership to the front seven. In 2020, Berger totaled 14.5 tackles, 1.5 of those for a loss. Berger will also be doing the long snapper duties for the Wildcats.
Senior Blase Mastrianni and junior Max Palinski round up the starting linebackers for coach Franzinger as both will be first-time starters this season.
Junior Patrick Martin will be the backup middle backer to Aerni on the defense heading into the 2021 season.
There were significant growing pains last season for the Wildcats’ secondary, as coming into the 2020 season, there was just one returning starter. What appeared to be Saint Ignatius’ weakness last season may have turned into one of the most vital facets of the 2021 season.
At the free safety position, senior Griffin Taliak will be the satellite for the Saint Ignatius defense. Taliak last season earned a starting role as a junior, totaling 30.5 tackles, 2 for a loss and two pass break-ups. Taliak is a dual-sport athlete as a member of the Saint Ignatius Lacrosse program and looks to be a hard-hitting safety this season for the Cats.
Sticking with the lacrosse connection, Braeden Lair will be the strong safety for the Wildcats. A fun fact about Lair is that he broke the program record in lacrosse with 48 assists in the 2021 season. Last season, Lair proved himself earning a starting role by accumulating 17 tackles, two for a loss, and two pass break-ups. The experience of the duo Taliak and Lair may be a threat to the region this season.
The starting corners appear to be seniors Joe Norris, Franklin Pike and Jack Mangan. “Having a full offseason of practice has helped a lot,” says defensive backs coach John Pieschalski ’89. “Our communication is significantly improved for this season and we took a lot out of last season.”
“Having a full season brings so much more excitement for these seniors,” explains defensive backs coach Kevin Johnson ’10. “Our whole secondary has this fire inside them and we’re excited to start the right way.” Other rotational defensive backs will include Brandon Webster and Edwin Abiakl.
History has shown with coach Kyle the importance of special teams in winning ball games. Doing the placekicking and punting this season will be senior Zeb Eldridge. Eldridge was the backup to Declan Mangan a season ago. Eldridge, coming into the 2021 season, is ranked in the top 50 in the nation for kicking and punting and is a five-star kicker in both areas.
“That is a weapon for us,” says Kyle. “We are not afraid to launch long field goals.” Eldridge in the scrimmages has been averaging about 50 yards a punt which will work in significant ways for the field position game for the Wildcats. Backing up, Eldridge will be junior Ryan Putka.
As for the return game, Charlie Dunstan has lightning-quick abilities as a return man and the Wildcats will be looking for a big year out of the junior wideout. Marty Lenehan also returned punts last season and may have his number called for returns this season.
In Division I Region I, 16 of the 17 teams will make it to the OHSAA Playoffs. This was a new rule implemented during the summer of 2021. “We can look at it in two ways: we can be frustrated with how tough our schedule is going to be, but at the end of the day, 16 of the 17 teams in the region will make the playoffs,” explains Chalhoub on the challenging schedule. “I’m excited to play the toughest schedule because it builds respect for the school.”
The Wildcats will open the 2021 season on the road at Springfield on August 20 at 7 p.m. The SIBN will have live coverage from Springfield Wildcats Stadium.