APOLLO — For the first time in a while, there’s a buzz around Apollo-Ridge going into the season.
Not the typical preseason platitudes, which sometimes ring empty, but actual hope and expectation.
“Our goal: Heinz Field, definitely,” senior quarterback Jesse Zelonka said, referencing the WPIAL championships. “That’s every team’s goal, but we’re not just saying that. We really want that.”
That would be quite a leap for a team that lost in the first round of the WPIAL Class A playoffs last year, but reaching that point was a significant, unexpected jump in itself, and the Vikings bring back plenty of key players from that team.
“I don’t expect not to be in the playoffs, I know that,” coach John Skiba said. “That, to me, is something that would be catastrophic. Something has to happen pretty bad for us not to, because of the talent we have on this team. We have to put that pressure on ourselves to get in the position to make it to the next round.”
The Vikings hadn’t been to the playoffs since 2007 but rode an inexperienced but explosive offense to a 6-2 mark in WPIAL Eastern Conference play before losing at favored Monessen in the first round of the playoffs.
“Playoffs was a very different game — faster, better players,” junior Alex Smith said. “This year we’re more ready for the regular season.”
“It was nice, the first time leading the offense, going out there and having the team working together,” Zelonka said. “I honestly didn’t expect that from us, but we really surprised the fans. We surprised everybody. It was a great feeling.”
The surprises didn’t end in November, either. They continued through basketball season, when the Vikings upset Sto-Rox and Jeannette to go all the way to the WPIAL semifinals and the state playoffs. The continued success has created a new, exciting vibe around Apollo-Ridge athletics.
“Whatever we can do to make sure this town’s on the map, we’re going to do it,” said junior receiver and defensive back Tre Tipton, who also helped lead the basketball team.
“They definitely gained a ton from (the football playoff) game,” Skiba said, “and then when basketball made its run last year, a lot of those kids were involved in that. Everybody got to see that excitement and everything it built, so we come into this year very confident. That’s the key. They understand now that they can play with people. Last year was a huge step.”
It’s one thing to adjust to suddenly being considered a small-town star athlete, but it’s another to adjust to the high expectations that come with that.
“People are excited about it,” Skiba said. “People talk to these guys and tell them the expectations are high right now, and they understand the level has been set a little higher.
“It’s definitely new to them, and it catches them off guard a little bit sometimes when we talk about it, but those are things that I’m hoping become routine here.”
Zelonka and Tipton lead the offense, which has added the pistol formation out of which the dual-threat quarterback can run more, complementing the already potent air attack.
“The pistol and the zone read, we just put it in this year,” Zelonka said. “We were working on it over the summer, so it’s still definitely not perfected, but it’s getting a lot better. I’m starting to understand a lot more.”
Smith is another more-than-capable receiver and complements Tipton. Lonny Wells is the halfback and Ben Gemballa the fullback.
Cody Joyner, Tyler Means, Garret Hooks, Joe Baustert and Eric Moran comprise the offensive line, and Christian Leonarski is at tight end.
“We have a great mix of skill guys. The big issue where we’ve really got to get something together is our offensive line and defensive line,” Skiba said. “If we get those two clicking, we should have the weapons outside to do anything we want.”
Joyner, Tyler Baustert and Joe Baustert front the 3-4 defense. Wells, Gemballa, Zach Weinel and either Leonarski or Josh Zamarippa form the linebacking corps, and Tipton, Smith, Duane Brown, Jonah Casella and Dom Schrecengost are in the secondary.
Tipton, a PA Football News first-team all-state selection on defense, might play either corner or free safety.
“He does everything,” Skiba said. “He’s played corner the past couple years. We’ve messed with him playing some free safety, because he does a great job of roaming. He’s starting to understand that a little bit. But he does lock guys down. He plays extremely well over there.”