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Vikings ready for big challenge

by on August 28, 2014 9:30 AM

APOLLO — Apollo-Ridge stepped it up in 2013.

What’s elevated now is the challenge.

Following a season in which the Vikings got their first playoff win since 2007, Apollo-Ridge has been bumped up from Class A to AA, joining a formidable WPIAL Allegheny Conference as it tries to go from rejuvenated program to perennial contender.

Of course, it’s not like they’re shying away from challenges at Apollo-Ridge these days.

“We need to be that team that every year expects to be there, no matter what we’re playing at,” coach John Skiba said. “We’re moving up. The expectations didn’t drop.”

“Moving up in class,” senior receiver/defensive back Tre Tipton said, “I don’t think (opponents) have that fear yet, and that’s what we’re trying to push into everybody’s heads, that when you come into Apollo-Ridge it’s going to be a tough matchup. We’re trying to make sure that people know what we’re doing here is something serious. It doesn’t matter if we move up or we move down or we move up two A’s. At the end of the day, we’re just going to continue to fight.”

From 2009 to 2011 Apollo-Ridge went 9-27 as a member of the Class AA Allegheny Conference, the last year a 2-7 campaign in Skiba’s first season. The program’s drop to Class A coincided with its upswing in talent. The result was a return to the WPIAL playoffs in 2012 followed by the program’s first playoff victory in five years, a first-round upset of previously unbeaten Beth-Center, last season.

The Vikings join a conference that has three Division I-committed players: Kittanning’s Nick Bowers (Pitt), Freeport’s Logan Thimons (West Virginia) and, of course, Tipton, a first-team all-state preseason selection as an athlete, who has verbally committed to Pitt. The fact that Apollo-Ridge has one of those stars puts the Vikings on the map in a stout league.

Of course, the Vikings had some pretty tough competition last year, playing in the Eastern Conference, the WPIAL’s toughest Class A section. Their only regular-season losses came to undefeated North Catholic, the eventual WPIAL and state champion, and once-beaten Avonworth.

The excitement is as present as ever around Apollo-Ridge football. Skiba’s dream is to get a home playoff game; his long-term idea is to make that a regularity.

“We have to get in the playoffs,” Skiba said. “That’s a must for this place. To really turn it around, we have to go three straight and build this thing. You can’t go two and then miss one and maybe next year. We’ve got to keep pounding and get in the playoffs.”

“Apollo has always been a football town, but they also believe now,” Tipton said. “They believe in what Coach Skiba is doing and everything he’s put into this program.”

To get back to the playoffs, the Vikings will have to succeed without last season’s All-Gazette Player of the Year, quarterback Jesse Zelonka. In his place is unproven junior Dillon Shipman, but he’ll have an electric group of backs and receivers to work with. Out wide, Tipton and Alex Smith are more than proven, and the versatile Duane Brown and Jonah Casella are set to start in the backfield. Tipton and Smith combined for 71 receptions, and Casella rushed for 399 yards last season.

Skiba either didn’t want to tip his hand on offense in the preseason, or he wants to try a little bit of everything.

“We go 3-by-1, 2-by-2, we’ll run a power-I set, we’ll run some conventional things, old-school football,” he said. “We’ll go back to the new stuff, spread out all over the place, read-option stuff. It’s all diversified by who’s playing what position. We’re going to try to give defensive coordinators a lot of things to deal with during the week getting ready for us.

“I’ll be rotating guys all over the place. You’re going to have to figure out where I’m going to have you lined up. Tre’s definitely not going to be staying at Z (receiver) all game. Duane Brown, the same way. All those guys are kind of interchangeable kids, so I can put together packages for all of them. That’s the fun part with this group, because they’re all so very skilled.”

It’s the same idea on defense, where they’ll stay in a 3-4, but have plenty of flexibility. They’ll be led by Tipton at cornerback, Smith at safety and Brown at outside linebacker. Tipton and Brown combined for 10 interceptions last year.

“I’m playing outside linebacker, but I’ll still be covering,” the sophomore Brown said. “You never know what Coach is going to throw at you. It’s always something different, so you’ve always got to be paying attention.”

“We have enough skill where if you have receivers, you’re not going to really scare us,” Skiba said. “We’re used to seeing people throw; we’re not afraid of throwing. Our guys understand how to cover. Tre’s about as good covering a guy one-on-one as I’ve seen, and Duane and Alex and those guys, they can match up and lock people down.”

The concern, however, is the power game, with retooled fronts on both sides of the ball.

“You wish you had another year to get ready for it, or you wish you had some certain guys, but we’re going to go and do what we’ve got to do,” Skiba said. “We’ll have to battle and fight. I know I’ve got the skill guys. If I can create the horses up front, I know we’ll be all right.”

Eli Nellis is a sports writer for The Indiana Gazette.
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