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Coventry football moves in right direction under first-year head coach

Andy Harris
Suburbanite correspondent

COVENTRY TWP. The 2020 season was one of transition and change for the Coventry Comets.

Their first season under new head coach Mike Zografos after a decade with former coach Ed Egan at the helm was the first bit of change, but it was coupled with all of the adjustments, variations and alterations brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Coventry sophomore quarterback Chase Rankin throws a pass during the playoff loss to Youngstown Chaney. Rankin finished the year with 1,408 yards passing and 15 touchdowns.

Learning a new system and new style would be tough in any year; doing it with an offseason that included a truncated scrimmage schedule as well as practices shaped by following pandemic health guidelines and protocols upped the degree of difficulty significantly.

The result was a 4-6 season that featured some big wins and several tough losses, including a first-round playoff defeat that saw the Comets leading 7-0 early in the third quarter in the first home playoff game in program history.

“It definitely was not the record we were hoping for,” Zografos said. “We did hit some of our goals … offensively we got better, scoring up over 26 points a game and defensively in the second half of the season, we did a better job of stopping teams and giving up a lot less points than the first half of the season.”

Among the highlights for the season were wins in two contests Coventry considers rivalry games, with triumphs over Norton and Springfield both serving as memorable moments. The Springfield game was the first one with the Battle for the Lakes trophy, an idea Zografos and Springfield head coach Dave Bosko came up with prior to the season as a way to add excitement to the rivalry.

Coventry senior running back Brendan Longwell looks for room during the playoff loss to Youngstown Chaney. Longwell finished with 1,422 yards rushing and 20 touchdowns this year.

Still, Zografos pointed to the first win of the season, a 26-23 home win over Ravenna, as the biggest highlight of the season. It was his first win with the program and saw his players give him a Gatorade shower after the final buzzer.

Injuries were a big part of the season, but according to Zografos, Coventry’s offensive system is built in part on the idea that skill position players are versatile and can shift around as needed.

“The good thing is we have good athletes on our team, smart kids who can adapt and adjust to those new roles when injuries happen,” Zografos said. “Our four receivers we have can play any of the four positions, so they can shift if we need it.”

The quarterback throwing to those receivers for most of the season was sophomore Chase Rankin, who finished the year with 1,408 yards and 15 touchdowns through the air while completing 55.7 percent of his passes. He did miss time with a concussion and was spelled by sophomore Brayden Clark, but showed promise in running the spread attack that Coventry used much of the time. Three different receivers tallied at least 317 receiving yards and seven players recorded double-digit catches, showing the depth within the team’s receiving corps.

Given that Rankin was playing freshman football one season prior to his first varsity start, it’s fair to say that he had a steep learning curve.

“The biggest thing for him was speed of the game, going from freshman football up to varsity football in one year is a big difference,” Zografos said. “Also being able to read coverages was a challenge because teams switch coverage pre-snap.”

When Rankin didn’t put the ball in the air – and sometimes when he did – the pigskin was in the hands of senior running back Brendan Longwell, who turned in one of the better seasons for a running back in recent Coventry football history. With 1,422 yards and 20 total touchdowns, the burly senior running back seemed to run toward collisions instead of seeking to avoid defenders much of the time.

That tough, direct mindset was one that seemed to filter through the rest of the offense when the Comets were rolling and according to his head coach, giving Longwell the ball even had its own terminology.

“He was our go to guy. We always joke in practice that you’ve got to feed the horse, that was our name for him,” Zografos said. “He did a great job as a captain and he’s a kid who, instead of running out of bounds, would look for contact.”

Replacing Longwell will be one of the tasks for Coventry to tackle heading into next season, along with replacing key pieces along the offensive and defensive lines. The good news is that many of the team’s skill position players are sophomores and juniors, meaning Rankin has a chance to return with a year of starting experience and some of his top targets.

What Zografos wants his returning players to improve upon moving forward is their ability to finish games. Three of the Comets’ six losses were games where they held late leads and were unable to close opponents out. Learning how to close out a team is one of the major obstacles for any program looking to get over the hump and compete for championships; Coventry’s hard-learned lessons in that area could provide just the education the Comets need to start that process.

The first year of the newly-formed Metro Athletic Conference - comprised of the eight former Portage Trail Conference Metro Division member schools - proved that PTC Metro powers Streetsboro and Woodridge were still formidable and fast-rising Cloverleaf is another tough foe with which Coventry must contend if it wants to vault itself to the top of the MAC.