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Elliot takes over for Annarella as Falcons fight through difficult season

August 21, 2019
Nik Zirounis , The Town Crier

When the Fitch football family received the terrible news earlier this year that legendary head coach Phil Annarella passed away, it sent shockwaves throughout the school and the Austintown community.

It also sent the football program into an unfortunate frenzy to find its next head coach. That role will be filled on an interim basis by longtime Annarella assistant Jon Elliot. The rookie head coach believes he'll do a bang up job because of the close bond he had with his fallen friend.

"It's pretty ironic I'm getting this opportunity," said Elliot. "To be the head coach at Fitch after what Phil built is phenomenal. It's easier because the program already has a great foundation."

Needless to say, this season will be dedicated to the memory of Coach Annarella. The Falcons will all be wearing stickers on the backs of their helmets and there will be a video tribute to him before every contest. In fact, Elliot jokes that Annarella's presence will be felt at all times.

"I told (the players) Phil is going to see them everywhere," Elliot said. "They'll need to play like he's here and make him proud of us."

A lot of what Annarella did beyond the X's and O's will continue with this new regime. One major aspect of that will be how the Fitch kids control their behavior.

"We don't have to establish a new culture," Elliot said. "We've changed some of the window dressing, but the discipline aspect is something that'll never change."

Something the new coach hopes changes for the better is how his boys perform in the playoffs. Last season ended after one tournament tilt when the Falcons were wiped out by Euclid 35-0. Still, Fitch found its way to eight wins in the regular season. Elliot will be counting on 13 returning letter winners to try to duplicate that lofty mark. The best of those players will be along the front line.

"We have five seniors on the offensive line," Elliot said. "They've been around three years and they are our leaders."

Those linemen are 300-pounder Christian Armstrong who is a two-year starter, 6-foot-4, 285-pound letter winner Kyle Moore, 260-pound letter winner Payton Short and letter winners Ryan Connors and Tom Rader.

Seniors Joe Perez, Justin Stainfield, A.J. Winterburn and C.J. Woodberry will all take their turns starting at linebacker. That unit will also be aided by junior Nate Leskovac. The skill spots are well handled by 6-foot-2 junior wideout/defensive back Isaac Bethel and 6-foot-3 super athlete Todd Simons at the same two positions. Reliable junior kicker Carlo Walters also comes back for another season. Elliot is impressed with this core group.

"We have a good stable of linebackers," he said. "These kids are picking up a lot of things and working hard. And with Simon and Bethel in the secondary it makes our defensive backs strong."

Elliot is interested to find out how his newer set of receivers pick up the slack for the loss of some special skilled players that have graduated. He believes that this bunch can make a name for themselves by being gritty.

"We have good skill, but maybe they're not as athletic (as past receiver groups)," said Elliot. "They're doing the little things better like blocking downfield. Those blocks can turn three and five yard runs into ten yard runs."

The player responsible for guiding the offense is junior quarterback Leskovac. He saw the bulk of the action behind center a year ago and that's why he'll be the field general again in 2019.

"Leskovac is ahead because of his experience," said Elliot. "He's smart and athletic."

Leskovac is also a very special player on defense. Last year, the then sophomore may have tired a bit towards the end of the campaign because he was playing so much on both sides of the ball. This year, his coach has a backup plan.

"Hopefully we can use (senior) Allison Edwards to spell (Leskovac)," the coach said. "(Leskovac) is a leader for us on defense so we don't want to wear him out again."

Speaking of that Fitch "D", it will have a familiar face coordinating it. Elliot informed that Coach Annarella was supposed to take over defensive play calling duties and was going to use his familiar 4/4 defense in the process. When Elliot needed a replacement, he called on former Fitch defensive decision maker Joe McMahon to come back and install his usual stack alignment.

"We needed to bring Joe back to run our defense," Elliot said. "He'll run what he's comfortable with and that will allow us to utilize our speed more."

Not only will the Falcons face this season with two brand new coaches, they will also have a new division affiliation. Fitch was moved down to Division II Region 5 after competing as a Division I power for what seemed like decades. The lower rank doesn't mean the competition is any weaker with defending state champion and state power Akron Hoban heading up the region. Massillon Jackson, Warren Harding and Boardman are some of the other schools that should fight Fitch in the playoffs.

"It's a tough region to be a part of," said Elliot. "We feel we have a shot to beat any team in our region though."



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