All the chatter about Westlake — and you can blame me, too — has been about its roster. The varsity has only 25 players, which, from a coach’s point of view, is barely enough to run an offense against a defense during practice.
My tour of camps over the last 10 days led me to Westlake late this afternoon, but it was then I learned a valuable lesson: Numbers can lie. Are there Class B programs with more bodies in jerseys than Westlake? Sure. But there is one factor you must take into account when comparing the program to others its size: Westlake has a JV.
Over the last couple weeks, I’ve come across opponents in Class B and some former opponents in Class C with rosters that total in the 30s and low 40s. Westlake actually has 50 or so players in its program, but they are divided among two teams. The Wildcats just happen to have 25 players of those players on the varsity who can compete. And from what I saw today, they will.
When I had e-mailed coach Rich Hennessy over the weekend, he replied with the team’s practice schedule. By the time I arrived today, it was at the end of the second session, more than nine hours after the first one had started. Still, Westlake continued to run through offensive plays close to full speed. Around 5:30, when this day in the blazing sun was coming to an end, players shed their pads and helmets and lined up to run laps around the practice field.
It is this type of hard work and commitment that has Hennessy turning a blind eye toward his program’s modest-sized roster. The Wildcats actually feel strong and cautiously optimistic, even despite last year’s 2-6 finish. They return 13 seniors, including multiple starters who will play two ways.
The leaders can’t be boiled to just a name or two. The senior class is very deep. HB/LB Matt DeBiase will be the top running option on offense, replacing Adam Ranellone, who rushed for 869 yards and 10 TDs. HB/S Nick Cevallos, one of our Captain’s Corner participants, will help anchor the defense.
Six other returning seniors are expected to see action on both sides of the ball: G/DT Joe DeVito, FB/LB Nick Calcagni, WR/CB Fabio Ricci, TE/LB A.J. Pizzola, C/DT Christian Murphy and FB/DE Nick Squillante. One other very, very big returning piece is RT/DT Tommy Hopkins, a 6-foot-6, 270-pound sophomore that is already among the bigger players in Section 1. And he’s only a sophomore.
The QB battle that I mentioned from Tiger Camp is still being waged between senior Vinny Manzo and junior John D’Onofrio. But no matter who earns more snaps, they will do so in a few new formations, turning away slowly from the Wing-T. Hennessy admitted that his offense has worked toward unearthing a little more diversity to better exploit its talent, although Westlake will still rely primarily on the run.
One major passing target is senior Mason Adams, who transferred back home after spending last year at Iona Prep. The 6-foot-6, 205-pound Adams looked very electric as a WR today at practice. His size is a major factor, but he’s not short on athleticism. Hennessy said Adams originally transferred to Iona Prep to play basketball for the Gaels. He returned to Westlake in June and began to work out with the team in July. “He’s matured and is showing a lot of promise,” Hennessy said.
The Wildcats have a few other newcomers. The sophomore class sent six to the varsity. One, Mike Manzo, Vinny’s brother, will join Hopkins on the offensive line, as will junior Rob Lynch.
The greatest challenge presented by the roster size will be depth. Westlake has very little. Today, a thumb injury had Cevallos out of practice, which costs the Wildcats not just one starter but two.
“Most of our guys will go both ways,” Hennessy said. “We’ll try not to, but it’s something we have to do. We’re trying to condition them appropriately without pushing them too hard. It’s possible that some of them won’t really come off the field, so we have to get them prepared for that.”
With a deep reserve of returning players, Hennessy hopes his team can draw off its experience in 2008, when it played Croton-Harmon at Mahopac for the Class C championship. He believes the players’ determination to return to that form rather than the doldrums of last year.
Simple hard work has been their avenue to achieve that. They may just be 25, but it’s been 25 strong.