Bears weather storm, prepare for Blue Devils

LEETONIA – As training camp drew to a close last week, the Leetonia Bears were feeling the traditional restlessness that comes when the start of a new season draws near.

Ahead was what seemed to be the perfect antidote, a scrimmage against Malvern who is traditionally a playoff-caliber team in Division VI. Coach Matt Altomare was hoping the matchup would provide a final tuneup before Thursday’s season-opening clash with rival Lisbon as well a give the players a chance to experience the intensity of real game conditions.

“We’ve scrimmaged Malvern since 2008 and it’s always been a good, hotly contested scrimmage and has given us a nice gauge of where we stood,” Altomare said. “We wanted to simulate some game situations with the clock running and see if we would be able to adjust to the speed of real action.”

Those plans, however, were ruined by Mother Nature. After driving an hour to get to Malvern, the Bears were forced to wait two-and-a-half hours due to repeated thunder and lightning. Finally, both teams decided they’d waited long enough and agreed to cancel, leaving the Bears to go back home and begin focusing on Lisbon.

“We had been practicing hard all summer long and we were ready to go out there and hit,” senior lineman Chase Stark said. “When the lightning struck we were all a little bummed.”

The Bears could have elected to return the next day, but Altomare decided that a week of practice with a team full of healthy bodies was more valuable.

“No matter what you do, you can’t simulate real game conditions in practice,” Altomare said. “But on the other hand, if we didn’t go back and play on Friday, we would be guaranteed to have 39 healthy players for Lisbon week which is a plus. We also didn’t want to cut into our preparation time for the Blue Devils.”

Making matters better for Altomare was that it his players shook off whatever disappointment they had at not playing the night before and had one of their better practices of the year.

“It was a little bit of a letdown not getting our last scrimmage in,” senior fullback Zach Van Giesen said. “The intensity had been up and we were ready to compete, but it felt great the next day that we were finally able to focus on Lisbon. I think that helped us to work and condition extra hard.”

Also helping to sharpen the Bears’ focus is the fact that Lisbon came into last season’s opener as the underdog and sprang a painful 37-14 upset on Leetonia, claiming their first win in the rivalry since 2006.

“It’s great that it’s finally time to get another chance at them,” Van Giesen said. “Last year we didn’t have the intensity we needed to start the year, that’s the biggest difference between this season and last. We’ve been working extra hard in two-a-days and I think we’re ready.”

“Oh yeah, we’re ready to go.” Stark said. “The whole team is excited to get started. We’ve practiced harder than I’ve ever seen us practice before. I think we’re in great shape.”

Sitting in his office Monday afternoon, surrounded by the excited banter of the locker room, Altomare seemed just as relieved and anxious as his players that the season had officially arrived.

“To be honest, as a coach I can’t help but get restless too,” Altomare said. “It’s funny to see things progress as August goes on. At first everybody can’t wait for the first full-contact practice, then they can’t wait for the first scrimmage, now at the end of the month we’ve been itching to line up against Lisbon. For the last few practices we’ve felt ready to play them each day.”