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The 2013 La Salle-Peru football team faces a daunting schedule.
In the non-conference portion of the schedule, the Cavaliers replaced perennial Class 4A power Rock Island Alleman with a 2012 Class 6A playoff team in Lincoln-Way North and swapped United Township (6-57 the last seven seasons) for perennial Class 5A contender Washington.
The Cavs face Yorkville and Rochelle in Northern Illinois Big 12 Conference crossover games and face the usual challenging schedule in West Division games against Ottawa, Geneseo and Sterling.
“This is probably the hardest schedule in the seven years I’ve been here, but if you want to be good, you have to play good teams and you have to beat good teams,” L-P coach Joe Sassano said. “We’re not going to run and hide from anybody. We’re ready for the challenge. I think our kids are excited about that. They want to go and prove to the naysayers that they can play football and be a pretty good team.”
The naysayers could point to the stacked schedule and the fact the Cavs lost three-year starting quarterback Zack Cinotto and fellow NewsTribune All-Area picks Adam Happ and Brandon Pawlak at receiver.
But Sassano prefers to point to the experienced offensive and defensive lines and talented receiving corps.
“Those are probably our strongest areas,” Sassano said.
On the offensive line, the Cavs have returners in Reed Pezanoski and Austin Knapp at guard, Brett Kowalczyk, Coltyn Lazzarotto and Erik Gens at tackle and Jon Hewitt at center.
Noah Boehm will see time at center and Jeremy Khoija also will play guard.
“We’re not as big as other years, but we have a lot of experience on the line,” Pezanoski said. “We know the plays. All of us know what to do and how to do it.
“It’s really helpful to have a good line. I hate to say it, but the offensive line is basically the whole key to the team. Even if you have a really good running back, you still need an offensive line to help him by blocking.”
The Cavs hope an experienced line leads to a more balanced attack after the passing game accounted for 73.3 percent of the team’s total yards last season.
“We’ll switch it up,” senior receiver Damion Allen said. “Last year, the teams we faced knew we’d be passing the ball a lot. Now that we actually have a solid run game and solid line, I think it will be harder for defenses to gauge us.”
Allen and classmates and fellow returning receivers Logan Zeman and Clay Viani will have prominent roles that will feature more short, quick routes with the graduation of the strong-armed Cinotto.
“I think for the most part, you’ll see pretty much the same offense (as year’s past) with a couple wrinkles we’ll put in there based on the fact we have some pretty good skill kids we want to get the ball to right away,” Sassano said. “That will kind of be our emphasis.
“We’ll throw the deep, the intermediate and the short, quick ones, but you’ll probably see a little more of the shorter, quick routes.”
Sassano’s son, Colby, will take over as quarterback after serving as Cinotto’s backup last season.
“Our quarterback is going to be somebody who can run the team, manage the huddle, manage the game and get the ball to the playmakers,” said Joe Sassano, who noted he’d be comfortable going to junior Cam Mignone at quarterback if necessary.
Providing balance in the offense will be the running back corps of Taylor Thompson and Alfonso Rocha, both of whom saw time last season, as well as newcomers Zach Barr and Derek Salas.
While the offense will remain similar, the Cavalier defense was overhauled this offseason as L-P switched from a 3-5 to a 3-4 base — which will switch to four- or five-man fronts depending on the opposition — with a Cover 2 shell.
“We have a second-year defensive coordinator in coach (Pat) Carney. He worked awful hard in the offseason to put in the package,” Joe Sassano said. “He worked really hard with the kids and they seem to be responding.
“We hope to kind of pick up where we left off last year. I thought for the most part we played rock-solid defense. We held (Michael) Hermosillo under 100 yards and nobody really lit up the scoreboard on us after Week 1. We should see a lot of good things coming from the defense.”
Like the offense, the linemen will anchor the defense with their experience.
Hewitt, Kowalczyk and Lazzarotto will play on the line along with Austin Freeman. Hewitt was a NT All-Area pick last season after making 30 tackles (23 solo), eight tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks.
Senior Alex “Moose” Duncan returns and will play middle linebacker. Rocha, Kowalczyk and sophomore Ryan Atilano will all see time at outside linebacker.
Zeman returns to the secondary after earning NT All-Area status last season by racking up four interceptions, 40 tackles (35 solo) and forcing a fumble.
Thompson gained experience last season, while Barr, Allen and Viani are new to the secondary.
On special teams, the Cavs return kicker Jon Sydlowski and have Allen, Viani and Zeman back to return punts and kicks. The punter position is still up in the air.
The Cavs hope the tough early schedule and experience in key positions help them compete for the NIB 12 West Division crown and earn a playoff berth for the first time since 2009.
Kevin Chlum can be reached at 220-6939, or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @NT_SportsEditor.