Football: Mercy O-line takes on new center, new system

BOB LIEPA PHOTO | Bishop McGann-Mercy has adopted a new zonal blocking scheme.

The Bishop McGann-Mercy Monarchs are in the zone.

Zonal blocking, a scheme that is becoming more common in high school football, has come to Bishop McGann-Mercy Diocesan High School. McGann-Mercy’s new head coach, Jeff Doroski, has introduced the blocking system to his offensive line, which he considers one of the team’s strengths. In zonal blocking, offensive linemen are responsible for a space, not a man. “Whoever’s there you hit,” said Ray Ellis, a junior left tackle.

Described as a simpler blocking style than that which the Monarchs had previously employed, quickness, timing and footwork are essential. The Riverhead Blue Waves have used zonal blocking for years and have enjoyed great success with it.

“The zone scheme allows us to open some holes and to allow our athlete, which is [running back] Pat Stepnoski, to read the defense a little bit and pick some spots,” Doroski said. “We can get guys up to the second level to get some hits on some linebackers and create some spaces to run.”

Teamwork by this team within a team is important. “Everyone has to think alike,” Ellis said. “Everyone has to have the same idea in their head and be going a hundred percent.”

BOB LIEPA PHOTO | Pat Stepnoski ran into Bishop McGann-Mercy's running backs coach, Phil Lombardi, during a drill.

Three returning starters from last year’s offensive line — Ellis (6 feet, 250 pounds), senior Anthony Heppner (6-3, 260) and junior Jack Strnad (6-1, 200) — are back. Pat Marelli (5-11, 205), who played for Riverhead’s junior varsity team last year, joins the line along with junior Chris Motlenski (5-10, 240), who was promoted from McGann-Mercy’s JV squad.

The projected starting lineup has Motlenski at center, Strnad at left guard, Marelli at right guard, Ellis at left tackle and Heppner at right tackle. James Edmonds (5-10, 230), a senior guard, is fighting for a starting position.

“We all know a football team isn’t going to go very far unless it has a good line, on both sides of the ball,” Doroski said. “We’re going to be as good as they are this year. As they get better, we’re going to get better as a team. I think physically, we’re not as tough as we need to be up front yet, but we’re getting better and tougher.”

Big and strong would be the words to describe the group. Marelli can bench 255 pounds and squat 420. Motlenski can dead lift 495 and power clean 195.

“I’d say all of them, for their individual sizes, they’re very strong,” Doroski said. “All of them did very well in the weight room. … All of the linemen did more than we’ve ever seen in the past here as far as our strength goes, so that’s encouraging.”

For big, strong linemen, though, they have good footwork, too, said Doroski. “The biggest thing is the footwork,” he said. “That’s the challenge that these guys are having right now. But as they begin to rep that more and they trust their footwork to get them to where they want to be, the better they’re going to become, and we’ve already seen in the past week and a half the improvements.”

The other big change on the line is the move of Motlenski to center, a position he had never played before. With the graduation of Ryan Heimroth in June, the Monarchs were looking for a new center. Doroski asked Motlenski if he could snap the ball, and he said he would give it a try.

BOB LIEPA PHOTO | Agility training was part of Bishop McGann-Mercy's practice on Friday morning.

So, how is life as a center going?

“They say I’m doing good, so I guess I’m doing pretty good,” Motlenski said. “I guess once we start having scrimmages and stuff like that I’ll see more of how it is because I’ve never played it before in a game, so I don’t know what it’s like.”

Motlenski played guard and tackle for the JV team last year. A learning curve is involved with his new position, which is a complex one. But Motlenski knows what the most important part of his new job is.

“Make sure the snap’s good,” he said. “It doesn’t happen a lot, but I’ve had a few bad snaps, and it ruins the entire play. Obviously, you got to worry about getting the snap up and then going to make your block.”

Doroski said Motlenski has done a lot of work in the offseason and fits the mold well as the team’s new center.

“It’s a hard position to learn, and once he gets more game time, more game experience there, the better he’s going to get,” the coach said. “… He’s a smart kid. He’s able to make the calls that we need him to make up front, so we’re looking forward to watching him get better as the year goes on.”

Progress is being made with the zonal blocking, Monarchs say. That is a comfort to the McGann-Mercy coaching staff, Stepnoski and Keith Schroeher, the quarterback.

“We don’t get credit,” Ellis said. “All the running backs, they get the credit, but it starts with us. If we don’t do our job, they can’t do their job.”

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