LISBON-On the night before the rest of the area teams get started, Leetonia and Lisbon will have the local stage all to themselves tonight at War Memorial Stadium when they open the season with their 103rd meeting.
The Bears and Blue Devils, once one of the hotter rivalries of the old Tri-County League, have kept their traditional meeting alive even though they are in separate tiers of the Inter-Tri County League, meeting in week one every year since 2006.
"It's a fun game every year because the communities border each other and have a lot in common," Lisbon coach Jim Tsilimos said. "It's a great way to open the season."
For the first time in a number of years, the Bears will be out for payback, after falling to the Blue Devils 37-14 is last year's opener, snapping a string of five straight Leetonia victories.
"I wasn't sure how our kids would respond after getting knocked around in the first game like we did last year," Leetonia coach Matt Altomare said. "But it actually ended up being a little bit of a catalyst for us, we turned around and won four out of our next five games. I think that game showed us in a hurry where we needed to improve."
For Lisbon, last year's game proved to be the high point of the 2012 season, as the Blue Devils finished 2-8. However, the Blue Devils also had their most productive offensive season in years and Tsilimos is hopeful that the 18 returning lettermen continue to take things in the right direction.
"I don't know if the result of last year's Leetonia game will affect us either way," Tsilimos said, "but what I do know is that we've had a lot of guys get varsity experience the last couple of years. Experience alone doesn't guarantee us anything, we still have to line up and play, but I hope it carries over into some good football this year."
Both teams return experience on offense. The Blue Devils lost 1,000-yard rusher Zak Leko, but senior running back Brandon Barnes, who also ran for 1,000 yards, is back along with sophomore quarterback Josh Liberati, who started six games under center in 2012. Also back for Lisbon are linemen Jacob Jarome (second-team All-ITCL) and Jordan Everett (honorable mention).
"Moving the football like we did on Leetonia and at other times during the season gives us a lot of confidence for this year," Everett said. "Practices have been a lot more physical preparing for this year, everyone is ready to go."
The Bears return quarterback Trent Ferry, their leading passer from 2012 and also a vital piece in running the team's wing T offense. Ferry will be joined in the backfield by fullback Zack Van Giesen, who led Leetonia in both rushing and receiving last season.
"I like the nucleus we have returning," Altomare said. "I think we'll have good speed at the skill positions and we also have a nice mix of linemen back to help pave the way."
Tsilimos had high praise for the Leetonia offense and knows that for the Blue Devils to make it two in a row, their defense will have to play better than it did in 2012 when Lisbon gave up 27 points or more in eight of its last nine games.
"Trent Ferry is one of the better athletes in the area and Van Giesen is also a heck of a player," Tsilimos said. "Defense has been one of our biggest projects over the summer, we are going to have to tackle well or it's going to be a long night."
For both teams, tonight not only offers an opportunity to beat their rival, it's also the chance to finally line up in a meaningful game after a full summer of work.
"It felt sour all of last year thinking about how we lost to them in week one," Leetonia senior lineman Chase Stark said. "It feels great to final have another shot."
"We spent all summer going over the fundamentals," Lisbon senior lineman Jacob Jarome said. "It's fun now to get ready for Leetonia. By now we have everything we've worked on down pat."