LOUDONVILLE – In his first season as Loudonville’s coach, Rick Rios led the Redbirds to a 5-5 record in 2015. With a young roster and a tough schedule, Rios knows he’s facing a challenge but he still is confident in his Loudonville squad’s ability to grow and improve heading into the 2016 season.

“Everybody wants to be playing in December. That will never change for us,” Rios said. “As young as we are, we know we’ve got a lot of young talent but we need our kids to step up early and find out what we’re made of.”

Youth definitely is a factor for the 2016 Redbirds. Of the 34 players on the roster, 23 of them are freshmen and sophomores. However, Rios said this year’s group of sophomores had the chance to get some important experience last season.

“A lot of them got some playing time last year as freshmen, either playing special teams for us on Friday nights or some of them actually got some game time experience,” Rios said. “They’re young but they’ve been tested a little bit. Now they have to figure out how to be the guy.”

With only eight seniors and three juniors on the squad, Rios is counting on his upper-classmen to set the example.

“We’ve got a handful of guys that played quite a bit last year. So the nice thing is it may be a small two classes at the top but those 11 guys, a lot of them have good experience for us from last year and they’ve done a good job leading the young guys,” Rios said.

Rios said that although they only have 34 players playing for the Redbirds this season, depth isn’t much of an issue, with only four or five guys starting on both sides of the ball. Which is why the coach isn’t too concerned about playing his no-huddle, up-tempo offense with his small roster size.

“You learn to condition a little harder in July,” Rios said with a laugh. “If we had 10 guys going both ways I’d be a little concerned. But with only four or five, it’s not so bad. And we’ve only got lineman who goes both ways, so that’s the key to us. If we can keep those linemen fresh, we’re OK.”

Heading into the 2016 season, one big hole Rios is tasked to fill is the one left by graduating quarterback Austin VanSickle, who committed to Mount Union after racking up 1,851 total yards and 26 touchdowns in the 2015 campaign. Filling his shoes will be sophomore Dylan Polen.

“He wings the ball around pretty well and he’s got a good head on his shoulders,” Rios said. “He does a good job reading defenses. I’m pleased with his progress right now but he’s still got a long way to go.”

The Redbirds open the season at home against Northwestern on Aug. 26, then have two more home games against Triway and Hillsdale.

“We’ve watched a little bit of their (Northwestern) film from the last few years, so we’ve got a little bit of knowledge of what they like to do and who they are,” Rios said. “For us, it always comes down to how are our young guys going to manage the lights coming on. Their first time out there.

“The biggest thing for us is who we are and what we do. Northwestern is going to have a good group. We know they’re going to be good out here and we just have to meet the challenge.”

The rest of their schedule will be challenging for the young team, including five consecutive games in the heart of their season against Mogadore, Sandusky Central Catholic, Canton Central Catholic, Lucas and Danville, all playoff teams a year ago. Redbirds are preparing for their season by scrimmaging against some challenging schools in Norwayne and Lexington.

“Somebody asked me about our scrimmages. I said we might as well start off difficult because the schedule we have is brutal. So we might as well find out who we are right away,” Rios said.

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