Merola passed away of cancer at at the age of 73.
Merola won 210 games in his three-plus decades with the Bearcats, casting a large shadow over anyone that would follow him, from long-time assistant Phil Merrill to current head coach Matt Shutts, who enters his second season at the helm.
The first season for Shutts was a tough one. Hampered by suspensions and other off-the-field issues, Solvay did not win a single game in the 2011 regular season and were down to just 21 players by the time it was done.
Piece by piece, though, Shutts and his fellow coaches are starting to put things back together. This season, 42 players came out for modified football and 37 are on the JV squad.
“We were in a cycle where kids just weren’t into athletics,” said Shutts. “We’re starting to get them interested again.”
That still leaves a small varsity roster of 24, but that includes 13 seniors and seven in a small junior class. And Shutts said their work ethic, cohesion and behavior, on and off the field, have vastly improved in the last 12 months.
“It’s been phenomenal,” he said. “These guys are an actual team. I do not foresee a single issue with them this year.”
Certainly the Bearcats don’t have an issue with Nick Cometti, who returns to start at quarterback. The senior is already a standout in indoor and outdoor track and field, having finished sixth in the 100-meter dash at last June’s outdoor state championships.
While that was going on, though, Cometti was busy brushing up on football technique. Shutts said the main thing that Cometti worked on was staying in the pocket, not automatically running at the first sign of trouble.
“He’s maturing into a much better football player,” said Shutts. “He’s taking command and starting to understand the mistakes he made before.”