DERRY — In order to withstand the gauntlet that lies ahead in the WPIAL Greater Allegheny Conference, third-year Derry coach Al Gaiardo will need his inexperienced clan of underdogs to learn and evolve on the go.
Gaiardo has managed to guide Derry to only a combined three wins in his first two campaigns. The Trojans won their season opener last year over Albert Gallatin, but following that win, Derry dropped eight straight conference games by a combined score of 415-84.
With the same nine opponents on the horizon and just five returning starters steering their ship, the Trojans will aim to improve on their worst season since going winless in 2007.
“It certainly is a gauntlet,” Gaiardo said. “We start off with Mars, which was the conference champ and a WPIAL semifinalist last year. They’re our second game of the season, and our first conference game. Then we go to Knoch, which went to Heinz Field two years ago. And then we end the season with Franklin Regional, which won the state championship a few years ago. It’s a gauntlet, week in and week out, but you’ve got to line up and play. I think our kids have done a great job preparing, and they have the confidence to say that if they play their game, they can play with any team in the conference.”
Four returning starters — senior quarterback Kyle Holmes, senior fullback/tailback Sal DeCario, senior guard Lloyd Zulisky and senior tight end Clint Beeman — will power the Trojans in their multiple-I offense.
Using the 6-foot-3, 175-pound Holmes as the catalyst, Gaiardo said the Trojans will become a more pass-heavy team, peppering in shotgun and spread sets with their split back and I-formation looks.
Last year, the Trojans averaged just 96.7 rushing yards per game. In the passing department, however, Derry averaged 148.4 yards per game.
“We’re going to be using a lot of the same packages and the same formations. We’re just going to be throwing the ball even more than we did the last two seasons,” Gaiardo said. “Kyle throws the ball extremely well, and he got a lot of playing time under his belt in his junior and sophomore years. A lot of people don’t know that he tore his MCL and his PCL last year, and when he first came back, he couldn’t even squat the bar. Now he’s squatting 350 pounds. We couldn’t be prouder of the job he’s done to get back. We’re really expecting big things from him this year.”
Holmes completed 42 of 104 passes for 556 yards and three touchdowns last year. The team’s top four receiving targets from a year ago graduated, so Holmes will have to make do with the team’s fifth-leading receiver from last year, Beeman, and first-year starters and wide receivers Austin Hess, a senior, and Jaymie Howe, a junior.
Beeman caught seven passes for 65 yards as a tight end last year.
Other offensive starters are: junior center Gabe Luttner, senior guard Dylan Hamacher, sophomore guard Levi Humberger, junior tackle Tyler Savage, junior tailback Josh Flack and junior fullback T.J. Balega.
Defensively, Gaiardo has scratched the 50-base scheme that he employed the last two years and transitioned to 4-3 and 4-4 looks.
DeCario, Hamacher and Savage will rotate at the two tackle positions and make up the heart of the Trojans’ defensive front. Zulisky and junior Chase Stevenson will man the two end positions, while Beeman, Balega, sophomore Sonny Stevens and junior Devon Hajas will share reps at the linebacker spots.
“Lloyd Zulisky is definitely a kid to look for as a big playmaker on the defensive side of the ball this year,” Gaiardo said. “He’s a hard-nosed kid who works extremely hard to improve every day. Plus he’s very physical and very aggressive. He could be our best all-around lineman on both sides of the ball. We’ll definitely need him to anchor things for us up front.”
Other defensive starters are Howe and Hess at cornerback, Flack at safety and junior Nico Latta at safety.