Chucks aim to end frustration, return to postseason the goal
PUNXSUTAWNEY — Coach Alan Nichol has learned how to deal with the ebbs and flows of running a high school football program.
Nichol also has discovered what it takes to guide a team to the playoffs coming off a frustrating season in the Keystone Shortway Athletic Conference Large-School Division.
Nichol led the Chucks to playoff berths in three of the first four years of his tenure before winning just three games and suffering through the worst year of his career last season.
Like he did in 2012, Nichol intends to help this year’s Punxsutawney squad bounce back from a three-win season, and in the process, return to the District 9 Class AAA playoffs.
“It’s been a really great camp and we’re really looking forward to the season,” Nichol said. “With all these guys it’s hard to say who’s going to step up and who isn’t. I know we have a lot of potential, and any of these guys could have a fantastic season. But it’s a team game, and our goal is to get back to the playoffs and see what we can do.”
A typical run-first team, Nichol said Punxsutawney will throw slightly more than it runs this season out of its multiple-I formation offense, despite the fact that his quarterback, senior Dakota Thomas, feels most comfortable in scrambling situations.
Thomas split time at quarterback last year behind senior Matt Burkett, who threw for 647 yards and four touchdowns. Thomas completed 10 of 33 passes for 191 yards and three touchdowns. He also rushed for 194 yards on 34 carries and scored one touchdown.
“Dakota’s the guy right now,” Nichol said. “He had a great offseason in the weight room, and it’s paying off for him now. He’s a speed guy and he likes to run the ball, but he’s been throwing it pretty well this summer, too. He’s one of the strongest pound-for-pound guys we have, if not the strongest. He just did everything he could in the offseason to get ready for us.”
The Chucks have an inexperienced receiving corps, although Nichol said he expects senior Andrew Fedigan, juniors Braxton Giaviadoni and Nathan Lingenfelter and sophomore Ethan Riley to become targets for Thomas.
Fedigan was an all-conference selection at tight end last season.
Senior Perry Arrington, who last year complemented 1,000-yard rusher and graduated senior Christian Falgout, made the transition from fullback to tailback, where Nichol expects him to become the sparkplug in the backfield.
Last year, Arrington rushed for 282 yards on 53 carries and scored three touchdowns.
Nichol also plans to get junior tailback Alex Young and senior fullback Travis Perry their share of touches.
“Christian had 1,000 yards last year, and Perry had a lot to do with that blocking at fullback,” Nichol said. “But now it’s time for Perry to step up and get a lot of carries. He’s small, but like Dakota, he’s powerful, and he reads the inside zone very well.
“Alex Young is a very talented junior. He’s a bigger, stronger runner, but he’s got that burst of speed. Those two guys complement each other really well, plus we’ve got Travis Perry, who’s a senior with some nice quickness.”
The Chucks return four starting offensive linemen, including junior tackle and all-conference selection Brandon Douthit. Flanking Douthit are returning starters and seniors Ethan Ambler at center, Luke Shiock at guard and Keegan Fischer at guard.
Seniors and two-time returning letterwinners Jacob Gotwald and Dalton Maines will each rotate in at guard. Senior returning letterwinner Jacob Coalmer will see time at tackle, and sophomore returning letterwinner Blake Bizousky will share time at tackle.
“We’ve got a lot of talent up front,” Nichol said. “We have size and experience, and these guys have played together for a whole season, so they’re on the same page with just about everything.”
Since a number of teams ran spread offenses in the division last year, Nichol opted to change the defensive look from a 4-4 to a 3-4.
Ten players will essentially play on both sides of the ball, including Thomas, who will start at cornerback. Other two-way starters are Douthit (defensive end), Arrington (weak-side linebacker), Gotwald (tackle), Shiock (nose tackle), Fedigan (safety), Fischer (strong-side linebacker), Maines (defensive end), Young (outside linebacker) and Bizousky (middle linebacker).
The Chucks have defensive playmakers returning, such as Arrington, who had a team-high three interceptions last year. However, even though the Chucks’ pass defense allowed an area-worst 153.0 yards per game last season, Nichol said he’s most concerned about getting productive play out of his nose tackle, Shiock.
“It’s a little tougher when you’re playing odd (numbers on the line) because you’re going to get a lot of double teams on that nose tackle,” Nichol said. “You’ve got to have somebody big and strong, and Luke’s been able to do it. What he’s been doing so far has really been allowing our linebackers to the get to the football. That’s why Luke, and the other two inside guys, those are our most important players on the defense.”
Other first-year defensive starters are junior Levi Campbell at outside linebacker and junior Ryan Jones at cornerback.