Youthful Rams growing up fast, improving daily, coach says
LIGONIER — For the first time since the 2008 season, Ligonier Valley will live and die with its youth, an ideal 11th-year coach Roger Beitel seems at peace with.
The Rams’ roster consists of a combined 13 upperclassmen, three of whom are returning starters, but Beitel said the unseasoned Rams have more significant goals than just qualifying for the District 6 Class AA playoffs for the sixth straight year. Racked by injuries last season, Ligonier Valley reached the playoffs despite losing its last four regular-season games and then dropping its playoff opener to finish 6-5.
“There’s a lot of teaching, a lot patience, and every day our kids are just getting better and better and better. Like I said, the storm’s brewing,” Beitel said. “As soon as we can get these young kids ready and up to competing at varsity speed, I’m telling you, the sky is the limit. But by the same token, we’re as young as we are, and we’re going to have 14- and 15-year-old kids going up against 17- and 18-year-olds, and that maturation really makes a difference. Normally, I’m used to having around 13 kids in the senior class alone, and that’s all we have in the top two classes combined.
“But we feel really good about our team. How we do in terms of wins and losses, hey, we’ve won a lot of games, but that’s not what’s important. What’s important is getting these kids ready and prepared, and they really are just fantastic. I couldn’t be happier with a group of kids.”
Two-way returning starter and sophomore speedster Collin Smith will spearhead the Rams on both sides of the ball.
Last year, the hard-nosed Smith started at running back, where he was the team’s second-leading rusher. He amassed 500 yards on 83 carries and scored three touchdowns.
“He’s a dual-threat like no other,” Beitel said. “We’ve had some other kids in our conference who were tremendous runners, but their throwing left something to be desired. We had some kids who were tremendous throwers, who could also run, but their running wasn’t electric. When it’s all said and done, we think our kid is going to be pretty electric doing both.”
This year, Smith, who spent his early years in Ohio, will move back to his natural post at quarterback, a position he played until last season. Smith attended a handful of passing camps over the summer, including one of Notre Dame’s prestigious summer camps, which he attended with sophomore flanker Trent Stewart in June.
Beitel said Smith’s toughness and his ability to run and throw the ball with efficiency makes him the ideal brand of quarterback for his Pistol-Wing offense.
“He’s making the transition back to quarterback fine,” Beitel said. “He’s embraced the position, and he’s just had a great offseason and an absolutely terrific camp, and he’s picking things up in the offense fast. We’re basically going to start in the pistol, because we want to start with our best athlete, and arguably one of the best athletes in the conference, with the ball in his hands at five yards every play. You load up like we’re going to run, and we’re going to throw; and if you sit back like we’re going to throw, we’re going to run.”
Seniors and returning starters Ray Marsh (center) and Alan Stouffer (tackle) anchor an offensive line that will try to create lanes for Smith, senior running back Michael Keller and senior fullback Jordan Jones.
Sophomores Alex Marsh (running back) and Garrett Custer (fullback) will also get their share of carries. Keller, penciled in last year to be a starter, missed last season with a broken ankle.
Senior split end Thomas Mauk and Stewart will represent Smith’s go-to options in the receiving corps.
Other offensive starters are sophomore guard Elijah Parrish, sophomore guard Zack Mariotti, junior tight end Dominic Jester, senior tackle Jerin Free and junior guard Billy Shafron.
Nine players, including outside linebacker Smith, will platoon as starters. Other two-way starters are Jones (defensive end), Keller (cornerback), Marsh (defensive end), Stouffer (tackle), Custer (inside linebacker), Mariotti (nose tackle), Parrish (inside linebacker) and Stewart (safety).
Beitel also expects the following players to make an impact on defense: freshman Noah Wingrove (nose tackle), freshman Aaron Sheeder (inside linebacker), freshman Jackson Daugherty (safety), sophomore Josh Fitz (outside linebacker), sophomore Nathan Porterfield (outside linebacker), junior Hunter Hulbert (tackle), sophomore Austin Tutino (outside linebacker), junior Thomas Sibal (cornerback) and sophomore Alex Marsh (cornerback).
“We have 35 kids in the lower two grades, and a lot of them are sophomores who got significant time last year,” Beitel said. “We started five freshmen in our playoff game last year against Richland, so as these kids continue to develop and continue to grow, we feel incredibly fortunate about the things that are going to happen here.
“But that doesn’t mean that we aren’t focused on what we can do this year because we also believe we have some really special seniors that can have big seasons. Mix that in with the youth we have, and you never know.”