ARMAGH — Fall-like temperatures in the past week have captured the attention of high school football players in the area, and with less than a month until the season starts, local teams are anxious to get out on the field.
All nine Heritage Conference coaches and some players from each team gathered Wednesday morning at United High School for media day, and one thing was conclusive — there isn’t just one team to beat in 2013.
“There is tremendous depth and parity in the conference this year,” Homer-Center coach Greg Page said. “There are teams that are around every year, and there are some teams that will be better this year. We’ve been knocking on the door a few times.
“We have seniors that really understand that, and that’s what it takes to be successful and improve. With the competition in the conference, you can’t afford to be the same team Week 8 that you are 1 or 2 or you’re not going to make any noise.”
Two new coaches in the league are looking to take their teams to the next level in their first seasons.
Blairsville coach Rick Artley, who was hired to replace longtime coach Ab Dettorre last month, said his transition from assistant to head coach has been a fairly easy one so far.
“The plus that I have is that I’ve coached under Coach Dettorre for the last 15 years, so the things that he’s done we will continue to do,” Artley said.
“He’s given me the opportunity as the offensive coordinator the last nine or 10 years to be in charge of the offense completely, so I’ve had that end of the ball taken care of completely. He allowed me to do my thing, so that part should be easy and I will continue to call the offense. Hopefully we can use some things we did in the past and build on that.”
“It wasn’t even that big of a deal since he’s been there so long,” Blairsville junior Scott Thompson said. “We were already used to how he is and what he’s all about, so the transition from Coach Dettorre to Coach Artley hasn’t been bad at all.”
United graduate Lance Holupka was hired at his alma mater in June and inherited a team that finished 0-10 last year and scored just 33 points. He took over for Greg Mytrysak, who resigned in May.
“Some things are different,” United sophomore Matt Dill said. “We’ve had more voluntary practices, and we’ve been working in the weight room and on the field doing walkthroughs more than we did last year at this time. (Holupka) came in and told us right away that we have to have the mentality that we’re going to go out and win every game, and we have to have the confidence to be able to do that.”
A lot of chatter Wednesday still surrounded Penns Manor graduate Danny Ferens because of his unprecedented four-year career with the Comets.
Coach Bill Packer knows he has a huge hole to fill, but he is confident in his team’s ability to pick up where Ferens and graduated lineman Kasey Jewart left off.
“We’re actually really excited about it,” Packer said. “We obviously lost a great athlete in Ferens. But we have Lucas Kowalski now who watched Ferens for a couple years and picked up on a lot of what he did. We have more of a balanced team this year and will use everybody.
“I’m sure everyone’s going to be excited that (Ferens) is gone because he was a kid that was very hard to stop. We’re not going to be the team we were last year, but we still feel we can be successful.”
“We have a lot of people working hard to take those spots,” Penns Manor senior Luke Ruddock said. “I don’t think some people realize what we still have coming back. We’re going to do what we have to do to get the job done. Go big or go home.”
For Marion Center, Northern Cambria, Purchase Line and Saltsburg, many questions surround the upcoming season due to the graduation of some two- and three-year starters.
“We’re coming off a 3-7 football season,” Stingers coach Dave Malicky said. “We had a lot of kids that played a lot of football that are coming back this year. I haven’t sat down yet and counted, but we probably have seven starters on both sides of the ball coming back.
“If there was a preseason all-star selection, you wouldn’t see any kids from Marion Center being picked because none of them stood out last year. We lost Brodey Thompson, who was a phenomenal athlete for us, but these other kids learned a lot of football, too.”
“Our senior leadership is really good because they’ve been part of a successful team the last two or three years,” Northern Cambria coach Paul Taranto said of the Colts. “Coaches know that every once in a while, you have a football grade, and this is a football grade. We have about 15 seniors out, and they all enjoy the game and have been working hard in the offseason. When I played at IUP, they used to say, ‘We don’t rebuild, we reload,’ and I like to think we do that here.”
Ligonier Valley was edged by Penns Manor for the Heritage Conference title last year, but the Rams went on to win a playoff game for the first time since 1985. The Rams have their sights set on championship and playoffs again this year — and nothing less.
“I know (the players) will be greatly disappointed if we don’t reach our expectations,” Ligonier Valley coach Roger Beitel said. “That’s how we’re going to coach them every day — to win and to do everything we can to be competitive in every game.”
“We want to win the conference, and we want to do well in the Double-A playoffs,” Rams senior Alec Bloom said. “We hold ourselves to high expectations, and that doesn’t change from year to year.”