KENWOOD — This is still Penns Manor.
The bleachers are still all blue, the confines of Pat Corrigan Field still cozy. The corn is still coming up across the road. There is still rap music emanating from the locker room.
But it’s a different Penns Manor. For the first time in five years, there is no Danny Ferens here, the best player in school history having moved on to the University of Pennsylvania. Instead of banking on highlight-reel touchdown runs, the Comets are relying on the basic building blocks of strong offensive and defensive lines to push Penns Manor in its Heritage Conference title defense.
“We’ll be underdogs a lot this year, which we relished in years before Ferens,” coach Bill Packer said.
“It’s a new team, a new year. His name hasn’t come up besides watching film.”
Penns Manor returns four of five offensive linemen from last year, as well as three of four defensive linemen and two linebackers. These unsung heroes in past years will be counted on to pave the way for the Comets in 2013.
Senior Luke Ruddock, a third-team all-state selection last year, leads the crew, returning for his fourth year as a starter. Stephen Dumm, John Stupic and Brandon Alter have also returned as starters on the offensive line.
“We have some important people there that (younger players) can look up to,” Packer said. “Danny was a great player, and we’re going to miss him badly and we wish him all the best, but things happen in schools, and everyone goes through it.”
So the Comets will have to win a little uglier this year.
“That’s going to be our main strength,” Ruddock said of the lines. “If we can hold down the fort, we’re going to be fine. We’ve got the backs to run the ball, too.”
Ruddock plays guard, as does Dumm, who moved over from tackle. Alter plays one tackle position, with Mitch Hamilton, a 6-foot, 190-pounder who ran the ball in addition to starting at linebacker last year. They are centered by Stupic.
“(Ruddock) is just a big, strong kid that does a nice job for us,” Packer said. “He’s made some real nice holes for these guys, along with John Stupic, a starter for three years at center, a nice-sized kid, and Steve Dumm, he’s just a bull out there. We moved him to guard this year. … We feel we need to have two good guards in there with the way we run our offense. Those two guys should be strong there, as well as Brandon Alter. He started last year as a sophomore at left tackle.
“Those guys are the guys we’re building around, and we really feel good about what we have up front.”
Penns Manor’s one loss on the line is significant, too. That’s Kasey Jewart, a first-team all-state pick.
“Jewart’s taught me a lot, there’s no doubt about that,” Ruddock said. “That’s one of the things I’m so thankful for, having somebody with that talent to go against every day. It makes my skill level better. It makes everyone around us better.”
And it prepared the others, Ruddock in particular, for their time to carry the squad.
“I consider myself one of the leaders,” Ruddock said. “I’m vocal. I help out.”
“We’re just going to keep playing our game,” Dumm said. “We didn’t really throw any curves into the playbook or anything. We’re just going to keep doing what we do.”
The same group anchors the defense in hopes the strong front can assist the secondary as it makes up for the loss of Ferens as a cornerback.
Dumm and Hamilton return as starting linebackers, and Stupic and Ruddock man the defensive tackle positions. Alter plays one end, with Adam Miller, Zach Patterson or Andrew Somogyi on the other.
“Again, it’s going to be more of the same thing,” Packer said. “The defensive line should be pretty strong. We have a couple linebackers back in Dumm and Hamilton. Again, we have to replace six guys. We have to get better in our secondary. We have a couple guys that are green out there.”
It makes for an interesting dynamic — the big, bad defending conference champions, after years in the spotlight, entering the season with a little less pressure, at least from the outside.
“It’s good for us, because everybody on our team knows we have the potential to do just as well, and I like playing the underdog role,” Dumm said, “because last year we were on top of things and we didn’t end up doing as well as I thought we should have.”