LIGONIER — For Ligonier Valley coach Roger Beitel, the basis of every football season is pretty simple: find the team’s strengths and build around them.
This year is no different, and the Rams are looking forward to showing off some newly implemented plays that showcase their experienced skill players.
Senior quarterback Scott Fennell, senior tight end Alec Bloom and senior running backs Dereck Croyle and Dan Croyle will lead the Rams’ offense a season after a 10-2 campaign and a second-place finish in the Heritage Conference.
“We’re going to definitely have a new look and a different dimension this year,” said Beitel. “With what we have in terms of our skill players, starting with the quarterback and working out, the strength of the football team is in those skill kids. And I say that just because a lot of those kids have played in those big positions in big games. So they will start to carry the team, and the rest will be a work in progress.”
Fennell is the area’s leading returning passer in efficiency after throwing for 938 yards with 12 touchdowns and six interceptions last season. The second-year starter will head an offense drawn up by new offensive coordinator Scott Lewandowski, who was hired in the offseason. Beitel will no longer call the plays on offense.
“I’m definitely more comfortable with the offense, and defense actually, than I was last year at this time,” Fennell said. “We’ve added some new stuff with Coach Lewandowski, so we’ll be in a couple new formations with some new plays with a little more finesse.”
The Rams will have some big shoes to fill in the running game after losing 1,000-yard rusher Ryan Torrance and bruising lineman Micah Tennant to graduation. Just three starters return on offense, but Fennell sees no problem with that.
“Yeah, we don’t have that big, strong act like last year with Ryan, and we don’t have that huge line like we did with Tennant,” Fennell said. “We lost a great running game, but we do have somewhat of a passing game back. We’ve been working on it, and we’re on good terms with it. And it’s not just me and Bloom. We have a lot of guys who can catch the ball and guys that can catch the ball out of the backfield and run good routes.”
Last year, Ligonier Valley won its first playoff game since 1985 with a victory over Bald Eagle in the first round of the District 6 Class AA playoffs. The Rams are just seven wins away from 400 in school history, but right now, they are solely focused on winning the first game of the season.
“The only thing we’ve talked about in camp is beating Purchase Line in Week 1,” Beitel said. “We’ll reflect on all of those numbers and stuff later on, and it would be nice to get 400 wins or another playoff win, but by the same token, the only thing we’re focused on is winning that first game and staying undefeated from there. It’s important because you’re either in first place or last place after the first week, and we definitely want to be tied for first.”
Much focus in camp was on rebuilding the offensive line, which is nothing new for the Rams. Senior center Nick Boring anchors the line and plays alongside freshman Elijah Parrish and junior Ray Marsh.
A big question mark surrounded the tackle positions, but they could be filled by a first-year player, senior Joey Shaffron, and inexperienced junior Alan Stouffer.
“We have to buckle down in our pass blocking and run blocking, and despite the inexperience, our line is doing well with it so far,” Boring said. “I’m comfortable with the jobs I have to do as a lineman, and some of the younger guys are looking up to us. I’m pretty confident in our offensive line and in our offense, and the guys have been doing a great job stepping up.”
The Croyle twins will be running behind that line and could even be in the backfield at the same time. Dereck starts at running back, while Dan spends time at wingback. The seniors are listed at 5-foot-7, with Dereck weighing in about 20 pounds more than his brother.
“We’ve been doing pretty well so far,” Dereck Croyle said. “We had a big hole to fill with Torrance gone, but I got a few reps last year when some people got hurt so I feel OK about it. We’ve been throwing more with the new offense, but the running game is looking pretty good so far, too. The line is really stepping up, and I’m just excited to go.”
Ligonier Valley poses many threats for opponents and again is picked as one of the favorites to win the conference.
“Every day in camp has been tough, and that’s good for us,” Fennell said. “We’ve had a lot of contact and physical play. We should be able to compete with anyone for the title and hopefully just play as well as we can.”
“The team is getting better every day, and with the youth we have, that’s the most important thing right now,” Beitel said. “We’ve been working hard, and with our skill players, we’d be crazy not to start there and build off that. That’s really what we’ve been doing in the offseason. It’s a work in progress, but we have a timeline that we need to be on to be ready when we get to Purchase Line.”