NORTHERN CAMBRIA — Every year, Northern Cambria sets out on a quest for a Heritage Conference title, and every year since the league has existed, it has fallen short.
The Colts set the same goal again this season, and they are determined to prove they belong at the top.
“Our goal is always to win the conference,” senior lineman Chris Barrett said. “I mean, I know that’s everyone’s goal, but it really means a lot to us to set our standards that high. We were close last year, and we want another shot at it.”
In 2012, the Colts were one win away from forcing a three-way tie atop the conference standings. They finished the season 8-4 after being manhandled by Bishop McCort in the second round of the District 6 Class A playoffs.
But another winning season is especially important to coach Paul Taranto as the team heads toward its 300th win in program history.
“Seven is the magic number we keep talking about throughout camp,” Taranto said. “We figure if we get seven wins, we can get to the 300-win mark, we give ourselves a shot at the conference, or at least stay in the race until the end. Plus, we can probably get into the Class A playoffs. So that’s a great number to shoot for this year.”
Just like every other team, Northern Cambria has lost a few crucial players to graduation. The Colts go into the season without all-state linebacker Alex Atkins and three-year starting quarterback Jeff Hogan. Senior Dartagnan Suchar is taking the snaps and leading a revamped offense.
“Obviously, it hurts us losing some good players, but I feel like we have great people to fill those shoes,” Suchar said. “It’s coming along well. We’ve changed up a few things. We have some of the same things we ran last year, but just like any team, we put in some new plays. We have some new players in new positions, and that gives us the ability to change it up. Hopefully it works out for us.”
“He’s doing excellent back there,” Taranto said of Suchar. “He’s been in the offense for the past two years, and it’s a little bit different at the quarterback position, but he was No. 2 last year. We’re changing it to use his strengths. Jeff Hogan was a heck of an in-the-pocket passer, but Dartagnan is more of a running back that can throw. Right now, he looks very sharp.”
The Colts had spots to fill on defense, too. Atkins was named the All-Gazette defensive player of the year last year, and Adam Polites led the area in interceptions in 2011.
“It’s definitely different,” Taranto said. “We lost an all-state athlete (on defense) and had some other players who were some of the steadiest around. But the defensive line is back and it’s very strong. We have a couple underclassmen linebackers, and they’ve looked very good.”
Much of the Colts’ success depends on the offensive and defensive lines, which Barrett said could make or break the season. He works with senior Darren Benamati on a line that has the same blocking schemes despite the new offense.
“The playbook definitely got altered,” Taranto said. “It’s still the same basic stuff, but you’ll see more shotgun and wildcat stuff. For our offensive line, the play-calling is similar, just the backfield is different. So it’s going pretty smooth right now. It’s definitely line-dominated for us. Our offensive and defensive lines will tell how we do.”
“We have pressure on us, but it makes us better,” Benamati said. “We’ve had some success in the last couple years, and we have a lot of motivation from that. We’re running a lot more this year than we have in the past, but that’s a good thing. We have Joe Frontino and Derek Baker coming out of the backfield, and they’re both tough runners.”
Frontino and Baker, both seniors, will work on replacing Nate Zachesky, who was an 800-yard rusher last year. Baker played some wingback last year and teams up in the backfield with Frontino, who is listed at 200 pounds, and Suchar.
“Nate was a tough, fast kid,” Taranto said. “This year, we don’t have that exactly, but we have a bunch of above-average running backs who have a little bit of power and a little bit of speed. They’re doing a nice job, and with Dartagnan back there as another running back more or less, we can add misdirection and keep people off balance.”
The Colts will also try to keep teams off balance with their passing game, which Taranto said is as strong as it has been in the past.
“As a coach, I feel just as confident in the pass as I do in the run,” he said. “We still won’t throw the ball a ton, but nobody really does. We will throw it to keep people honest, without a doubt.”
But the main focus in Northern Cambria is on winning and attaining that goal of claiming a title for the first time.
“People may overlook us right off the bat, and that’s fine,” Taranto said, “but I’m pretty confident they’re going to change their minds after a couple weeks.”