ARMAGH — One thing is certain following the Heritage Conference’s football media day Wednesday morning — experience will be a key factor in the league’s final standings.
As players and coaches from the conference’s nine teams gathered at United’s Thomas J. Madill Field, most of the talk surrounded returning players, teams rebuilding and, of course, Homer Center’s 2013 district title.
“I’d like to think that the expectations would be to do the same things again, but that will be tough to do,” Homer-Center coach Greg Page said. “We had one of those years that was for the ages in small-school football that you try to achieve. You try to get back, but realistically, we just hope to put another good football team on the field that can win some games and maybe put us in a playoff position again.”
Each team is starting the season with the hopes of winning a conference title, but that goal might be more attainable for certain teams due to the experience on their rosters.
“Just because of (our experience), I would think that most teams have us up there,” Blairsville second-year coach Rick Artley said. “Last year, we had a lot of these guys playing their second year, and in most cases, there are a lot of them starting their third season. But preseason polls don’t mean a whole lot.”
“Honestly, with our team, we feel pretty good about it,” said Scott Thompson, who has started at quarterback for the Bobcats the past three seasons. “We know what we have to do. It puts a little bit of a target on our backs, but that’s something we can deal with.
“I want to go out with a bang. I want to show everyone what Blairsville’s made of. I want to get back to where we used to be in the past and show them that we never stop fighting. … We’re definitely stronger and better than we ever were.”
Purchase Line is also looking to make some noise this year after struggling in recent years.
“We’re bringing back 13 lettermen — seven starters on offense and seven on defense — so with the hard work they’ve put in, we look to have a really solid season,” third-year coach Brandon Overdorff said.
One of those players is last year’s leading rusher, Grant Syster, who rushed for 1,593 yards.
“We’ve been putting a lot of work in in the offseason,” Syster said. “If you want to be successful, you have to do it as a team. Not just one player is great. You need 10 other guys working with you if you want to achieve a goal.”
Marion Center, which has won just five games in the past two seasons combined, looks to break out of its slump with three seniors in its backfield. Quarterback Blake Orr and running backs Colton Fairman and Kyle McCullough could be the difference for the Stingers this year.
“It has been a tough couple of seasons, and the kids are very hungry,” Marion Center coach Dave Malicky said. “We have some seniors coming up who haven’t won a lot of football games, and they have something to prove this year. … The league’s pretty wide open, and there’s some really nice teams there.”
Despite its supposed inexperience, Ligonier Valley could be one of those teams. The Rams lost a huge tandem in quarterback Scott Fennell and tight end Alec Bloom, but others are ready to step into those roles.
“Those kids that were in the shadows are ready,” Ligonier Valley coach Roger Beitel said. “They’re ready to go. Last year, at the same time, we had the same situation. … That’s what we pride ourselves on. We’re not a one-trick pony. We’re going to have kids ready each year to compete in our conference, and that’s the key. We’ve got some kids ready to step in. Jordan Jones has
been in the shadow of Alec Bloom pretty much most of his career, and that big tree is removed now.”
The other five teams, Homer-Center, Northern Cambria, Penns Manor, Saltsburg and United, aren’t sure what to expect this season because of their lack of experience.
“These kids seem committed, and they’ve been working hard,” Penns Manor coach Bill Packer said. “Hopefully we can put things together. We’re just going to take it one game at a time and see where we’re at. Since we’re going to be so young this year, we’re going to be striving to get that first win and see where we go from there.”
United is looking to just get a victory after going winless the past two seasons.
“We want to build on what we started last year,” second-year coach Lance Holupka said. “I know it didn’t pay off in varsity wins, but our JV schedule we went through pretty easily. We’re still a pretty young team, but we’re just continuing to build the work ethic that we started last year.”
Northern Cambria coach Frank Paronish, who is in his first season of his second stint with the Colts, thinks his team has time to improve before the season begins.
“(The transition has) been relatively mild and kind of exciting in a way,” Paronish said. “I’m proud and honored to come back to Northern Cambria. … I have a lot of good athletes. I don’t have a lot of experience, which I think is one of the biggest challenges we have. Any time you have a team that lacks experience, that causes a problem. The only way to gain experience between now and the season is practice and scrimmages. We have this challenge on us to really step it up and get that experience.”
Saltsburg had a combined 3-13 record in the past two seasons and hasn’t had a lot of depth. But the Trojans have had a lot of determination, and this year will be no different.
“There’s some things to build upon,” Saltsburg coach Tim Frassenei said. “Last year, we ended up playing a lot of young kids near the end of the season due to injuries and necessity, so we’re starting to make that next step. There’s always a long way to go. You never count on anything at this point in the year, but what I’ve seen so far, I’m pleased with. We’re heading in the right direction.”
Homer-Center, the defending Heritage Conference and District 6 Class A champion, has running back Ean Lee and three-year starting quarterback Aaron Berezansky coming back, but lost a lot on its dominating lines.
“We have some physically strong kids, but to be able to do what is necessary to do in a power running game with the diversity, that remains to be seen,” Page said. “We have to see if they’re going to be able to do that. Certainly our size will be equal to what it was last year, but the chemistry and experience of the guys we lost were very critical.”
Lee, who rushed for 1,432 yards last season, is confident Homer-Center is on track to make a run at another title.
“We’re going to try to do our best to come out and play our hardest just like last year,” Lee said. “It helps we have some experience from that. We lost a lot of our line, but there are kids stepping up. I’m trustworthy in them, and they’re trustworthy in me. … Who wouldn’t want to work toward what we did last year?”