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Old friends teaming up on United sideline

by on August 28, 2014 9:34 AM

ARMAGH — Sean Mack traded in his cross country spikes for a pair of football cleats. He couldn’t stay away from the gridiron any longer, and his alma mater sorely needed him.

It’s a match made in heaven.

A football lifer, Mack returned to United this summer to serve as the Lions’ offensive coordinator under lifelong friend and second-year coach Lance Holupka.

“I’ve been trying to get back into football for the last four years,” Mack said. “There have been opportunities for me, but it was never the right time. The timing was never right to come back. But when Lance asked me if I wanted to come aboard, I said I’d be happy to come back and give back to the United program that gave me so much.”

“We’ve struggled to put points on the board the past two years,” Holupka said. “So what I did was I brought in Coach Mack. … My primary discussions with him before we brought him in was, ‘We’re struggling to score points. I need an offensive coordinator, and I don’t care what you do, but we need to score points. If we’re going to throw the ball, we’ll throw the ball. If we can run the ball, we’ll run the ball, but I’m not putting any restrictions on you.’ He asked, ‘How do we want to do it?’ I said, ‘It doesn’t matter, as long as points are being put on the board, that’s the important part.’”

The task in front of Mack isn’t an easy one, turning around one of the area’s worst offenses in recent years.

With just 97 points to their credit over the past two seasons, the Lions have struggled, to say the least. They’ve averaged 4.9 points per game over the past two seasons. They’ve been shut out nine times during their current 20-game losing streak, and they’ve reached double-digit points just four times during the same span.

Traditionally a power-running team, United had become too predictable in recent years. Opponents had little reason to respect the outside running game or the passing game, making it easy to keep them under wraps.

But with the fresh approach, Mack believes a turnaround is possible. The Lions will feature a spread offense, forcing defenses to play more honest.

“We kept running from tackle to tackle but we weren’t getting anywhere,” Mack said of the Lions in recent years. “We can’t get to the perimeter, and everybody knows that. Until we do that, people are going to put eight in the box, nine in the box. We have to make them defend us from sideline to sideline.”

“We’re going to spread it out a little bit,” Holupka said, “(with) three-receiver, four-receiver (sets). Sometimes we’re in empty set, sometimes we’re in double tight end with an empty set — a lot of variations. We’re trying to improve on the things we struggled with for the past few years: No. 1, getting to the perimeter in the offense and stretching the field that way. Because we’ve struggled doing those things, the inside game has slowly been taken away more and more every year to where now, it’s like running into a brick wall because nobody respects us out around the edge because we just have not been able to do it.”

The numbers bear that out.

United has had the Heritage Conference’s worst rushing offense each of the past two years. Last season, the Lions averaged 104.2 rushing yards per game in the second of back-to-back 0-10 seasons. In 2012, they averaged 69.2 yards.

“They’re going to have to take the old tapes of United and throw them out,” Mack said. “It won’t even look like the same team on tape.”

“Those are some of the things we’ve brought him in to do,” Holupka said, “to widen out the defense, spread them out a little bit, work that perimeter game so that we can get the perimeter game going and have the inside game going and just be a more balanced attack.”

The players like what they saw in preseason camp.

“He has more plays for different scenarios, more variety for what we can do against different teams,” junior flanker Kolt Jarvis said. “It opens things up for us because it’ll make D-ends and outside linebackers play more truthful.”

A 1990 graduate of United, Mack has been involved in football since he can remember.

He played for four years at United, alongside classmate Holupka. He has 12 years of previous football coaching experience, having spent three years coaching the United junior high program in the 1990s before spending nine seasons at Purchase Line, four as a varsity assistant and five as the junior high head coach.

He also was a football official for 10 years after graduating high school.

He spent the last four years coaching cross country at Purchase Line, but when the opportunity presented itself to return to his alma mater and coach varsity football, he just couldn’t turn it down.

Also the track and field coach at Purchase Line, Mack will enter his 17th season in the spring.

In the meantime, he’s ready for some football.

“This is the best opportunity for me,” he said. “I still live in the district. I have the perfect setup that I’ve wanted for a long time. I wanted to coach football at United and track at PL. I’m very content being an assistant.”

And Holupka is thrilled to have him.

“I’ve known Coach Mack since we lived in Robindale together before the ’77 flood,” he said. “We graduated high school here together. I’ve known Coach Mack since we were 3 years old. In our elementary years, I spent many a nights at his house and he spent many a nights at my house. … It’s real nice having somebody there that you’ve known your whole life. You can send him to do things and you know they’re going to get done exactly the way you want them to get done.”

Mirza Zukic is a sports writer that primarily covers the Pittsburgh Steelers and is the Gazette's track and field beat writer.
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