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United Lions set out to end long slump

by on August 28, 2014 9:35 AM

ARMAGH — Don’t underestimate the importance of experience, especially at the small-class high school football level. Don’t underestimate the power of winning, either, no matter the level.

The United Lions are counting on both this season to end their prolonged slump.

“What we’ve had in camp is an understanding of the game that we didn’t have last year,” second-year coach Lance Holupka said. “They’re seeing the game prior to the snap, and that’s important for us. That’s important for any football team, really, because you recognize the formation, you recognize what you’ve seen before, and it helps you diagnose and be able to kind of predict what’s going to be happening to you on that play. Our knowledge of the game and situation awareness have dramatically increased because of those reasons, plus the reasons of being successful in the JV games last year. We’re looking for a big improvement this year.”

As the usually cyclical nature of Class A high school football goes, teams with a particularly strong class or two often fall on hard times when that successful group that was largely in place for two or three years moves along and an inexperienced one steps in its place.

That’s what happened at United.

Since going 16-6 over a two-season stretch in 2009-10 and winning the Heritage Conference title in 2009, the Lions went 4-5 in 2011 followed by back-to-back 0-10 seasons the past two years.

They have lost 25 of their past 29 games. They enter the season on a 20-game losing streak. And they’ve desperately struggled to score points, averaging fewer than 5.0 per game over the past two seasons.

Holupka and the United players are well aware of all that, but it doesn’t mean they don’t have high expectations for this season. They believe they’re on the upswing.

“Honestly, if we play ball, we feel that we’re one of the top four teams in the conference, easily,” Holupka said with unwavering confidence. “And if we play ball the way we can, we don’t think that we couldn’t beat anybody in our conference. We’re going to have to take it one game at a time and go where we go, but we feel that we can beat everybody on our schedule. Now, that has to do with us doing our job, holding on to the ball, making tackles, all the things that we struggled at last year. But with the improvement of what we’re seeing at practice, we feel that that’s going to be capable of our team to be able to put it all together and make a nice run.”

Sophomore Kyler Baird went a step further.

“Our linemen are great, our quarterbacks are good, and our skill players are good,” he said, “so I don’t see any reason why we can’t win a championship this year.

“We will definitely surprise some teams. Going from 0-10 last year, it’s going to get better. It has to.”

The Lions might have the pieces in place to make a turnaround. They return their three interior linemen, all two-year starters, and that figures to provide a boost for the Lions’ running attack. United averaged a conference-low 104.2 rushing yards per game and an area-low 142.2 total yards per game last season.

“The center and the two guards, with Andrew Deitman, Anthony Michaels and Grant Ingalls in there, all three of those kids are returning starters,” Holupka said. “I’m not trying to down anybody else’s guys, but I feel that my guys inside are as good as anybody in the league.”

The Lions also have more depth at the skill positions than in recent years, and Holupka is expecting that to lead to success.

At quarterback, junior Matt Dill is in line to step into the starting role, but sophomore Jesse Beacker is also in the mix, and Holupka didn’t rule out using a two-quarterback system as the Lions transition to a spread offense under new offensive coordinator Sean Mack.

“Matt is throwing the ball extremely well, and then Jesse is throwing the ball extremely well, and they’ve both been running the ball,” Holupka said. “Jesse is more of a perimeter runner. He gives you that to where you can get that edge a little bit. Matt is more of a pocket passer. He’s been spinning that ball pretty well and hitting targets.”

Senior Warren Lowther, who was dealing with a hip flexor injury during camp, headlines the ground attack. Teaming up with Lowther in the backfield are junior Brent Mack and 205-pound sophomore Troy Mack.

In the passing game, the Lions have a stable of receivers that can help them spread out the field, with the likes of Kolt Jarvis, Devin Mack, Beau Sheriff and Jake Walsh.

“They all have a little bit of shiftiness to them,” Holupka said. “They’re not necessarily the biggest kids to make them in-line blockers. We’re going to do what our talent is telling us to do. We’ve got kids that can run. We’ve got kids that can catch. We’re going to use them to get the most out of their abilities.”

Defensively, the Lions ranked near the bottom of the conference in most major categories the past two years. In 2012, they gave up 251.1 rushing yards and 356.3 total yards per game, and last year, they surrendered 253.6 rushing yards and 342.0 total yards.

Holupka expects to see major improvements on the defensive side as well, for the same reasons he expects the offense to perk up.

“Again, the No. 1 improvement I see from these guys is when we’re lining up, I don’t have to take time to explain what we’re trying to accomplish,” he said. “They line up and they understand, ‘I’m playing this position. I know my responsibilities, I know where I’ve got to line up, and I’m going to get there and do it hard and do it quick. And when it’s time to hit somebody, we’re going to hit somebody.”

The strength of the Lions’ defense is expected to be a solid corps of linebackers.

“Our four linebackers that are in there are solid. I mean, solid,” Holupka said. “You can’t get a ball on them, it seems like. David Brothers is at one outside, and Brent Mack is at the other outside. … Inside, we have Anthony Michaels and Grant Ingalls, and Troy Mack is a very solid three, rotating with two spots there. … In those four positions, I think we’re as good as anybody out there.”

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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August 28, 2014 9:34 AM
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