KENWOOD — Though even a comet’s streak tends to lose its luster over time, no team in Indiana County has ridden higher for longer than Penns Manor.
It’s a source of pride for a football program that heads into the midpoint of its second decade under coach Bill Packer. Really, it’s as routine as the fall considering the 15th-year coach led the school to its 12th consecutive playoff appearance in 2018.
And it’s also a bit of a burden for those on the roster who are tasked with keeping tradition alive, the players in blue and silver who have never contributed to a winning season.
The thing is, the Comets haven’t flown so high lately, with an eight-player senior class that has posted five victories in each of its first three varsity seasons and zero playoff victories in the last two. So, for Penns Manor, 2019 is about much more than simply reaching the postseason.
“We still want to make the playoffs and keep the streak going, but we want to make it farther than that,” senior halfback and linebacker Zack O’Neal said. “We don’t want it to be about just getting to the playoffs. We want to go far in the playoffs and do well as a team.”
With no memories of Penns Manor’s last Heritage Conference title in 2015 left to echo in the locker room, the Comets will in many ways start anew after graduating 12 lettermen.
Perhaps more important than any position swap will be a change at quarterback, where Packer hopes his team can improve on 2018’s next-to-last-place passing offense.
If so, it will likely be junior Austin Hill taking the charge after leading a position battle with senior Bryce Chiodini and freshman brother Max Hill throughout camp. And ideally, the newcomer behind center will allow the Comets to open up the playbook with a sizeable height differential — Austin Hill measures in at 6-foot-3, quite the alteration from former starter Jimmy Lightner’s 5-8 frame.
“We’re hoping,” Packer said. “We have a couple good receivers, and a couple of our backs can catch the ball really well. So we’re going to try. We have to try to throw the ball a little bit more to keep 11 guys out of the box. We have to keep teams honest, so hopefully we can throw the ball a little bit better this year.”
The 5-10 pair of Reece McCombs and Kevin Baum will be first in line to fill the positions vacated in the receiving game out wide, but of course, Penns Manor will remain a ground-and-pound offense now headed by Dimitri Lieb.
Looking to build on a breakout sophomore campaign in which he finished third on the team with 523 rushing yards to go with six touchdowns, Lieb is set to join O’Neal and fullbacks Mike Rizzo and Conner Keith in a backfield that is eager to prove itself.
“We’re just looking for speed and controlling the ball and not making stupid decisions like dropping the ball or doing things you don’t need to do,” O’Neal said. “It’s exciting. We can’t wait to get out there and play some real games against some real competitors.”
Despite graduating three starters on the offensive line, the Comets return their greatest amount of experience in the trenches.
Senior left tackle Dalton Nichol enters his third season as a starter and junior Jae Karlinsey returns at guard, heading a group that includes senior center John Hopkins and junior guard Cole Cunningham. Ethan Joiner, a junior, and Ty Fennell, a sophomore, competed in camp for the starting spot at right tackle. Reese Hays shifts outside to tight end after battling injuries throughout his first two varsity seasons.
Size hasn’t been Penns Manor’s forte for some time, but a quick and athletic bunch, the Comets believe they can make up for their shortcomings with sheer talent and intellect.
“The past few years we haven’t been real big or had much speed, but this year we have a lot of speed and we’re getting real smart with our plays,” Rizzo said.
On the other side, the 215-pound Hopkins anchors Penns Manor’s defensive line that includes Nichol, Karlinsey and Hays.
Rizzo and Cunningham are set for starting roles in the middle of the Comets’ 3-4 scheme, Chiodini and O’Neal start at outside linebacker, and Lieb and Baum drop back at safety.
Packer also singled out freshman Ashton Courvina as a camp standout who will see plenty of playing time in the secondary.
It’s a mix-and-match group of experience and youth, but with 23 underclassmen on a 31-player roster who have room to grow, Packer isn’t complaining.
“They’ve been in the system, even though they’re young,” Packer said. “The nice thing about it is, even if they’re in 10th or 11th grade, they’ve got a year of experience in, even if it was junior varsity ball. They know how things go. And coming in with the right attitude and confidence is important, and I think that’s what they know.”
All that’s left for Penns Manor to do is put it on the field, fitting that the Comets play their home opener in Week 2 against defending Heritage Conference champion Ligonier Valley.
Should the Comets return to dominance as champs, they will find themselves at Pat Corrigan Field, this year’s site for the Appalachian Bowl, the annual conference crossover game against the first-place team from the WestPAC, on Oct. 25.
“We want it bad,” Nichol said. “We need to get more under the belt, know what we’re doing and go. We just have to be a team and work hard.”