LIGONIER — Another season is about to begin, and another target has been placed on the backs of the Ligonier Valley Rams.
But they are used to it now, and even though they are in the sights of all the teams in the conference, coach Roger Beitel said his Rams are the ones doing the hunting, not the ones being hunted.
“We still have a lot we want to accomplish,” Beitel said.
The Rams are in the midst of a record 28-game Heritage Conference winning streak and know they get each opponent’s best shot every week as teams try to knock off the three-time defending league champ, which was chosen to win it again, this time unanimously in a preseason coaches’ poll and in a poll of the Gazette sports staff.
“We respect every team we play each week like we’re playing in the state championship game,” Beitel said. “That’s not coach-speak. I mean that. I refer to the predator mindset where we’re always hunting something. There are goals we’re still chasing. We’re always morphing because there are things we still need to do. When Blairsville won four straight titles (from 2002-05), it was awesome. Winning doesn’t get old. Being good doesn’t get old. That’s what we want is to continue to improve and build our program.”
Ligonier Valley’s quest will depend on a slew of returning starters but will also commence without some familiar names on the roster. The Rams lost standout receiver Aaron Tutino, a three-time all-state selection who had 66 receptions for 1,387 yards, to graduation. Senior transfer Kyle Silk, a second-team all-state selection last year at United, was ruled ineligible Tuesday by the PIAA. Silk is still eligible to practice with the team, as he’s been doing so since he transferred to the school district in June. Silk racked up an area-record 241 points and gained 1,981 total yards last season.
Leading the way at the skill positions is senior quarterback Sam Sheeder, who is the area’s leading returning receiver and has seen playing time in all four of his varsity seasons; senior running back Kyrie Miller, who broke Ligonier Valley’s rushing record last season with 1,561 yards; senior receiver John Beard; and senior tight end Cage Dowden.
Joining the roster in the offseason was sophomore Matthew Marinchak, who made a name for himself with success on the basketball court last season as a freshman.
“The biggest thing for us is to change our offense to fit the kids we have now,” Beitel said. “Aaron brought a dimension we were lucky enough to have for four years. Now, we still have those talented kids, but where they play is a little different. We believe Sam can score from anywhere. Kyrie, the same way. John Beard is a really good, tested receiver. Same with Cage at tight end — he was phenomenal for us last year. Matthew is going to be a big part of this football team. I can’t say enough about him — his work ethic, his attitude and his athleticism and what it brings to our team. He was a huge pickup for us in the offseason. Sam was second in the area last year in receptions behind Aaron, and now he’s going to be at the quarterback position. It’s football. It’s about getting your best players on the field and utilizing their athleticism the best you can.”
It seems the Rams’ biggest strength, though, will be on the line.
“Those guys up there are really good,” Miller said of his blockers.
Ligonier Valley’s front five features three players with Division I offers: seniors Michael Petrof, Christian Jablonski and Wylie Spiker.
Jude Grzywinski, who started last year as a freshman, and senior returning starter Alex Torrance, who Beitel said usually gets matched up with the opponent’s best defensive lineman due to the solidity of the Rams’ line, round out the line.
“We all play so well together and knowing the guys around you are just as talented creates a headache for the other teams,” said Petrof, a four-year starter. “We’ve been playing together for a while and are comfortable with each other up there, even if we get moved around.”
“It makes it a lot easier for us, and really opens things up for our offense and the guys in our backfield,” Jablonski said.
On defense, the line figures to be just as strong, and it will need to be with a new secondary in place.
“Hopefully our defensive line will get there quick enough that we won’t have to cover for long periods,” Beitel said. “For us to reach our goals, we have to play great defense. We’re still very confident in our defense, but our whole secondary is gone. It’s always started up front and on defense for us, and that allows our offense to do what it does.”
The Rams will stick with their up-tempo spread offense with Sheeder back at the helm. Sheeder was the starter for Ligonier Valley two seasons ago before a knee injury ended his season. Last year, he was moved around due to the success of quarterback John Caldwell, who was Sheeder’s replacement the previous year.
“We have a lot of kids who can do a lot of stuff,” Sheeder said. “We just do what we need to do every day to move forward toward our goals. I’m just looking forward to getting this year in with these guys. We’ve been playing together for about 12 years now, and I remember playing flag football on this field with these guys, so it’s going to be a lot of fun.”