MAHAFFEY — Last year, Purchase Line hoped to win. This year, the Red Dragons are expecting to win.
That’s quite a difference.
Following a season in which they had only three seniors and relied on some freshmen to start — yet still advanced to the District 6 playoffs — the Red Dragons have high hopes for 2019. They’re bigger, stronger, faster, wiser and more experienced.
They’re also hungry.
“Win the Heritage. Make the playoffs. Make a run. That’s the goal,” said senior fullback/linebacker Cullen Goncher. “We have the capability to go do something this year.”
The Red Dragons are confident because of last season, even if their record was sub-par.
Going 3-8 doesn’t look like much to boast about, but the fact Purchase Line got better every single week and took the eventual district runner-up to overtime in the playoffs points to a continued climb to success.
“Last year, we did get better as we got into the season,” said third-year coach Matt Falisec. “We got a lot more competitive.”
Purchase Line lost four of its first five games in 2018, with its lone win coming by two points over last-place Blairsville. But the Red Dragons started to put things together and won their final two regular-season games by a combined score of 106-28 to earn a playoff spot.
In the first round of the District 6 Class 1A tournament, the Red Dragons lost to United, 14-6 in overtime, just three weeks after getting drilled by the Lions by 31 points. United went on to win two more games and advance to the state semifinals.
“We’ve got that whole group back, so we expect to keep growing,” Falisec said. “This has been a good group throughout their careers. They’ve been successful in junior high, so we expect them to be in varsity. They’ve jelled together and get along well and they understand the game of football, which is huge. Last year, I think we underachieved. I never expected to be 3-8. So, this year I expect to be competitive.”
Considering who the Red Dragons have coming back, they have every right to expect to be more than competitive. They lost only three seniors, and they have all their skill position players back, as well as almost all of their linemen.
That includes tailback Josh Syster (966 yards, 9 TDs), Goncher (639 yards, 10 TDs, 117 total tackles) and big two-way linemen Giovanni Scott (6-1, 300), Andre Wray (6-1, 240) and Matthew Gooderham (5-10, 275).
Most importantly, Jacob Barnett returns at quarterback for his second year as the starter after passing for 659 yards and rushing for 304 last season.
“We have high expectations,” Barnett said. “Last year showed us what we’re capable of doing when we play well. That sparked the offseason for us.”
Falisec said that for the Red Dragons to be a real player in the Heritage Conference, they will have to do something they’re not normally known for.
“I think we have the ability to pass a lot more effectively than we did last year,” he said. “It would be great because we’re not known for passing the ball, so it would be great to have a Purchase Line team that can pass a little bit. It would be great to have that in our back pocket.”
If Syster, a 5-foot-10, 185-pound junior, continues to develop like he did last year, opposing defenses could be susceptible to the pass because they’re so worried about slowing down Syster. Last year, he nearly reached 1,000 yards despite missing parts of the first three games with injuries.
“The thing with Josh is he needs to stay healthy,” Falisec said. “If he can do that, the sky’s the limit.”
On defense, the emphasis for Purchase Line, Falisec said, is on stopping the big play. He knows in the Heritage Conference, where points usually are not hard to come by, holding teams down can be a tough task to undertake.
“Last year we gave up too many big plays,” he said. “We have most of the kids back from our starting 11. They’re hungry to go out there and hit somebody. They know we had too many missed tackles, especially at the line of scrimmage. We let short runs turn into a 15- or 20-yard run.”
Those were mistakes made by younger, inexperienced players. The Red Dragons are counting on a defense that has been through enough Friday nights to know what to do to keep games close.
If Falisec does have a concern, it’s about the depth of his front lines. Neither unit has the number of able bodies necessary to survive a 10-week season without injuries tearing them apart. But that’s part of high school football that most teams sooner or later run into.
“We lost two linemen from last year,” Falisec said. “We’re a little bit low there in numbers. We go from seniors right down to sophomores. It’s the point where we have a lack of depth. It’s definitely a concern. The potential is unlimited as long as we can stay healthy.”
Otherwise, the Red Dragons feel good about their upcoming season.
“Most of us are second- or third-year starters now,” Goncher said. “We have a lot of experience.”
But until that experience is tested, Falisec knows expectations don’t become accomplishments without a lot of hard work.
“We’ve been telling them to embrace the grind of football,” he said. “It’s what makes the game great. We have to go out and prove it every week that we’re a better team than last year.”
So, for those lofty expectations? They won’t mean anything once the season kicks off Friday night.
“We have 11 seniors who expect to win and hopefully we can do that this year,” Falisec said. “But what we keep telling the kids is that talk is cheap. We’re a 3-8 football team until we change that.”