SALTSBURG — For the first time in a long while, the atmosphere felt different at Saltsburg’s preseason camp.
The Trojans spent years setting goals in the offseason they only hoped they could achieve. Now they’re coming off a season in which they won their first playoff game since 1991, and those hopes have turned into expectations.
“The last couple seasons, the culture here at Saltsburg has been changing,” senior receiver Nathan Slapinski said. “Going on that playoff run last year helped us in now that we consider ourselves a good football team that can make a run. So our plan this year is to see if we can improve on that.”
They are certainly off to a better start. Last year, the Trojans had just 19 players on their roster. This year, they have 29. Last year, they were coming off a 1-9 season and were looking to get out of that bottom spot in the standings. This year, they were able to carry some momentum over from a 5-7 campaign.
“I’m very happy with their attitudes and with what we did in the offseason,” coach Mike Leasure said. “Last year was a pretty good one for us here at Saltsburg, so the kids have built off that and have a little more confidence and a little more urgency. They felt what it was like to have some success, so I’m glad they got a taste of winning so now they know what it takes.”
And it doesn’t hurt that they have a four-year starter at quarterback.
Senior Josh Gibbons, the area’s leading returning passer, threw for 4,397 yards in his first three seasons, including 2,020 in 2018. He also rushed for 440 yards and six touchdowns to go along with his 21 passing TDs.
“Everybody knows Josh is our main guy,” Leasure said. “People are going to key on him. He’s what our offense is built around. He can spread the ball around to the other guys, and I’m looking forward to seeing him out there with another year under his belt.”
Slapinski will be another big part of Saltsburg’s puzzle after catching 42 passes for 676 yards and five touchdowns last season. The Trojans feel confident about their skill players with juniors David Stuller and Tristan Roessler and newcomer Cade Grguric also at the receiver position and junior Gino Barolini and sophomore Angelo Bartolini in the mix in the backfield with senior Alex Lassick. Grguric, a senior, moved into the school district in the offseason from Apollo-Ridge.
“Our roster has improved, and we’ve got some other kids out that didn’t play last year,” Leasure said. “We have some good receivers, and we’re going to throw the ball around. We’ve got the skill guys who are going to be pretty decent and can chip in and make plays.”
They will need to step up after losing standout Dylan Cindric to graduation. Cindric was second in the area in scoring last season with 25 touchdowns and 148 points.
“Dylan Cindric was a huge playmaker, and you don’t just replace someone like that,” Slapinski said. “He’s just really good. But I think we have guys who can step in and do some good stuff offensively this year.”
Gibbons’ ability to evade the pass rush and get out of the pocket when need be could play a big part early in the season in case the Trojans’ offensive line goes through some growing pains.
“We have those skill players, but our line is not where we need it to be yet,” Leasure said. “That’s one thing is that Josh can make an
average line look good with the way he’s able to move around. We’ll try to do some things each week a little differently to help our line come along and help them maximize their potential.”
Starting up front are seniors Payton Fischer, Zach Simpson and Colton Cullen-Shearer and freshmen Brad Miller and Kyle Roessler.
“We have practices where we’ll have extra guys blitz so I can get a look at trying to get around extra guys,” Gibbons said. “This inexperienced line has been doing a good job. They’ve been picking up on things, and they’re going to come along just fine.”
Leasure anticipates the same struggles early on the defensive line, but hopes experience elsewhere can pick up some of the slack.
“It’s something we’re working on,” Leasure said. “It’s a good group. They work hard, so I want to see them get out there and see what they can do.”
The players are looking forward to it, too.
After a taste of success last year, the Trojans are hungry for more.
“When we came up here our freshman year, things were down,” Gibbons said. “Now, as seniors, we’ve been through it all. We’ve been through the losses and the hard times and have taken our beatings, and then last year it was nice to come out and show some teams that we’re capable of winning games. Now this year, we’re looking to just build off of that.”
Saltsburg will be tested early with a matchup with Marion Center on Friday night. The Stingers also gained some momentum throughout last season after losing to the Trojans Week 3.
“We know Marion Center is going to be a tough team,” Leasure said. “They had a huge win against Northern Cambria last year a couple weeks after we played them. We definitely know they’re going to be a tough team. Coach (Adam) Rising has done a great job with that group. He’s got a lot of numbers and talent — some skill kids and some size — and we know it’ll be a big challenge.
“It’s a long season, but that’s a huge game for us to be able to gain some momentum. Last year, we got that win and that helped us throughout the season and gave us a little bit of confidence. We need to get off on the right foot.”