HOMER CITY — The Homer-Center Wildcats face playoff-caliber competition right out of the blocks to start the 2019 season.
The Wildcats travel to Ligonier Valley to face the three-time defending Heritage Conference champion Rams and a large and experienced defensive line.
What better way to find out what the Wildcats have in three new starters on their offensive line?
Truth be told, Homer-Center coach Greg Page would probably rather face the Rams after his revamped line gains its own measure of experience. But he knows the schedule is what it is.
“We have a core group of guys who just need time,” said Page. “We have Alex Pribesh and Dakota Koleszar returning on that line as two-year starters. More so than their ability, their leadership has been very, very good. It’s something that the younger linemen have had to take heed to. They’re setting the tone.”
Pribesh and Koleszar, both seniors, start at left guard and right tackle, respectively. Both weigh in at about 230 pounds, and their new linemates bring comparable size to the mix, averaging 225 pounds.
“We have some size and we have some kids who move fairly well with the size,” Page said. “We’re hoping they develop more physicality and more confidence as we go along.”
Michael Yount, a 6-3, 246-pound sophomore, takes over at right guard and 5-11, 244-pound junior Nick Manzanilla lines up at left tackle.
Only center remained up for grabs as camp progressed, with junior Micah Hurd and sophomore Sage Bernard competing.
“They’re both such hard workers and great, quiet kids who just go about their business,” Page said. “They know what we want them to do. They’re crowd-pleasers. They want your approval. The downside is, they’re inexperienced. The only thing that will cure that is game time and going through the real thing.”
An opener at Ligonier Valley qualifies as the real thing, for sure. But on a different note, so does Homer-Center quarterback Ben Schmidt.
Homer-Center will go as Schmidt goes. Schmidt, a third-year starter as only a junior, is the most experienced quarterback in the conference with 25 starts already under his belt. Schmidt passed for 2,227 yards in his first two seasons, including almost 1,100 in a run to the Class 1A state championship game as a freshman. But Schmidt threw for more yardage (1,128) in three fewer games last season and flipped his touchdown-to-interception ratio from 8/9 in 2017 to 9/7 in 2018. Homer-Center needs him to continue trending in that direction.
Schmidt rushed for 882 yards and seven touchdowns last season, giving him more than 2,000 total yards of offense. In the offseason, Schmidt became that kid the coaches could not get out of the weight room.
“A lot of the superlatives about Ben over the last two years are very true,” Page said. “Great kid, great student, great family, hard-working kid, a quiet leader by example, but he’s become more vocal and he’s taking more of the decision-making process into his own hands with some of the things we’re doing offensively.
“We’re going to have to lean on him. He’s a dual threat kind of kid at quarterback, and we’re going to need that. We’re going to need him to be a good runner, as well as a good passer and decision-maker.”
Schmidt’s main target remains split end Cobe Daugherty, who set a single-season school record with 42 receptions last season as a junior. Daugherty is the lone senior among the skill players.
“So far we’re looking good,” Daugherty said. “We’re fast, we’re young, we have a lot of young people stepping up. We’re changing to a passing offense.”
Junior Travis Mock starts in the slot, and Page likes junior Drew Kochman’s development at split end. Junior Brennan Mogle could take over at tight end.
Even if they throw more, the Wildcats still hope to replace the 1,200 rushing yards gained by tailback Logan Williams. The task falls to junior tailback D’Shaun Robinson along with sophomore halfback Noah Henry. Sophomore Justin Walbeck could see time at tailback as well.
Homer-Center lost starters on the defensive line as well.
“We have guys we feel are going to be capable, but again it comes down to they might look good for us in practice and good on paper,” Page said. “They have to prove it to us and themselves.
“They have to prove that they’re worthy to make us a good defense.”
Mogle and junior Brock Houser take up the defensive ends, while Koleszar and Pribesh line up at tackle. Pribesh led all linemen with 70 tackles and six sacks last season.
After Koleszar and Pribesh, Daugherty is the only other senior on defense at one corner, and Schmidt mans the other corner. Rounding out the secondary are Robinson and Kochman at safety.
Henry will line up as a new outside linebacker.
“We really think he is a kid, as far as size and athletic ability, who has a tremendous amount of potential,” Page said of the 6-1, 217-pound Henry. “We’re counting on him, both sides of the ball.”
Walbeck, who led the team with 111 tackles last season, returns at the other outside linebacker.