With heat acclimatization practices on tap for Aug. 31, and the truncated gridiron season set to begin Sept. 18 because of ongoing COVID-19 concerns, here’s a pre-camp L-L League football primer for the Section 2 teams …
PIAA: Class 4A.
COACH: Bryan Strohl — 1st season. Strohl is one of four rookie coaches in L-L League circles this season, along with Hempfield’s George Eager, Lebanon’s Frank Isenberg and Lancaster Catholic’s Chris Maiorino.
SCHEDULE: 9-11 scrimmage at Wilson, 6 p.m.; 9-18 Garden Spot; 9-25 Manheim Central; 10-2 @ Solanco; 10-9 Conestoga Valley; 10-16 Elizabethtown; 10-23 @ Warwick; 10-30 @ Manheim Township.
NUGGET: Three bullet points here for sure, first and foremost is Cocalico’s new coach, the very likable and even keel Mr. Strohl, who succeeds Dave Gingrich, who took the Eagles to great heights the last 16 seasons, including last fall’s D3 5A championship. A longtime assistant under Gingrich, Strohl is a familiar face in the program, and he won’t be junking anything; things will remain status quo in Denver. We’re expecting a very smooth transition for this bunch. Second, the Eagles drop down in classification this season, from 5A to 4A. Keep that in the back of your mind when power-points are tabulated and brackets are formulated later this fall — whatever that might look like. And lastly — oh yeah, you might have heard — the Eagles lost some major firepower to graduation, including reigning 5A Player of the Year Noah Palm, trench brute Brock Gingrich, and speed-man Ronald Zahm. Palm and Gingrich were Big 33 picks, and that trio earned all-state honors from multiple media outlets last year.
KEY KIDS: No Palm, no Gingrich, no Zahm. But the cupboard is hardly bare in Eagles’ camp, as Strohl inherited a terrific nucleus. We like Cocalico’s 3-pronged Flexbone backfield, with speedsters Steven Flinton (713 yards, 8.8 yards a carry, 8 TD) and Micah Ulysse (123 yards, 1 TD) and FB Austin Vang (410 yards, 1 TD). Will the Eagles miss Gingrich up front? No doubt. But there are some vet trench kids due back, like Ben Bearinger, Damien Wolf, Ryan Brubaker, Chuckie Drain and Jared Stauffer. FYI: Brubaker’s dad is Jeff Brubaker, the former Conestoga Valley all-star, Penn State offensive lineman and longtime Wilson assistant coach. Defensively, linebackers Vang and the Angstadt brothers — Luke and Tyler — are all heavy hitters, and Drain and Wolf will anchor the D-line. The trio of Carson Nash, Ethan Brown and Cole Boyer will man the safety spots, stepping in for Palm and Zahm, who were all-state safety picks — and ball-hawker du jours — the last few years. Reliable K Alex Mellinger also returns to help out in special teams.
QUESTION MARK: All eyes on Nash, who slides into the all-important QB duties after Palm completely dominated there the last three years for the Eagles. Nash has taken some snaps before; he was 1 for 4 for 25 yards with a TD toss, and he rushed for 36 yards with a pair of TD keepers last fall. But having the full-time keys to Cocalico’s Navy attack is a different animal, especially following a perennial all-star like Palm. We’re anxious to see how Nash handles the gig. He’ll certainly have enough weapons around him to keep the chains moving.
CIRCLE THE DATE: The schedule-maker wasn’t exactly kind to the Eagles, who get Warwick in Week 9 and then uber rival Manheim Central in Week 10. Go ahead and hang a star next to those showdowns, especially the rematch against the Warriors from last year’s D3 5A semifinals. And Central-Cocalico? Well, you all know how fierce that rivalry is.
CONESTOGA VALLEY BUCKSKINS
PIAA: Class 5A.
COACH: Gerad Novak — 15-25 in his 5th season in his second stint as coach with the Bucks, and his 19th season overall at CV. Novak is the fourth-longest tenured coach in the L-L League, behind Lampeter-Strasburg’s John Manion (23rd year), Manheim Township’s Mark Evans (23rd year, including his first stop at Elco) and Warwick’s Bob Locker (20th year).
LAST YEAR: 2-4 Section 2, 2-8 overall.
SCHEDULE: 9-12 scrimmage at Lampeter-Strasburg, 10 a.m. (CANCELED); 9-18 Daniel Boone (CANCELED); 9-25 Warwick (CANCELED); 10-2 Elizabethtown; 10-9 @ Cocalico; 10-16 @ Manheim Central; 10-23 Solanco; 10-30 McCaskey.
UPDATE: Because of multiple COVID-19 positive tests in the school district, CV had to cancel its scrimmage vs. L-S, its season-opener against Daniel Boone and its Week 2/Section 2 opener opposite Warwick. School officials are hoping to reschedule the Daniel Boone game at a later date, but the Warwick game will not be rescheduled because the Bucks won't have enough PIAA-mandated practice dates before playing their season-opener.
NUGGET: CV hasn’t had a D3 playoff trip since 2010.
KEY KIDS: Several playmakers are due back in Bucks’ camp, including multi-purpose RB Booper Johnson (344 rushing yards, 3 TD; 16 catches for 142 yards, 1 TD) and wideouts Zach Fisher (48 catches for 739 yards, 10 TD), Jaiyell Plowden (7-57 yards), Avery Tran (17-207 yards, 1 TD) and Keaghan Sweigart (18-296 yards, 3 TD). Kaden Martin (47 rushing yards, 1 TD) will also help out Johnson in the backfield, and he’s ticketed to start at LB. Fisher and Sweigart are also back at the safety spots, and Tran is a vet cover-guy. Just one vet trench kid is due back, and that’s C-DT Kyle McGallicher, so CV will have some tweaking to do along both lines. Specialist Nate Heck, a reliable kicker and punter, is also due back.
QUESTION MARK: Soph QB Macoy Kneisley is in line to take over the QB duties after Bradley Stoltzfus put up back-to-back all-star seasons behind center for the Bucks; he threw for 2,066 yards with 22 TD strikes last year. Kneisley has some big spikes to fill, but he has plenty of proven playmakers around him. His job: Getting the ball out quickly to those experienced skill kids. Those new starters up front must keep Kneisley upright. All eyes on the new-look O-line in Witmer.
CIRCLE THE DATE: CV’s final four opponents — Cocalico, Manheim Central, Solanco and Warwick — all went to the D3 5A playoffs last year. Cocalico is the reigning champ, Warwick was a semifinalist, and the Warriors beat Central in the quarterfinals. That’s a heck of a four-week clip for the Bucks.
PIAA: Class 5A.
COACH: Andy Breault — 3rd season, 10-11 overall.
LAST YEAR: 2-4 Section 2, 4-6 overall.
SCHEDULE: 9-12 scrimmage at Annville-Cleona, 6 p.m.; 9-18 @ McCaskey; 9-25 @ Solanco; 10-2 @ Conestoga Valley; 10-9 Warwick; 10-16 @ Cocalico; 10-23 Manheim Central; 10-30 Cedar Crest; 11-6 Garden Spot (if neither team qualifies for postseason).
NUGGET: With the truncated season, the Bears lost a Saturday afternoon backyard-rivalry game vs. Donegal to get the season started, and E-town will miss out on a trip to Hersheypark Stadium for a Thursday night nonleague game against Lower Dauphin. That’s a bummer for the Bears.
KEY KIDS: Plenty to like in E-town, with multiple vet players due back in Bears’ camp, including trigger-man QB Patrick Gilhool to steer the ship. He’ll have a pair of hammer O-linemen studs up front to protect and blow open holes in OT Billy McNitt and OG Jett Kelly. Those guys will also anchor E-town’s D-line, with McNitt plugging holes at DT and Kelly (63 tackles, 14.5 for losses, 8 sacks) blitzing off the edge from his D-end spot. Meanwhile, Bobby Walters (80 tackles, 6.5 for losses) and Logan Lentz (11 tackles) are set to return at LB, and Hayden Stahlman (21 tackles), Elijah Reitmeyer (11 tackles, 3 for losses, 3 sacks) and Brandonn Frey will help out Kelly off the edge defensively. E-town should also be solid in the secondary, with safeties Riley Drager (60 tackles, 5 pass breakups), Brock Belmont (11 tackles) and Josh Rudy all due back. Drager (135 yards, 1 TD) is the Bears’ top returning rusher, and he’ll get plenty of help in the backfield from Lentz, while Walters, Belmont (4-39, 1 TD) and Reitmeyer, at wideout, and tight ends Frey (8-110) and Stahlman should all be reliable targets for Gilhool (100 for 187 for 1,298 yards, 9 TD). Kicker Cade Denlinger also returns as one of the top specialists in the L-L League; he made a pair of field goals last fall, including a 47-yarder, and averaged 30 yards per punt with three touchbacks on kickoffs.
QUESTION MARK: Breault said he’ll be breaking in some youngsters this season, so getting everyone together on the same page early on will be paramount for this group. McNitt and Kelly are steady, proven commodities up front; keep an eye on how quickly the new guys filling in around them do.
CIRCLE THE DATE: These Section 2 schedules are absolute meat-grinders. E-town’s final four games — Warwick, Cocalico, Manheim Central, Solanco — are against teams that went to the D3 5A playoffs last year.
MANHEIM CENTRAL BARONS
PIAA: Class 5A.
COACH: Dave Hahn — 6th season, 57-10 overall.
LAST YEAR: 6-0 Section 2 (champs), 9-3 overall (Lost to Warwick 31-28 in District 3 Class 5A quarterfinals). It was Central’s fifth section championship in a row, shared or outright, and 26th overall, second-most in L-L League history, dating back to 1972. Wilson is No. 1 with 27 section crowns.
SCHEDULE: 9-11 scrimmage at Manheim Township, 7 p.m.; 9-18 @ Cedar Crest; 9-25 @ Cocalico; 10-2 @ Warwick; 10-9 Solanco; 10-16 Conestoga Valley; 10-23 @ Elizabethtown; 10-30 Wilson.
NUGGET: The Barons lost 20 total starters to graduation, including record-setting QB Evan Simon, who finished his career with 8,038 passing yards, No. 2 in L-L League history.
KEY KIDS: Central will return just four full-timers from last year, and two of them are kickers. Owen Pappas, a ball-hawker free safety, and OG Jeremy Knight, plus kickers Nate Reed and Logan Shull are the only regulars due back in Barons’ camp. Did a lot of other kids get some varsity time last fall? Yes. But there will be a lot of first-year starters on Hahn’s depth chart. Pappas is a multi-purpose kid; he had a team-best 91 tackles from his safety spot, he was Johnny-on-the-spot with four fumble recoveries, and he had three catches from his WR spot. Reed and Shull were nearly automatic in the kicking department; Reed was 8 for 9 on PAT attempts and 5 for 5 on field goals; Shull was 41 for 45 on PAT attempts and 4 for 4 on field goals, as once again, Central’s special teams unit was a show-stopper. Shull was an all-star last fall; Reed earned an invite to the prestigious Kohl’s Scholarship Camp earlier this summer.
QUESTION MARK: So who will nab all of those starting jobs? The only QB on Central’s depth chart that has taken any varsity snaps is Judd Novak, who will likely get the first crack at stepping in for Simon. Novak was 9 for 18 for 163 yards with a pair of TD passes in back-up duty last year. He also had a TD keeper, and was a sponge in practice, watching Simon do his thing on a daily basis. Kade Kegarise, Charlie Sipel and Brady Harbach are also listed on the QB chart. Definitely keep an eye on the O-line, the Barons’ longtime bread and butter and Hahn’s specialty. Knight will be the anchor at left guard, with newbies like Owen Kupres, Ryland Fittery, Wyatt Kupres and Matt Lopez at the ready to step in and step up.
CIRCLE THE DATE: Take your pick; the mandated crossover game vs. Wilson is a beauty. And then you have a pair of mega section showdowns: The opener against Warwick — which beat the Barons twice last fall, after not topping Central since 1983 — and then the season-finale vs. Cocalico. Central’s much-anticipated season-opener at Cumberland Valley, because of the shortened season, was bagged. A lot of folks were looking forward to that game. They’ll try again next year.
SOLANCO GOLDEN MULES
PIAA: Class 5A.
COACH: Tony Cox — 7th season, 37-28 overall.
LAST YEAR: 2-4 Section 2, 5-6 overall (Lost to Shippensburg 42-35 in first round of District 3 Class 5A playoffs).
SCHEDULE: 9-12 scrimmage vs. Octorara, 10 a.m.; 9-19 Lampeter-Strasburg; 9-25 Elizabethtown; 10-2 Cocalico; 10-9 @ Manheim Central; 10-16 Warwick; 10-23 @ Conestoga Valley; 10-30 @ Penn Manor.
NUGGET: Solanco has been to the D3 playoffs in back-to-year years, and three times in the last five seasons.
KEY KIDS: Solanco is always strong up front, and the Mules are set to bring back several O-line trench thumpers, like C Cole Gladfelter, tackles Connor Smith and Jake Frampton and guards Connor Sprout and Jesse Balderston. That’s a great start. Frampton will also be one of the defensive anchors at DT, and he’ll be flanked there by vets like Seth Harnish (83 tackles, 2 sacks), Moses Dominguez (19 tackles), Nick DeFransesco (14 tackles) and Johnny Morales (49 tackles) at linebacker, D-ends Devin Rapant (6 tackles) and Caden Fuller (28 tackles) and run-stuffers Justin Dagen (24 tackles) and John Sankus. Solanco is also in good hands in the kicking department with the return of Trent McDowell, who made good on 33 of 34 PAT boots last year.
QUESTION MARK: So who will pilot Solanco’s Flexbone offense? Looks like Mason St. Clair, a jack-of-all-trades kid who has played wideout, DB and excelled in special teams for the Mules. No more Nick Yannutz to carry the rock at FB; he was a 3,000-yard rusher in his Quarryville career. Who will pick up that slack in the backfield? Ronnie Fulton (500 yards, 7.6 yards a carry, 7 TD), Zach Turpen (127 yards, 1 TD), Mason Hecker (who had a 57-yard TD rumble last year) and Morales all have varsity carries; their workloads should all go up this time around. Ryan Smith is an experienced receiver — not that Solanco goes up top very often. St. Clair (47 tackles, 2 picks) and Fulton (41 tackles, 3 pass breakups) also return to anchor the secondary on D. St. Clair is also a trusty punter; he averaged 35 yards per boot last season.
CIRCLE THE DATE: Again, this Section 2 grind is something else, isn’t it? Solanco’s first three league dates are against Cocalico, Manheim Central and Warwick. Whew.
PIAA: Class 5A.
COACH: Bob Locker — 20th season, 98-101 overall. Locker is the second-longest tenured skipper in the L-L League, and he’ll join the 100-win club with two more victories this season.
LAST YEAR: 4-2 Section 1, 10-3 overall (Lost to eventual champ Cocalico 21-13 in District 3 Class 5A semifinals. It was the Warriors’ deepest playoff trip in program history).
SCHEDULE: 9-11 scrimmage vs. Ephrata, 6 p.m.; 9-18 @ Penn Manor; 9-25 Conestoga Valley (CANCELED); 10-2 Manheim Central; 10-9 @ Elizabethtown; 10-16 @ Solanco; 10-23 Cocalico; 10-30 @ Hempfield.
UPDATE: As mentioned above, Warwick's Sept. 25 Section 2 game vs. Conestoga Valley has been canceled because of positive COVID-19 tests at CV. Warwick is looking for a game for the Sept. 25-26 weekend.
NUGGET: A new home base for Warwick, which shimmies down to Section 2 for this two-year cycle after spending the last 16 years in Section 1. The Warriors’ last Section 2 foray was a four-year stint from 2000 until 2003, and Warwick had a pair of second-place finishes in that clip.
KEY KIDS: Plenty to like in Lititz, where the Warriors are set to return a nice nucleus from last year’s 10-win, D3-semifinalist squad. Gotta start with OT-DE man-child Nolan Rucci, the No. 1 O-line recruit in the country. At last check, he was down to his final nine college choices, as major D1 coaches across the country eagerly await his announcement. Then there’s WR-DB Caleb Schmitz, an all-state safety who earlier this summer committed to the University of Cincinnati. Schmitz tacked on 58 catches for 951 yards with 13 TD grabs from his wideout spot last year. Joey McCracken, an all-state QB choice last year after passing for 2,912 yards and 27 touchdowns, should benefit from the late start this fall after recovering from an ACL injury he suffered during basketball season last winter. Then there’s the Miller brothers — brute 1,314-yard rusher Colton and TE-DE Thatcher — who both bulked up this offseason. Colton Miller had 30 TD runs last fall, and he’s a bull between the tackles. Locker is also excited about returning trench kids Owen Campbell and Caleb Goss, TE-LB Nate Maher, WR-DB Adam Martin, WR-DB Cooper Eckert and WR-DB Tanner Haines, who also returns as the Warriors’ sure-footed kicker; you’ll recall his buzzer-beater, chip-shot 17-yard field goal helped Warwick KO Manheim Central 31-28 in last year’s D3 5A quarterfinals. It was Martin’s blocked punt that set up Haines’ game-winning boot.
UPDATE: Rucci has committed to Wisconsin.
QUESTION MARK: Keep an eye on McCracken’s surgically repaired knee. If the season would have started on time on Aug. 28, we’re not sure if McCracken would have had the green light to be behind center. Soph Jack Reed, who took some snaps in back-up duty last fall — going 6 for 11 for 51 yards — is ready and willing, and is McCracken’s heir apparent. Speaking of reliable back-ups, if Colton Miller needs a break in the backfield, keep an eye on Christian Royer, who scooted for 185 yards with three TD runs as a reserve last year.
CIRCLE THE DATE: Two of them for sure; the section opener against Manheim Central — the Warriors will go for three wins in a row against the Barons in that one — and Week 9 against Cocalico in a rematch of last year’s D3 5A semifinals. Section 2: Gotta love it.