It’s never easy predicting the Lancaster-Lebanon League football section races. This year — this astonishing, unfathomable year — is something completely different.
Start with the L-L’s new four-section format, the first time since the league’s inception back in 1972 that they’ve gone with a four-section look. That’s new. Now throw in the fact that everyone is coping with the COVID-19 pandemic, with health and safety protocols to deal with — on top of the usual X’s and O’s and the actual, you know, on-the-field football stuff.
Safe to say the 2020 season is going to look unlike anything we’ve ever seen in our little neck of the woods. But here’s the silver lining: At least they’re letting the kids play.
With the late start — teams were supposed to begin back on Aug. 28 — this season also feels more like a sprint, not a marathon. Right? L-L League teams will begin their truncated seven-game seasons on Friday night.
How is it all going to look come late October? No clue. But here’s an educated guess, with some tidbits and factoids mixed in there for good measure. Remember, no wagering; this is strictly for entertainment purposes only.
1. Wilson: Bull’s-eye on the Bulldogs, because Wilson returns the most top-shelf skill-kid playmakers in the bunch, including QB Kaleb Brown, speed-demon backs Mason Lenart and Jadyn Jones, and WR Troy Corson. Once the defense starts barking, and the newbie O-line protectors figure it out, watch out.
2. Manheim Township: Could have flipped a coin here between the Blue Streaks and the Bulldogs. Seriously, it’s like splitting hairs. Will Township be OK? Of course. And they’ll have the athletes and the depth to make it four section titles in a row. It just might look a little different with 21 new total full-time starters lining up in Neffsville.
3. Penn Manor: Yes, the Comets. It says here that Penn Manor is poised to make a breakthrough this fall, with several key kids returning on both sides of the ball. The offense is in good hands with QB Luke Braas returning to steer the ship, and if the Comets’ defense can figure some things out and come up big in the takeaway department, Penn Manor will have everyone’s attention.
4. Hempfield: Hello, George Eager. The Black Knights’ new skipper will have his squad thinking big, and there are a lot of key cogs coming back in Landisville, like trench vet Aidan Power and sleek RB Tanner Hess. There will be a new QB, yes, but the Knights should have enough ammo to run with the lead pack.
5. Cedar Crest: A mixed bag for the Falcons, who return playmaker QB Chris Danz and two-way terror Aadyn Richards. But the O-line needs some revamping, and Cedar Crest must find some new trench kids on both sides of the ball. Pronto.
6. McCaskey: The Red Tornado is definitely growing tired of lugging around this 17-game losing skid, and it says here that McCaskey will find the W column soon. There should be plenty of motivation in Tornado Alley after the school board voted last week to let them play. Now McCaskey needs to make plays, stop people and get some good vibes flowing, because this is a very proud program, itching to get things turned around.
1. Warwick: Tons to like in Lititz, including Wisconsin recruit Nolan Rucci, Cincinnati commit Caleb Schmitz, QB Joey McCracken, RB Colton Miller and some other key cogs due back from last year’s 10-win, district semifinalist club. If these guys can block out the noise and stick to business, they have the weaponry to go places.
2. Cocalico: No Noah Palm. No Brock Gingrich. No Ronald Zahm. And no coach Dave Gingrich, as Bryan Strohl slides into the pilot’s seat. Sounds like a lot to replace — and it is, don’t get us wrong — but the Eagles, fresh off last year’s D3-5A championship, return a slew of talent, including plenty of beef up front, and a battalion of heavy hitter defenders.
3. Manheim Central: Can the Barons make it six section titles in a row? Of course. Hey, this is Manheim, where they reload. These Barons will have to reload quickly this time around, with 20 total new full-time starters learning on the fly. That’s a bunch. But again, this is Central, and we never, ever worry about the Barons.
4. Solanco: Here’s your sleeper Section 2 outfit; the Golden Mules are bringing back a bevy of hole-openers and pass-protectors up front, and that’s a terrific start in this meat-grinder section. The key in Quarryville is finding a new feature fullback to carry the rock, and getting some other first-time skill-kid performers on the same page. But these guys will leave you black and blue. Book that.
5. Elizabethtown: There are some key pieces coming back in Bear Country, including QB Patrick Gilhool and two-way line threat Jett Kelly, who is an absolute tackle machine and QB-chaser. E-town does have some work to do up front, and finding some playmakers for Gilhool to get the ball to. If the new-look Bears can learn on the go, and come up big defensively, they’ll cause some headaches.
6. Conestoga Valley: Odd picking the Buckskins down here, but CV has a lot of work to do in the trenches — as in, replacing all but one kid up front, and finding some pass-rushers and run-stuffers along the line of scrimmage on defense. And this: The Bucks are dealing with a coronavirus-imposed school shutdown, and they won’t return to the practice field until at least Sept. 22. They’ll also miss their first game on Friday vs. Daniel Boone — school officials are hoping to reschedule that nonleague tilt for a later date — so CV will spend some time this fall kicking off some rust.
1. Lampeter-Strasburg: Plenty to like in Pioneer Country, where L-S is returning a boatload of talent from last year’s D3-4A title team, including major thumpers up front and a cache of playmakers. And this added bonus: QB Sean McTaggart returns after missing his junior season with a knee injury. If he’s back to 100 percent, and if L-S can pick up right where it left off last fall, the Pioneers should have some very, very large expectations.
2. Lebanon: Three things in the Cedars’ favor right out of the chute: First, strong-armed QB Isaiah Rodriguez returns, and the 6-foot-5 specimen has a howitzer. Second, all-star WR Alex Rufe — who had a league-high 74 receptions last fall — is back to terrorize opposing D-backs on the edge. And third — and perhaps most importantly — Lebanon returns its entire starting offensive line for first-year skipper Frank Isenberg.
3. Donegal: A lot of good things cooking in Mount Joy, where the Indians are set to return QB Trent Weaver, reliable backs Mason Ober and Garrett Blake, and multiple vet trench warriors to help blow open holes and, more importantly, clog up the middle defensively. Plenty of motivation here, too; Donegal missed the playoffs the last two years by mere percentage points.
4. Ephrata: Coming off their first 6-win season since 2003, the Mountaineers should be thinking big, especially with a big crop of returning starters. Two of those kids to watch: Andre Weidman making sticks on D and getting more carries out of the backfield, and new QB Miracle Wratto, who has the ability to make a lot of plays on his feet. Ephrata isn’t going to sneak up on anyone anymore.
5. Lancaster Catholic: Chris Maiorino is the new sheriff in town, and he inherited a team coming off back-to-back Section 3 titles — and with some gifted players set to return, like two-way line stud Devin Atkinson, playmakers Tony Cruz and Nevin Roman and specialist Daniel Mueller. Maiorino must pick a starting QB — Mason McClair and Will Cranford are the candidates — and then prep his squad for this tough-as-nails section race.
6. Garden Spot: The Spartans desperately want to snap this maddening 24-game losing skid, and this should/could be the year they do it. There’s too much talent — and motivation — in New Holland for this to go on much longer, especially if dual-threat QB Jesse Martin and RB John Dykie are making plays.
1. Elco: Back-to-back playoff trips for the Raiders, and with all-state QB-DB Braden Bohannon back to pilot the offense and spearhead the defense, we simply had to place the favorite’s tag on Elco. The Raiders haven’t pocketed a section crown since 2000; the time is now for Elco to end that drought.
2. Octorara: Call this a gut-hunch pick, especially with the Braves breaking in a new QB — it looks like Weston Stoltzfus is the clubhouse leader to earn the job — and with skipper Jed King tinkering with the offensive and defensive schemes over the offseason. But there are a lot of nice pieces due back in Atglen, and after two full seasons in the league now, Octorara is ready to step up and challenge.
3. Columbia: So many playmakers due back for the Crimson Tide, and that’s certainly a superb start. Tack on 10 defensive starters coming back — plus some polished trench kids up front — and coach Bud Kyle has to be feeling good about his group. If newbie QB Robert Footman can be a good game manager and get the ball out quickly, watch out for Columbia.
4. Annville-Cleona: Coach Matt Gingrich saw a good chunk of his team pick up their diplomas last spring, but there is still a good vibe in Little Dutchmen territory after A-C won a playoff game for the first time in program history last fall. Plenty of new starters across the board — including the QB spot — but there are some solid ball-hawkers and two-way playmaker kids here. A new look, yes, but don’t count this crew out.
5. Pequea Valley: Priority No. 1 for the Braves is snapping this agonizing 20-game losing skid, and the pieces are here to make that happen. Having holdover QB Nate Fisher back to pilot the troops is a good start, and skipper Jeff Werner is happy with his trench kids up front and a squadron of skill kids on the flanks. It’s time for PV to make a move.
6. Northern Lebanon: The good news for the Vikings is that they should be strong up front, with multiple vets due back along the line of scrimmage. But Northern Lebanon must replace all of its skill kids, with first-time starters stepping in at QB, in the backfield, and at all of the receiver spots. That’s a lot of holes to plug.