Cocalico vs Cheltenham-PIAA 5A Football Semifinal

Cocalico's Austin Vang (36) tackles Cheltenham's Nate Edwards (6) during first half action of a PIAA 5A football semifinal at Hersheypark Stadium Friday November 29, 2019.

Change isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And there will be plenty of changes surrounding Cocalico’s football team this fall. But that doesn’t mean the Eagles’ expectations — or the program’s very high bar — will be lowered.

The biggest change is at the top, where longtime assistant Bryan Strohl has succeeded longtime skipper Dave Gingrich as head coach. All Gingrich did in his 16 years at the helm in Denver was lead the Eagles to 130 victories, three section titles and to last year’s District Three Class 5A championship in his unforgettable swan song.

“We were expecting minimal changes, and I wasn’t planning on making any big changes,” Strohl said. “As far as our schemes, we’re not blowing anything up from what it’s been. We’ll tweak some things here and there, and we’ll make some minor adjustments. I’m not Dave, and I’m not trying to be him. But after watching him for so many years, it showed me how much he cared about our kids and how much he did for our kids, and that’s something I wasn’t going to change.”

Here’s another change: Cocalico won’t get a shot to defend its 5A title this fall, because the Eagles have dipped down to Class 4A. That move will certainly change the complexion of that bracket, should Cocalico earn a playoff ticket.

And this: Stalwarts and team leaders Noah Palm, Brock Gingrich and Ronald Zahm all graduated, leaving some big holes to fill in those spots. Palm, the reigning Class 5A Player of the Year, and Gingrich were Big 33 selections, and Zahm was a major playmaker in all three phases of the game. Those guys are not walking through the door.

That trio — plus coach Gingrich — will be missed, no doubt about it. But the cupboard is hardly bare at Cocalico, as Strohl inherited a team that is still very much in win-now mode.

“Our focus is on who we have,” Strohl said, “and making the best out of that. We remind them that it’s not 2019 anymore. We lost a lot of quality kids, yes. But we didn’t lose a ton quantity-wise. We have a lot of kids back who tasted success last year, and now it’s about them stepping into more of a starring role. I like what we have, and I think we’ll still do good things.”

About the offense

Palm, his uncanny dual-threat abilities and his leadership skills, are gone, meaning Cocalico will be breaking in a new quarterback for the first time in four years. Say hello to Carson Nash, a converted wideout who has taken some snaps in backup duty before. Now he has the keys to the Eagles’ Flexbone attack.

“Carson didn’t get a ton of game reps last year, and because of COVID (protocols) he didn’t get the kind of reps this summer that he’d usually get,” Strohl said. “He’s definitely catching up to the speed of the game, and learning what to expect on a Friday night. We’re happy with what he’s done leadership-wise, and he’s definitely ready to take over those reins.”

Zahm will be missed in the backfield, but there are some key players returning to carry the rock, including shifty RB Steven Flinton, FB Austin Vang and burner Micah Ulysse, who has a similar skill-set as Zahm, and he should do damage with his wheels off the edge.

Nash won’t go up top a ton, but he’ll have a reliable returning flank threat in Casey Bernhard. Cocalico also had to plug in a couple of new tight ends.

Losing Gingrich as a pillar up front will sting. But Cocalico is set to return multiple trench protectors, including OT Ben Bearinger, OT Ryan Brubaker — who has already garnered scholarship offers from UMass and UConn — OG Chuckie Drain, OG Damien Wolf and C Jared Stauffer.

Where’s the beef? In Denver.

“We feel pretty good about the starting group we’ll have there,” Strohl said. “Those guys are the engine that will make us go.”

About the defense

There is also plenty to like on this side of the ball, particularly at the linebacker spot, where Cocalico is set to return Vang and the Angstadt brothers, Luke and Tyler, as key cogs in the Eagles’ 4-3 set.

“Your linebackers are the heart of your defense,” Strohl said. “They have to know everything that’s going on, and having experienced guys back there to call out the signals and making sure everyone is where they need to be is a huge help.”

Bearinger, at D-end, and Drain and Wolf, at D-tackle, will anchor the D-line, and the secondary is in good shape with Flinton, Bernhard, Nash, Ethan Brown and Cole Boyer all returning. Will all-state safeties Palm and Zahm be missed? You bet, but there are some vet secondary guys due back. 

Intangibles

Alex Mellinger returns to handle the kicking chores, and he’s a reliable PAT man. Cocalico should also be strong in the return game; Flinton and Ulysse both made big plays in that department last fall, and they have the speed to take it to the house every time they get their hands on the football.