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 3 teams …
PIAA: Class 4A.
COACH: Chad Risberg — 3rd season, 12-8 overall.
LAST YEAR: 6-3 Section 3, 6-4 overall.
SCHEDULE: 9-11 scrimmage vs. Pequea Valley, 4 p.m.; 9-18 Annville-Cleona; 9-25 @ Lancaster Catholic; 10-2 @ Garden Spot; 10-9 Lampeter-Strasburg; 10-16 Ephrata; 10-23 @ Lebanon; 10-30 Elco.
NUGGET: Bit of a playoff drought for Donegal, which hasn’t gone postseason dancing since 2014. But the Indians were mega close to qualifying in 2018 and 2019. Can they clear that hurdle in a short season this time around?
KEY KIDS: A really nice mix of returning talent for the Indians, who will have some new playmates in the new-look Section 3 configuration this fall. If you’re talking Donegal, it all starts with the Indians’ tried and trusted Wing-T look, and there are some wily vets due back: QB Trent Weaver (62 of 98 for 909 yards, 12 TD), RB Garrett Blake (691 yards, 8 TD) and RB Mason Ober (452 yards, 7 TD) are all set to return, and that’s a lot of experienced playmakers right out of the chute. More good news: OT Owen Kling, OG Joel Grillo, C Owen Champ, OG Gavin Creek and OT Ethan Halbleib all have experience in the trenches; Kling and Grillo were all-star picks last fall, so Donegal is definitely ahead of the curve up front — despite the loss of Section 3 Lineman of the Year Connor Ruhl. WR Gavin Hawk and TE Owen Fisher also return to the offense, reliable K Jacob Erb (40 for 43 on PAT attempts, plus a 37-yard field goal) is back to help out on the line and handle the kicking duties. Those trench guys will also be key cogs on defense; Fisher (17 tackles, 2 for losses), Creek (33 tackles, 2 for losses) and Hawk (49 tackles, 3 interceptions) will rotate at D-end, Champ, Kling (66 tackles, 11 for losses, 7.5 sacks) and Halbleib (10 tackles, 2 for losses) are the D-tackles, Grillo (63 tackles) returns at inside ‘backer, and Weaver (4 tackles), Blake (63 tackles, 8 for losses) and Ober (50 tackles, 2 interceptions) will patrol the secondary, along with another holdover, Nolan O’Connell (4 tackles).
QUESTION MARK: Donegal must replace 1,000-yard rusher Joe Fox in the backfield, but Blake and Ober certainly know the intricacies of the Wing-T and will take the rock. Early candidates to get more carries are Ian Brown, Conner Hyle (136 yards, 2 TD) and Noah Rohrer. Grillo will have a couple of new full-timers flanking him at LB, and we’ll see if Hawk can become Weaver’s go-to guy now that Jake Shoemaker has graduated. Donegal never really goes up top too much, but the Weaver-Shoemaker combo did a lot of damage through the air last fall; Shoemaker had 33 grabs for 592 yards with 10 TD catches.
CIRCLE THE DATE: A juicy season-finale for the Indians, who will visit Lancaster Catholic in Week 10. Will the section championship be hanging in the balance? Will a spot in the D3 playoffs be hanging in the balance? Could be, on both accounts.
PIAA: Class 5A.
COACH: Kris Miller — 5th season, 11-29 overall.
LAST YEAR: 6-3 Section 3, 6-4 overall.
SCHEDULE: 9-11 scrimmage at Warwick, 6 p.m.; 9-18 Elco; 9-25 Garden Spot; 10-2 Lebanon; 10-9 @ Lancaster Catholic; 10-16 @ Donegal; 10-23 Lampeter-Strasburg; 10-30 @ Columbia.
NUGGET: The Mounts won six games last fall; it was the most victories Ephrata put together in a single season since 2003, when the Mounts went 7-3.
KEY KIDS: The good vibes continue at Ephrata, where Miller lists 18 key returning vets from last year’s 6-win team. Those holdovers include TE-LB Owen Morrongiello (71 tackles, 8.5 for loses, 3,5 sacks), WR-DB Taj London (21 tackles), QB-DB Joey Gunzenhauser (205 rushing yards, 4 TD), QB Miracle Wratto (484 rushing yards, 9 TD), K Kai Mast (43 for 45 on PAT attempts, plus a 29-yard field goal), LB Zach Wanous (49 tackles), WR-DB Ricardo Dyer (26 tackles, 3.5 for losses, 3 sacks), RB-DE Richard Greer (407 yards, 7 TD; 31 tackles, 5 for losses, 2.5 sacks), WR-DB Castor Shuman (20 tackles, 2 interceptions), RB-LB Andre Weidman (188 yards, 2 TD; 80 tackles, 15 for losses, 4.5 sacks, 3 fumble recoveries), WR-DB-P Brock Boyer (21 catches for 339 yards, 3 TD; 44 tackles, 2 interceptions; 34.5 yards per punt), C-LB Trent Martin (13 tackles), OT-LB Tyler Nelson (58 tackles), C-DT James Ellis (12 tackles, 2 for losses), OT-DT Deric Hoover (12 tackles, 2.5 for losses), C-DT Bryan Stewart (10 tackles), OG-DT Griffin Snyder (8 tackles) and OG-DE Zach DaBella (50 tackles, 13 for losses, 7.5 sacks). Hang a star next to Weidman, who had an amazing ninth-grade season last fall. He’ll be shooting up everyone’s must-see recruiting board over the next couple of years. He’s a player.
QUESTION MARK: Ephrata lost its all-time leading passer and multi-purpose wiz Caden Keefer to graduation. He was an all-star QB pick and a Maxwell Club Mini Max Award winner last fall. It looks like the fleet-footed Wratto will get the first shot at the QB duties in the Mounts’ pistol set; he attempted all of two passes last year, but he was a durable, shifty runner out of the backfield, so he knows the offense. Gunzenhauser attempted six passes last year in back-up duty, but he rushed for more than 200 yards on keepers. Whoever is behind center will have some experienced trench kids protecting them, and a lot of vet skill kids to get the ball to.
CIRCLE THE DATE: Two games for sure; that section opener against Lancaster Catholic will be a tone-setter for both teams. And Week 9 against Lampeter-Strasburg should also go a long way in determining the section champ.
GARDEN SPOT SPARTANS
PIAA: Class 5A.
COACH: Matt Zamperini — 12th season overall and in the second year of his second stint with Garden Spot, 56-62 overall.
LAST YEAR: 0-6 Section 2, 0-10 overall.
SCHEDULE: 9-12 scrimmage vs. Columbia, 10 a.m.; 9-18 @ Cocalico; 9-25 @ Ephrata; 10-2 Donegal; 10-9 @ Lebanon; 10-16 @ Lampeter-Strasburg; 10-23 Lancaster Catholic; 10-30 Pequea Valley; 11-6 @ Elizabethtown (if neither team qualifies for postseason).
NUGGET: Garden Spot opens the season lugging the longest current losing streak in the L-L League at 24 games in a row — and we hate to keep reminding the good people of New Holland about that number.
KEY KIDS: The good news here is that the Spartans are set to return 13 total full-time starters from last season. And for a team jonesing to snap out of this funk, that’s a nice start and a solid nucleus of hungry players. Key holdovers include QB-DB Jesse Martin (89 of 183 for 1,137 yards, 9 TD; 551 rushing yards, 5 TD; 38 tackles, 2 pass breakups), RB-DE John Dykie (730 yards, 5 TD; 21 catches for 210 yards, 3 TD: 31 tackles, 2 fumble recoveries), OG-DT Luke Shirk (20 tackles), C Brandon Swope, WR-DB Joel Martin (14 catches for 194 yards, 2 TD; 53 tackles, 2 pass breakups), WR-DB Derrick Lambert (7 catches for 49 yards, 1 TD; 7 tackles), DB Tim Allen, DB Cameron Wing, RB-LB Tyler Gillenwater (33 tackles), OT Aiden McCloud, OT-DT Bryce Mercer (22 tackles), OG Isaiah Rivera, DE Tom Hartman (9 tackles), DT Israel Mares (3 tackles), DB Gavin Miller (4 tackles), DB Kupakwashe Agbokah, DB Andrew Good and K-P Walker Martin (13 for 19 on PAT attempts, 2 for 2 on field goal attempts, including a 34-yarder). Jesse Martin and Dykie are a nice 1-2 punch backfield combo, and Martin has a couple of reliable wideouts in Joel Martin and Lambert to play pitch-and-catch with. And definitely keep an eye on Walker Martin in the special teams department; he’s really come into his own in the kicking game, and earned an invite to the Kohl’s Scholarship Camp this summer.
QUESTION MARK: More than anything, can the Spartans get over the hump, stay strong mentally, snap this skid and get back to their winning ways? They have the athletes. They have the skills. They have the experience and plenty of playmakers. A win — any win, nonleague, crossover or in section play — would do wonders in the psyche and confidence department for Garden Spot.
CIRCLE THE DATE: Sept. 18 in the season-opener at Cocalico, the reigning D3 5A champ. Will the streak end there?
PIAA: Class 4A.
COACH: John Manion — 23rd season, 168-82 overall. Manion and Manheim Township’s Mark Evans are tied for the current longest-tenured coaches in the L-L League.
LAST YEAR: 4-2 Section 2, 11-4 overall (Beat Berks Catholic 35-21 to win District 3 Class 4A championship; lost to eventual state-champ Thomas Jefferson 44-2 in PIAA Class 4A state semifinals).
SCHEDULE: 9-12 scrimmage vs. Conestoga Valley, 10 a.m.; 9-19 @ Solanco; 9-25 @ Lebanon; 10-2 Lancaster Catholic; 10-9 @ Donegal; 10-16 Garden Spot; 10-23 @ Ephrata; 10-30 Northern Lebanon.
NUGGET: Including last year’s victory in the D3 4A title game over Berks Catholic, L-S has now gone to the postseason 11 years in a row, dating back to 2009.
KEY KIDS: Tons to like in Lampeter, where the Pioneers are set to return a truckload of talent from last year’s D3 title team. That includes a 3-pack of thumper two-way line kids in Zach Shelley (22 tackles), Nick DelGrande (94 tackles, 9 for losses, 4 sacks) and Parker Owens (76 tackles, 20 for losses, 6 sacks), who are all monsters up front. Plus playmakers like multi-purpose threat Alex Knapp (724 rushing yards, 8 TD; 27 catches for 478 yards, 3 TD), WR Austin Stoltzfus (27-629, 6 TD), TE Beau Heyser (23-355, 6 TD), WR Ian Herr (13-255, 2 TD) and RB Owen Fikkert (221 yards, 3 TD) are due back. Two more defensive stalwarts — LB Brady Cole (63 tackles, 5 for losses, 3 interceptions) and DB Matt Weese (39 tackles, 4 pass breakups) — will also return. And we haven’t even gotten to the QB spot yet, where Sean McTaggart is jonesing to make a triumphant return after missing 99.9 percent of last season with a knee injury; he was hurt in the season opener, and then Conner Nolt stepped in, threw for 1,811 yards and 17 touchdowns, and piloted the Pioneers into the state playoffs. According to Manion’s preseason depth chart, McTaggart is listed as the QB — he was given clearance to return to full-contact drills this summer, much to his delight — and Nolt is listed with the wideouts. But talk about an insurance policy.
QUESTION MARK: All eyes on McTaggart’s surgically repaired knee. If he’s back to 100 percent, look out; he’s a whirling dervish, and can beat defenses with his accurate right arm and his wheels. In case you forgot about his breakout soph season, McTaggart passed for 1,714 yards with 13 TD tosses, and he rushed for another 706 yards with 11 TD keepers in 2018. Also, L-S must get used to its new surrounds here; no more Section 2 grind, as the Pioneers will spend the next two-year cycle in the new-look Section 3 configuration. There will be a familiar face or two — old friend Garden Spot, plus a nonleague clash against Solanco in the annual Milk Jug game — but there will be new scouting reports and different bus rides for the Pioneers this time around. We think they’ll adapt just fine. And without getting too far ahead of ourselves, former Section 2 rival Cocalico dips down to Class 4A this season. Just saying.
CIRCLE THE DATE: With a lot of talent back in tow from last year’s D3 title team, the Pioneers — who will get the section-favorite bull’s-eye here — should get everyone’s best punch. So definitely circle all of those Section 3 games, as L-S gets cozy in its new surroundings.
LANCASTER CATHOLIC CRUSADERS
PIAA: Class 3A.
COACH: Chris Maiorino — 1st season.
LAST YEAR: 8-1 Section 3 (champs), 10-2 overall (Lost to Middletown 33-15 in District 3 Class 3A semifinals).
SCHEDULE: 9-11 scrimmage at Hempfield, 5:30 p.m.; 9-18 Columbia; 9-25 Donegal; 10-2 @ Lampeter-Strasburg; 10-9 Ephrata; 10-16 Lebanon; 10-23 @ Garden Spot; 10-30 @ Annville-Cleona.
NUGGET: Maiorino beefed up his staff with the addition of former Catholic all-state performer and 2011 PIAA champ Sean Titus, former Pitt player Nate Leonard, former Manheim Township player Brendon O’Shea and former McCaskey, York and Kennard-Dale coach Pat Weider — to go along with holdovers Brandon Way, Steve Humma and Pete Anderson.
KEY KIDS: The Crusaders were hit hard by graduation — just seven total starters are due back in Catholic’s camp — but Maiorino inherited a tight-knit nucleus to build around. That includes a pair of returning two-way trench kids in OT-DE Devin Atkinson and OG-DT Robert Anater, who will anchor the line of scrimmage. More good news: A pair of backs return to run behind Atkinson and Anater in Nevin Roman (227 yards, 3 TD) and Tony Cruz (94 yards, 3 TD). When they get their legs churning, watch out. J.J Keck (3-47) is back at TE, and Nahjeir Aikens will help out on the flanks. Returning defensive kids to watch include DT Isaiah Caine, ‘backers Christian Thompson and Andrew Reece, plus Aikens and Cruz on the corner, Roman at free safety, and Atkinson and Anater along the line blowing stuff up. Definitely can’t forget Daniel Mueller here; the rising junior is one of the top-ranked kickers and punters in the country in the Class of 2022. He was invited to the Kohl’s Scholarship Camp earlier this summer, after booting 10 field goals last fall.
QUESTION MARK: All eyes on the QB spot, where converted wideout Mason McClair (20-345, 3 TD) and Will Cranford (3 for 4 for 75 yards in back-up duty last year) were 1-2 on the depth chart heading into summer drills. One of those guys will replace multi-purpose threat Gavin Sullivan, who piloted the Crusaders to back-to-back Section 3 championships, and into the D3 4A semifinals last fall.
CIRCLE THE DATE: That Section 3 lid-lifter on Oct. 2 at Lampeter-Strasburg has must-see written all over it, doesn’t it?
PIAA: Class 5A.
COACH: Frank Isenberg — 1st season.
LAST YEAR: 6-3 Section 3, 7-4 overall (Beat Reading 36-14 in Eastern Conference Class 6A playoffs).
SCHEDULE: 9-11 scrimmage vs. McCaskey, 4 p.m.; 9-18 @ Northern Lebanon; 9-25 Lampeter-Strasburg; 10-2 @ Ephrata; 10-9 Garden Spot; 10-16 @ Lancaster Catholic; 10-23 Donegal; 10-30 @ Octorara.
NUGGET: Isenberg, a longtime assistant under Gerry Yonchiuk, took over the head-coaching reins in March when Yonchiuk departed to take the Central York job.
KEY KIDS: Feeling fine after last season’s playoff trip, the Cedars are hoping to ride that momentum into 2020. And Isenberg has a heck of a returning cast to mentor. Gotta start with QB Isaiah Rodriguez (172 of 301 for 2,155 yards, 18 TD), a physical specimen with a rocket arm, and he’s poised to join the 5,000-yard passing club if everyone gets at least seven games in. Rodriguez’s favorite pitch-and-catch partner also returns; WR Alex Rufe had a whopper 2019, with a league-best 74 receptions for 1,095 yards and nine TD grabs — and a slew of big plays on special teams. Plus pass-catchers Rafael Quinonez (3-19), Darryl Reed, Nasir Enoch (7-65), Skyler Sattizahn, Nathan Hollinger, Kaden Harbaugh and Pedro De’Arce are also due back, so Rodriguez will have plenty of targets in Lebanon’s spread attack. No, Isenberg hasn’t junked the Cedars’ pass-happy scheme. With all that talent due back, why would he? Quinonez could be the Cedars’ jack-of-all-trades kid; look for him to get more touches out of the backfield replacing 500-yard rusher Joseph Mejias-Rios. Quinonez rushed for 113 yards and a pair of scores last fall. Lebanon should be really strong up front, with C Camren Eberhart, guards Jaden Deitzler and Thomas Hershey and tackles Synsier Gonzalez and Matt Carvajal all due back. That’s a lot of beef, and a ton of protection for Rodriguez. Hollinger and Deitzler are back to man the D-end spots; Gonzalez will anchor the D-line at tackle; Sattizahn, Enoch, Quinonez and Matt Brown return to the ‘backer spots, and Rufe, De’Arce and Harbaugh return to the secondary. Sattizahn is a name you need to remember; he’s a ball-hawker du jour.
QUESTION MARK: Not too many holes to plug in Cedars’ camp, and that’s always a good thing. Should come down to health and finishing the job for this crew, if Lebanon is thinking back-to-back postseason trips. Weapons — and the trench talent — is here to make that happen.
CIRCLE THE DATE: It’s a bummer that the annual Cedar Bowl vs. Cedar Crest will not be played — unless the Cedars and the Falcons add it later, if neither makes the playoffs, and we’ve heard that option should/could be on the table — so go ahead hang a star, for now, next to that Week 10 matchup, when Lebanon visits Lampeter-Strasburg. Could be a bunch of scenarios wafting around that night, including section-title and playoff-spot ramifications. Those we like.