With heat acclimatization practices on tap for this week, training camp set for next week, scrimmages on Aug. 17 and then real, live Week 1 games on Aug. 23 approaching quickly, here’s a late-summer, pre-camp Lancaster-Lebanon League football primer for the upcoming 2019 season.
We’ll kick things off with a look at the Section 1 combatants …
CEDAR CREST FALCONS
COACH: Rob Wildasin (6th season; 27-25 overall).
LAST YEAR: 2-4 Section 1 (5th place); 5-5 overall.
NUGGET: The Falcons had the second stingiest defense in Section 1 last fall, allowing just 298 yards per game. And Cedar Crest’s balanced offensive attack gouged out 354 yards per game. Alas, the Falcons’ .500 finish didn’t produce a playoff trip — one year after Cedar Crest went postseason dancing. Can Wildasin’s crew clear that hurdle and earn a spot in the D3-6A bracket this time around? Some new pieces in Cornwall Country, but they sure hope so.
KEY KIDS: RB Tyler Cruz (658 yards, 13 TD) returns to spearhead the ground attack, and with rookie QB Chris Danz set to take over the signal-calling duties for his first extended varsity run, the Falcons might lean on Cruz to take the rock early and often until the passing game jives. Here’s a name to remember: Aadyn Richards had a bust-out ninth-grade season last fall, earning all-star honors at inside ‘backer. He’s penciled in to play middle ‘backer this fall, so you should hear his name called a ton in the coming months. Richards participated in a camp at Penn State this summer, and opened plenty of eyes. Three more key pieces are set to return: D-end Eric Wawrzyniak, O-line anchor T.J. Moore at tackle, and flank threat Cole Miller, who should definitely help out in the passing game once Danz gets his feet wet.
QUESTION MARK: There are only a few teams in the L-L League going with a first-year QB this season, and Cedar Crest is on that short list. Replacing dual-threat Logan Horn won’t be easy; he produced 1,398 passing yards, 550 rushing yards and he totaled 17 touchdowns last fall, and his run/pass prowess will be missed in the pocket. Danz did attempt 18 throws last season in the Falcons’ Zone Option scheme, and he participated in the Manning Passing Academy camp in Louisiana this summer. The quicker he gets in-sync with his wideouts, the better.
CIRCLE THE DATE: Week 1 vs. Lebanon. Hey, it’s the Cedar Bowl. It doesn’t get any bigger than that in Lebanon County. And this game — No. 48 this year in the backyard-rivalry series — always sets the tone.
HEMPFIELD BLACK KNIGHTS
COACH: Ron Zeiber (9th season; 48-41 overall).
LAST YEAR: 3-3 Section 1 (4th place); 5-6 overall (lost to Harrisburg 42-0 in D3-6A quarterfinals).
NUGGET: The Knights’ D was singed for 2,243 passing yards last fall — the most by any team in the L-L League — and Hempfield was sixth (out of seven teams) in Section 1 in total team defense, yielding 338 yards per game. Gotta clean that up if a return postseason trip is in the cards.
KEY KIDS: QB Colin Peters is set to return to pilot the offense; he completed 55 percent of his throws for 1,455 yards with 11 TD strikes, and added 408 yards on the ground with four TD keepers last fall. He’s a dual-threat, and knows his way around a Section 1 line of scrimmage. Peters will have a familiar face up front in all-star C Aiden Power, plus a reliable receiving threat in Jackson Shand, who was also an all-star linebacker pick last fall.
QUESTION MARK: Hempfield lost some studs up front, including Section 1 Offensive Lineman of the Year Riley Good, so the Knights have some holes to plug in the trenches. Having Power back is certainly a good start, but he’s going to need some help. Hempfield must also replace all-star RB Matt Heuston, who was a workhorse toting the rock last fall. Standout WR/return-man Darien Ressler also graduated, so Peters needs to find a new home-run threat/go-to guy on the flanks.
CIRCLE THE DATE: Week 10 at Manheim Township. Huge rivalry game. A trophy game (Joseph F. Kurjiaka Trophy up for grabs). And a safe bet that the Section 1 title and spots in the D3-6A playoffs will be very much on the line that night in Neffsville.
MANHEIM TOWNSHIP BLUE STREAKS
COACH: Mark Evans (7th season; 48-24 overall).
NUGGET: The Streaks had the third-best total team defense number in the L-L League last season, allowing just 225 yards per game out of their Odd Stack look. And — voila — 10 of Township’s top 11 tacklers from last year are due back in camp this fall. Wowzer.
KEY KIDS: Plenty to like here, including three Township players who made their college decisions already this summer. That includes Colgate commit QB Harrison Kirk (2,300 passing yards, 19 TD throws, 57 percent completions, 5 TD keepers); Yale commit TE-DE Ben Mann (8-102, 2 TD receiving, plus 54 tackles, 5 sacks); and WR-DB Jon Engel (11-103, 1 TD receiving, plus 85 tackles, 3 INT from his safety spot). More offensive firepower: RB Jaden Floyd (729 yards, 4 TD) and fleet wideouts Brett Benjamin (37-595, 4 TD), Mickey Stokes (19-281, 5 TD) and Anthony Ivey (17-265, 1 TD; West Virginia and Virginia Tech offers) are all due back in Township’s Spread attack. Defense will be keyed by twin tackling terrors Josh and Sam Emge, who are returning all-star linebackers, and DB Matt Mikulka, who had eight picks last year. Like we said: Plenty to like here.
QUESTION MARK: Township lost three thumper trench kids up front, and that will sting. But OG Justin Herr and OT Grayson Kuhns are due back to anchor the O-line. And the Streaks must replace all-star kicker Jack Rodenberger, who had a standout, well-decorated prep career. He’ll be missed in the special teams department.
CIRCLE THE DATE: Week 6 at Wilson. Township snapped the Bulldogs’ shiny 68-game L-L League Section 1 winning streak two years ago — and then KO’d Wilson in the D3-6A playoffs for a season sweep. The Bulldogs returned the favor with a victory in Neffsville last fall. Gut hunch: This showdown in West Lawn will go a long way in determining this year’s section champion. And probably D3-6A seeding, too.
McCASKEY RED TORNADO
COACH: Sam London (1st season).
LAST YEAR: 0-6 Section 1 (7th place); 1-9 overall.
NUGGET: London is McCaskey’s fourth head coach in the last 10 years, and he’s hoping to grow some roots and stick around for a while.
KEY KIDS: We’ll go with a pair of trench vets here in OG Thyago Alvarez and DT Destry Gravely. Those guys are no strangers to Section 1 hand-to-hand combat, and McCaskey is going to need those guys to anchor their respective lines. RB Donavan Trowery (112 yards) is also set to return to the backfield.
QUESTION MARK: The QB spot for sure. Vets Isaiah Thomas, a 1,000-yard passer last fall, and Ben Desmarais (213 passing yards, 2 TD) are both due back, but London listed those guys as “athletes” on his preseason roster. And on his preseason depth chart, London lists Thomas, Desmarais, Michael DeJesus, Jayon Burnside and Matt Remash at QB to run McCaskey's Zone Gap look. Sounds like quite the QB battle brewing in Tornado camp. Thomas could — could — play wideout, and that will be a key spot, since pass-catchers Jamiere Gray (26-448, 5 TD), Noah Santiago (25-290, 2 TD) and Patrick Rushemeza all graduated. That’s a lot of production to replace up top.
CIRCLE THE DATE: We’ll go Week 1 at home against Red Lion. McCaskey is jonesing for a fast start — especially with York and Reading coming up the next two weeks, and the meat-grinder Section 1 slate up ahead — and the Tornado would love to hand London a win in his debut. We’ve said it before, and hey, why not, we’ll say it again: L-L League Section 1 big-boy football is much more entertaining when McCaskey is playing well and is in the race. A Week 1 win would certainly get everyone’s attention.
PENN MANOR COMETS
COACH: John Brubaker (5th season; 6-34 overall).
LAST YEAR: 1-5 Section 1 (6th place); 1-9 overall.
NUGGET: The Comets brought up the rear in total team defense in the L-L League last fall, allowing 415 yards per game, and that’s a head-scratcher, considering Brubaker is a D guru who preaches wrapping and tackling and getting to the QB. That number has to improve if Penn Manor wants to keep chipping away at the usual suspects.
KEY KIDS: Three for sure, including QB Luke Braas, who shared the duties with Aaron Gale last fall. Braas (770 passing yards, 5 TD, plus a 300-yard passing night late in the season) will be given every opportunity to win the starting job and pilot Penn Manor’s Pistol Spread, and he’ll have a pair of experienced backs behind him in Josh Gibson (211 yards, 2 TD) and Isaiah Stoltzfus (230 yards). Gibson and Stoltzfus will also anchor the Comets’ 4-4 D scheme from their linebacker spots, and they were Penn Manor’s leading tacklers in 2018. That returning experience will be a huge help for a squad looking to clean it up on the defensive end. Brubaker lists a dozen returning players on his preseason depth chart, so that’s a good start for this re-tooling crew.
QUESTION MARK: Keep your eyes on the trenches, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. Brubaker said getting inspired D-line play is a must, and that the Comets have cut down on the turnovers and simply take better care of the ball. Penn Manor scored just 106 points in 10 games last season, and cleaner drives, Brubaker said, should lead to a busier scoreboard operator. Comets must also replace all-star kicker Liam Hart in the all-important special teams department.
CIRCLE THE DATE: Week 1 at Conestoga Valley. Sure, those Section 1 games will be mega important once mid-September rolls around. But the Comets are itching for a fast start. Last year, Penn Manor had an early lead on the Buckskins in Millersville, but couldn’t slam the door. They go to Witmer for this year’s lid-lifter, and the Comets are hoping to finish the job this time around, and set the tone for a better season, as Brubaker continues to build up his troops and get this sucker turned around.
COACH: Bob Locker (19th season; 88-89 overall).
NUGGET: Warwick won a D3 playoff game for the first time in program history last fall, pasting Palmyra on a rainy night in Lititz. The Warriors went up top for 3,325 passing yards last season, most in the L-L League. And with gunslinger Joey McCracken due back behind center, and with a healthy Trey Glass set to return on the flanks, watch out.
KEY KIDS: McCracken split the snap-taking duties with Adam Ricketts early last season — and Ricketts also passed for 1,000 yards, giving Warwick back-to-back seasons with a pair of 1,000-yard passers — but once he got the full-time keys to the Warriors’ 1-back offense, he aired it out for 1,970 yards and 27 TD against just three picks. McCracken’s L-L-record 530-yard passing night in a win over Wilson won’t soon be forgot in our little neck of the woods. Glass (74-1,326, 15 TD) was the Section 1 Receiver of the Year and an all-state pick. He went down with a knee injury in the D3-5A quarterfinals at Cedar Cliff, but he’s been back on the field this summer and should be ready for Week 1. Justin Gerhart, Caleb Schmitz and Conor Adams (12-239, 4 TD) also return on the flanks, giving McCracken options aplenty. And Sean Bedessa (253 yards, 5 TD) should slide nicely into the feature RB role. We can’t forget brute OT Nolan Rucci, who has double-digit D1 scholarship offers in his back pocket. He’ll anchor the line. And there’s a ton back on defense, including heat-seeking-missile safeties Schmitz (55 tackles, 6 INT) and Adams (41 tackles), plus LB Jonathan Forbes (73 tackles) to anchor Warwick’s 3-4 look.
QUESTION MARK: Gone are grinders/team leaders Hayden Rucci (Wisconsin) and Nick Coomer (Delaware), and those hard-nosed guys will be missed. We’re also anxious to see how Glass rebounds after his knee injury, which cost him his lacrosse season last spring. There are the usual holes to plug and some edges to smooth over. But expectations should be very high in Lititz.
CIRCLE THE DATE: Week 7 vs. Manheim Township. The Streaks will make the short bus ride up 501 North for their annual backyard rivalry throw-down. And there’s never any love lost when Warwick and MT square off. This has been a heated scrap the last couple of years, and the Streaks held on for a 28-20 victory last fall in Neffsville. Warwick and Township went on to share the Section 1 crown with Wilson. Will there be another tri-title this fall? The picture should be clearer after this much-anticipated Week 7 skirmish.
COACH: Doug Dahms (14th season; 145-28 overall).
NUGGET: Dahms needs six wins to tie and seven wins to snap Wilson’s program record of 151 career coaching victories, held by the legendary John Gurski. And these always fun Wilson numbers: The Bulldogs have amassed 560 victories in program history, and this will be the 75th season of Wilson football. The Bulldogs haven’t had a losing season since — gulp — 1963.
KEY KIDS: As usual, there should be plenty to like in West Lawn, including RB-LB stud Avanti Lockhart, who is hoping for a big senior campaign after suffering through some nagging injuries in 2018. He rushed for 407 yards and four scores, and he was in on 35 tackles with five stops for losses last fall. If Lockhart can stay healthy, expect those numbers to go way, way up. Three people-movers are set to return to the O-line, including guards Nate Keller and Anthony Koper, plus C Adam Vanino. That’s a great start up front. And the secondary combo of Troy Corson and Matt Fry are major playmakers in the back. More good news on defense, with D-tackle Jeff Colacin and LB Nick Hoekstra due back to swarm and make plays in Wilson’s potent 4-4 scheme. Reliable K Jack Wagner is also set to return. He’s a weapon.
QUESTION MARK: There will be a new QB, with holdovers Kaleb Brown, Nick Williams and Ryan Moseman all listed on Dahms’ preseason depth chart. Brown was the only one in that group who attempted a varsity pass last season. Whoever wins the job will benefit from Keller, Koper and Vanino all returning up front, plus Lockhart carrying the ball and Corson (21 catches, 1 TD), Fry (20-229, 3 TD) and Brady Gibble (21-445, 9 TD) all due back on the flanks. That should be a terrific, sure-handed troika.
CIRCLE THE DATE: Plenty of dates to circle on the Bulldogs’ schedule, including any number of Section 1 clashes (Manheim Township, Warwick for sure) and the Week 2 scrap vs. archival Governor Mifflin never disappoints. But we’ll go Week 4 vs. Manheim Central. Wilson led 10-0 in Manheim last year before the Barons rallied for a 20-10 L-L-mandated crossover win. The rematch is in West Lawn. Yummy.