By Chris Rossetti – www.d9sports.com
Special to MaxPreps.com
KARNS CITY – As the 2008 high school football season gets underway in Pennsylvania’s District 9 (one of the largest district’s in the state ranging as far west as nearly Slippery Rock, as far north as the New York-Pennsylvania line and as far east as Clearfield in the southern part of the district and nearly Mansfield in the northern portion), many questions abound.
One that can be answered with absolute certainty is that there will be a new Class A district champion. That’s because defending champion Kane, which won its first-ever District 9 title in any classification last year, has moved up a level to Class AA.
That means the Class A field is wide open this year with any number of teams looking to step up and take the title.
One of the early preseason favorites is Curwensville, who won District 9 Class A titles in 2000 and 2004 and was D9 Class A runner-up in 2001 and 2006.
In 2008, the Golden Tide under ninth-year head coach Andy Evanko (64-26) return nearly their entire team from last year when the school started the year 0-4 but won four of its final five regular-season games to clinch the final Class A playoff spot – Curwensville lost to Kane in the opening round of the playoffs to finish 4-6.
Quarterback David Kalgren (64 of 143, 844 yards, 3 TDs, 12 Ints; 64 carries, 257 yards, 6 TDs) will have make better decisions in 2008 in order to cut down on his interceptions. He will be helped by having his leading receiver Jesse Hoover (37 catches, 523 yards, 2 TDs) returning as well as his top two running backs Jed Greslick (83 carries, 592 yards, 6 TDs) and Ben McGary (117 carries, 538 yards, 6 TDs).
Challenging the Tide in Class A could be last year’s runner-up Cameron County. But only if the Red Raiders are able to turn junior varsity success into varsity wins after losing 18 players to graduation from a team that went 11-2 overall and 9-0 in the AML-North, winning the division title and finishing second to Kane in the AML Title game.
That JV team, as well as the junior high team, went unbeaten a year ago, which could help the Red Raiders reload instead of rebuild.
Key players for fourth-year head coach Tony Defilippi (20-12) should be running backs Andy Lippert (20 carries, 146 yards, 2 TDs) and Andrew Kesterholt (13 carries, 86 yards, 2 TDs), and wide receiver Kyle McManigle (17 carries, 112 yards).
Another team that could challenge for the Class A title is Redbank Valley, although the Bulldogs not only have to replace do-everything quarterback Jake Smith (1,997 passing yards, 29 TDs, 6 Ints; 593 yards rushing, 8 TDs), they also have to adjust to a new head coach as Brandon Rapp takes over for longtime mentor Ed Wasilowski, who guided Redbank Valley to a 10-2 overall record last season.
Shiloh Buchleitner takes over at quarterback, and he will be helped by having two superb wide receivers to throw to in Jerrett Magagnotti (28 catches, 668 yards, 11 TDs) and Kasey Haines (25 catches, 364 yards, 4 TDs), as well as one of the top running backs in District 9 in Alex Bladel (135 carries, 847 yards, 13 TDs; 2,241 career yards).
Two additional teams that should never be counted out are Coudersport and Clarion.
Coudersport also has a new coach with Brendan Hathaway replacing the all-time winningest coach in District 9 history, Paul Simcoe (204-78-8). This will be the first time since 1978 that a new face has led the Falcons, but the transition should be made easier considering Hathaway was on Simcoe’s staff the last couple of years and most of the other assistant coaches as also back including Simcoe’s son, Ross, who starred for the Falcons in the early 2000’s.
Hathaway will have a new starting quarterback this year with Eric Babcock (5 of 10, 55 yards) replacing three-year starter Boomer Wetzel. But Coudersport does return its top wide receiver Brett Whitman (30 catches, 491 yards, 5 TDs) and top runner Dirk Cowburn (68 carries, 399 yards, 5 TDs; 17 catches, 270 yards, 2 TDs).
Clarion, meanwhile, is coming off two-straight disappointing years that ended in losing seasons – the first time that has happened since 1992-93. The Bobcats will try to avoid a third-straight losing campaign for the first time since 1932-34, and a good bet is that 21st-year head coach Larry Wiser (128-68-1) will find a way to get the ship righted.
Wiser will be helped by having two running backs that fit the more traditional Clarion running-back style of being big, bruising backs with a little bit of speed.
Jon Kemmer is the leading returning back having gained 544 yards and scored three touchdowns last year, while Bubba Rue (22 carries, 120 yards, 2 TDs) is finally healthy after having shoulder surgery in the offseason.
Those two backs will have to carry the load for a while as sophomore quarterback Dan Walters – the first sophomore to ever start the season as the starting quarterback for Wiser – gets comfortable with a position he just took up in the spring after being the star running back on the junior varsity squad last year.
While Class A is wide open, defending champion Karns City appears to be the odds-on favorite coming into this season in Class AA.
The Gremlins, who have won six District 9 Class AA titles since 1993 while finishing second four more times since 1987, return all but five players from a team that cut through District 9 like a hot knife through butter last year on its way to a 12-1 overall record and the KSAC and D9 titles.
Karns City, under ninth-year head coach Ed Conto (71-20), beat its regular-season opponents by an average of 30.3 points per game last a year ago and then its two D9 playoff foes by an average of 35 ppg before running into the buzz-saw called Terrelle Pryor and the Jeannette Jayhawks in the PIAA playoffs.
Back from last year to lead the team is quarterback Anthony Stimac, who threw for 1,540 yards and 19 touchdowns last season while rushing for another 462 yards and nine scores.
He is joined by running backs Markus LaVan (75 carries, 469 yards, 6 TDs) and Josh Stimac (46 carries, 407 yards, 7 TDs), and wide receiver Josh Callender (12 catches, 284 yards, 4 TDs). The offensive line returns completely intact including many players back for the third-straight year as starters.
Karns City’s biggest challenge could come from archrival Moniteau, who has a bad taste in its mouth after getting whipped 50-14 in the D9 Class AA title game by the Gremlins last season.
The Warriors, who finished 6-6 overall under first-year head coach Jeff Campbell, are loaded this year with a three-year starter at quarterback, its top four rushers and six of its top seven receivers all returning. There are also three starters back on the offensive line.
Tyler Armagost (136 of 286, 2,105 yards, 24 TDs, 12 Ints; 125 carries, 360 yards, 10 TDs) runs the show and gets plenty of help from running back James Shope (150 carries, 1,011 yards, 12 TDs; 133 yards receiving, 2 TDs), fullback Dakota Campbell (255 yards rushing, 3 TDs; 31 catches, 407 yards, 7 TDs), wide receivers Clayton Casper (19 catches, 408 yards, 3 TDs) and Mitch Czech (15 catches, 216 yards, 2 TDs) and tight end Josh McFadden (23 catches, 243 yards, 1 TD).
Last year’s Class A champion Kane could also be in the mix, but not only are the Wolves moving up a classification they also have to replace a ton of skill players including last year’s D9Sports.com District 9 Player of the Year quarterback Zach Anderson.
Senior Kenny Kane (1 of 3, 6 yards) steps in to replace Anderson after playing wide receiver last year. But it’s not like Kane – the QB not the school – doesn’t have experience. Two years ago as a sophomore he was forced to take over the starting duties after Anderson suffered a season-ending injury in week one, and he played respectfully going 71-for-140 for 695 yards, 3 TDs and 12 Ints in third-year head coach Jason Barner’s (17-8) first season.
Kane’s defense will be led by the 2007 D9Sports.com District 9 Co-Defensive Player of the Year Ross Nicholson who had 146 tackles, 14 ½ sacks and one interception last season.
In Class AAA, the title will most likely come down to the same two teams it usually comes down between – Bradford and Clearfield.
At least one of the two schools has played for the District 9 Class AAA title in each of the last 10 years (each has won five titles) – although it must be noted than only four schools have comprised District 9 Class AAA during most of that time – including playing each other in five of those title games.
Bradford is the defending champion after a 17-0 win over St. Marys last season, but the Owls lack experience this year with their top four rushers from last season gone and only two offensive linemen returning.
Quarterback Tyler Grandy, who took over for an injured Ben Walters before getting hurt himself, returns. But the quarterbacks aren’t asked to throw the ball much in Owl-land.
Grandy was 16 of 28 for 218 yards, one touchdown and one interception, but the experience he brings in running the multiple-option Wing-T offense is more important than his stats.
Other key returnees on offense for Bradford include running back Mike Pascarella (47 carries, 93 yards) and wide out Cody Nuzzo (2 catches, 50 yards, 1 TD).
Clearfield, on the other hand, has a lot of experience back under 24th year head coach Tim Janocko, the winningest active coach in District 9 with a record of 164-84-3.
The Bisons, who finished 7-4 last season and lost to St. Marys in the D9 Class AAA semifinals, are led by quarterback Jarrin Campman (126 of 233, 1,840 yards, 16 TDs, 12 Ints; 191 carries, 685 yards, 15 TDs), wide receiver Trey Campman (26 catches, 304 yards, 1 TD) and running back Isiah Morgan (99 carries, 379 yards, 5 TDs in an injury-plagued year last season after rushing for 1,130 yards and 13 TDs two years ago).
Clearfield also returns three starters on the offensive line, so it should score a lot of points. The big question mark could be on defense where Clearfield allowed 21.9 points per game last season, including allowing 26 or more points five times and 40 or more twice.
Last year’s runner-up, St. Marys, lost a ton of kids and is rebuilding, while the fourth Class AAA team Punxsutawney was 0-10 last year and 0-10 in 2005 and has just four wins in the last three seasons.
District 9 has just one Class AAAA team, DuBois. To qualify for the state playoffs the Beavers must play a play-in game with District 10, something they did a couple of years ago and lost. But DuBois fell to 2-8 last season and plays an extremely difficult schedule this year featuring Clearfield, Erie Cathedral Prep, Bellefonte, Perry and Hollidaysburg.
Conference Realignments Abound
This could also be a confusing year for District 9 fans in terms of conference alignments, as the D9 League (which consisted of Bradford, Brookville, DuBois, Punxsutawney and St. Marys last year) ceases to exist.
Bradford has moved over to District 10 Region 6 – the Owls are still a District 9 team – and will play an entirely District 10 schedule with the exception of Olean (N.Y.) its cross-border rivals. The only way the Owls will see a D9 foe this year is if they make the playoffs.
Brookville and Punxsutawney, meanwhile, have joined the KSAC. It is sort of a homecoming for Brookville, which was in the KSAC’s predecessor – the Little 12 – from 1951-92 winning three league titles along the way.
DuBois, meanwhile, is in the Mountain Athletic Conference Seven Mountains League with Bellefonte, Central Mountain, Hollidaysburg and Indian Valley.
St. Marys joins the Mountain Athletic Conference Nittany League where it is joined by Clearfield – a member of the MAC Large School Division last year – and seven District 6 schools including Tyrone, Philipsburg-Osceola and Lewistown.
District 9 has also seen the influx of seven new coaches – over a quarter of the District – since the start of last season.
One of those coaches, Luke Breese at Otto-Eldred, actually stepped in late last year replacing Kerry Snow in week eight and leading the Terrors to a 2-1 finish.
The other new coaches are Rapp at Redbank Valley replacing Wasilowski, Jeremy Lipps at Union replacing Tom Kidder, Hathaway at Coudersport replacing Simcoe, Ryan Yingling at Smethport replacing former teammate Rob Cosper, Mark Heindl at Ridgway replacing Mark Morelli and Travis Skrzypek at Elk County Catholic replacing Keith Lecker.
Those seven new coaches mean that since the start of the 2006 nearly half of the District 9 football schools (12 of 26) have undergone a coaching change.
In fact, only three schools – Clearfield (Tim Janocko 24 years), Clarion (Larry Wiser 21 years) and Brookville (Chris Dworek 13 years) – have had the same coach for more than 10 years.