Highlands High School running back Gary Negley looks down field in a game last season against Mars.
By Ken Wunderley Tri-State Sports & News Service
Jacque DeMatteo is much more relaxed as he enters his second season as head football coach at Hampton High School.
At this time last season, DeMatteo was trying to teach the Talbots a completely different offensive and defensive scheme.
"I was hired at the end of June, so I spent the month of July putting together a coaching staff and setting up a conditioning program," DeMatteo said. "My coaching staff and I spent the month of August assessing the talent, teaching them the wing-T offense and 50 defense."
Add to that a squad that had very few returning starters and the results were not surprising. Hampton finished the season with a 1-8 record and was outscored, 234-66.
"It's a much different scenario this year," DeMatteo said. "It was nice to have an offseason, both a winter and a spring, to prepare for this season. It also helps to have eight or nine starters back on each side of the ball. We should be a much more polished team this year."
DeMatteo has nine key players back, most of whom were two-way starters. The top returnee is tight end/linebacker Jordan Paskorz, a four-year starter who has accepted a scholarship to the University of Michigan.
Paskorz is joined on the offense by a pair of tailback/linebackers Andrew Bly (6-0, 205) and Steven Magister (6-1, 205). Bly rushed for 440 yards on 93 carries, while Magister accumulated 191 yards on 54 carries.
"Our biggest concern on offense is to find a quarterback," DeMatteo said. "We are down to three kids. My plan is to give all three a shot during training camp and pick one as soon as possible."
Other returning starters are: tight end/defensive back Mike Brode (6-1, 195), offensive lineman/linebacker Pete Dudenas (6-2, 200), wingback/defensive back Matt Dukovich (6-0, 175), two-way lineman Joe Raimondi (6-4, 260), tight end/defensive lineman Luke Sweeney (6-4, 220), and running back/linebacker Nate Winek (6-0, 205).
The Golden Rams advanced to the WPIAL semifinals last season, but saw their unbeaten season come to a disappointing end with a 36-7 loss to Blackhawk.
Twenty talented seniors from that team must be replaced, including quarterback Jeff Sinclair, who threw for 1,262 yards and rushed for 1,222 yards, and tailback Billy Devlin, who rushed for 753 yards.
"We had a senior-dominated team last year," Highlands coach Sam Albert said. "We also lost three kids who would have been back. Two transferred to other schools, and the third is no longer with the team."
Five starters return on offense, including four receivers: Dyllon Powell (6-2, 195), Tyler Cole (6-0, 180), Seth Edwards (6-2, 175), and Gabe Clark (5-9, 160). Powell led Highlands with 32 catches last season. Cole had 13 catches, while Edwards had nine.
The only other returning starter on offense is tackle Tyler Runyan (6-0, 290).
"We have four very good receivers," said Albert, who has led Highlands to three consecutive WPIAL playoff appearances. "We need to find somebody to throw to them. We began camp with four quarterbacks -- two seniors, one junior and a sophomore. Our hope is to pick a starter before camp ends."
Five starters return on defense, including three members of the backfield. Cole and Clark are back at cornerback, while Gary Negley (5-8, 150) returns at safety. The other two starters are end Mike Doucette (6-2, 195) and linebacker Nick Dailey (6-0, 190).
"We have a lot of holes to fill," Albert said. "We also have to replace our punter and kicker. Both were all-conference selections last year. The WPIAL schedule-maker didn't do us any favors. Three of our [non-conference] games are against Quad-A teams, and the other is against Montour. Add that to our conference schedule and we may have the toughest schedule of any Class AAA team."
The Planets posted a 7-4 record in their Class AAA debut last season and advanced to the WPIAL quarterfinals before losing to runner-up Blackhawk.
"We're a young football team," Mars coach Scott Heinauer said. "We had a more seasoned team last year. We have quite a few holes to fill, especially on offense."
Running back Austin Miele (6-1, 190) is one of four returning starters on offense. Miele, a junior, rushed for 1,080 yards on 153 carries. Three linemen are back to block for Miele, guards Dylan Bear (6-2, 230 junior) and Nevan O'Donnell (6-1, 260 senior) and senior tackle Brody Maughan-Evanson (6-1, 290).
"We have a big threat in Austin, but need a supporting cast to make him effective," Heinauer said. "It really helps to have three linemen back to open the holes for him. Our biggest concern is to replace [quarterback] John Brake. We need to find a quarterback during training camp."
Mars averaged 22.4 points per game in 11 games last season, while allowing 16.0 per game.
"We have a much better situation on defense," Heinauer said. "We have six starters back, including three linebackers and two linemen. We need a solid performance from our defense until our offense matures."
Miele is one of the three linebackers, while O'Donnell, a nose guard, and Evanson, a tackle, are back on the line. The other two starters on defense are junior linebacker Seth Geyer (6-2, 225), and senior cornerback Randy Seebacher (6-1, 190).
"Indiana is the team to beat in the [Greater Allegheny] conference," Heinauer said. "Indiana has almost everybody back, including quarterback Ben Fiscus."
The Knights entered the 2008 season with high hopes, but finished with a disappointing 2-7 record, but coach Mike King has led Knoch to three WPIAL playoff berths in the last five years.
"We were hit hard by graduation losses," Knoch coach Mike King said. "We only have four players who started last year returning. Three of them were two-way starters.
"We will be very young this year, but we do have a pretty talented sophomore class coming up. We have a lot of inexperienced kids moving into starting roles. We need them to step up and fill the holes."
One of the graduates is tailback Tim McNerney, who rushed for 2,803 yards on 427 carries over the past two seasons. The Knights do have quarterback/safety Jake McTighe (6-2, 220) returning. He threw for 284 yards last season.
"It's nice to have experience at that position," King said. "Quarterback is the toughest position to learn. It's comforting to know we have an experienced quarterback."
The other returning starters are tackle Micah Lio (6-7, 265), fullback/linebacker Adam Tuzikow (5-9, 190), and wide receiver/cornerback Jake Hickey (5-9, 170).
"Parity should be the middle name of the Greater Allegheny Conference," King said. "Franklin Regional may be the favorite, but the other teams are not far behind."
Newcomers to watch are running back/linebacker Kyle Hilliard (6-1, 185), two-way end James Zellhart (6-1, 200) and wide receiver/cornerback Adam Seger (5-11, 180).