Now in his fourth year as head coach at North Catholic, Bob Ravenstahl readily admits this is the most talented team he has led into a season.
A pair of former freshman starters, Martin Long, a junior quarterback, and Matt Fedzen, a senior running back, are the main reasons for the high expectations around Troy Hill as the Trojans look to be in the running for an Eastern Conference title.
Last season the Trojans' two conference losses -- to Avonworth and Springdale -- were decided by a combined eight points. With the experience returning in the backfield, North Catholic is considered one of the favorites to win the school's first conference title in 10 years.
"I would have to say in my four years, this is the most talented team I have had," Ravenstahl said. "I don't know if there is pressure [to win], but we would be disappointed if we weren't successful."
Six returning starters on both sides of the ball are back for the Trojans, but there are big holes to fill on the offensive line and at linebacker. The returning linemen who saw some time last year are Collin Keller, Nick Cullo and Jacob Szramowski, but there are no starting linebackers returning this year. Tim Wood, a transfer from Detroit, could also start on the line.
Ravenstahl hopes the inexperience at those positions could be made up by a talented and experienced backfield and secondary.
Martin Long and Fedzen give North Catholic the best offensive weapons in the conference. Long threw for more than 1,000 yards last season and Fedzen has led North Catholic in rushing the past two seasons.
"We are pretty compatible now. I know what [Martin] is going to do most of the time," Fedzen said. "We work well together. He is a smart quarterback. He was young [when he started out] but now he is getting to a maturity level where he is at the top of his game."
In empty-set backfields Ravenstahl plans to utilize Fedzen as a flanker on the outside and he also wants to mix in sophomore Julian Durden into the running game. Durden burst onto the scene last year as a freshman and Ravenstahl expects big things from him this season.
"He is maybe one of the best if not the best I have seen at North Catholic," Ravenstahl said.
Even with Fedzen and Durden in the backfield, the running game could still be an issue. The last few years the Trojans have relied primarily on an air attack as the running game struggled. An inexperienced offensive line will not help the cause this season.
"I don't know about our ability to run the football," Ravenstahl said. "That is the one thing we haven't done in the past few years. We have some pretty good backs; we just have to create holes for them."
Jesse Long, who played alongside Martin Long on the WPIAL championship basketball team, will join his cousin in the secondary and be one of his targets on offense playing at tight end. Martin Long's biggest targets from a year ago, his brother, Matt, and Henry Pwono have both graduated.
Seniors Bill Frizzi and Kory Gribbin will play wide receiver this year.
After winning the starting quarterback job as a freshman, Martin Long has continued to progress each season and is pegged as one of the top players in the conference by most opposing coaches.
"My freshman year, things were kind of crazy not completely knowing everything," Martin Long said. "This year I have a feel for things and am more comfortable with my reads."
The Trojans open with two road non-conference games at Serra Catholic and at Laurel before a conference showdown against Springdale. The game on Sept. 18 at North Catholic's home field could end up being the biggest game of the conference slate for both teams.
"We want an even better year than last season," Fedzen said.
"Anything is possible with this team. There is definitely pressure there but we expect to do well and I am sure we will do well."