PG North: Deer Lakes coach, players believe they can be an Allegheny Conference contender
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Todd Hazlett has a confession to make.
Prior to his first two seasons as Deer Lakes coach, any unbridled optimism he outwardly displayed or endorsed about the prospects of his team making its first playoff appearance in school history ... well, he was fibbing -- or at least he didn't believe the team was ready to take such a step after taking over a squad that went 2-7 in the two seasons before he took over.
But this season, Hazlett maintains the Lancers might actually be playoff-ready and competitive in the Allegheny Conference -- or at least poised to make a run at the school's first winning season since 1995.
And he means it this time.
"Honestly, I do," Hazlett said. "As a coaching staff, we have higher expectations this year, and I really think that it's a do-able task.
"The first year when kids tried to raise their hands when asked about goals and they said, 'The playoffs,' it was like, 'Whatever.' I mean, you quietly wished that but you also realized that would be like some 'Remember the Titans' movie-type stuff the first year.
"Now this is our third season, and with the changes to the coaching staff that have livened the kids up a little bit, this might be the time.
"My goodness, the school board just spent $60,000 on a new scoreboard and 30-second clocks. The stadium is now state-of-the-art. We're legitimate. The kids are believing, and I think [making the playoffs] is a very reasonable task."
Key returning starters include senior lineman Ethan Albinger, junior wide receivers/defensive backs Zac Capan, Patrick Jones and Mitch Martin and senior quarterback Geoff Landry.
Landry completed 55 percent of his passes (99 for 179) for 1,015 yards and eight touchdowns last season. Capan led the team in receptions (25), receiving yards (381) and tied for the team lead in touchdowns with three.
"Building a winner at Deer Lakes is something very hard to do, but we're all working as hard as we can," Hazlett said.
The Indians were among the Class AA elite last season and boasted arguably one of the most impressive defensive performances the WPIAL has seen in recent memory, with seven shutouts in 12 games. But only four starters on defense return (five on offense) for a team that went 11-1 and advanced to the WPIAL semifinals.
"I've got me some good football players back," Indians coach Dave Havern said. "We lost some real good guys but there are good ones coming back."
Among those returnees is senior running back/defensive back Brian Nickel, who was one of the WPIAL's best all-around players last season.
Also back are standout senior linemen Nick Ciesielski (6-5, 280), Nick Rossi (6-2, 235) and Jeff Shogan (6-1, 210).
Running back/defensive backs junior Anthony Loyacona and senior Peter Dieseroth and linemen sophomore Andrew Giesler and senior Tanner Jones also are returning starters (although Dieseroth has a knee injury and his status is uncertain). Sophomore Reggie Mitchell is set to take over as starting quarterback.
Since winning the Century Conference title outright in 2003, the Flames haven't qualified for the postseason, but with seven starters returning on both offense and defense, coach Mike Pipak is cautiously optimistic that run will end this season despite last season's 1-8 record.
"We had a good turnout from January all the way through the summer, and it's carried over into camp," Pipak said. "I saw us getting better every single day, saw some great improvement.
"Last year, we were in a lot of games until the midway point of the third quarter when a lack of strength kicked in. We worked hard to make sure the kids don't experience that this season, and I think they're ready to step up to the next level because of that."
The senior leadership core includes quarterback Joe Barker, tight end/defensive end Josh Schultheis (6-3, 250), running back/linebacker Pat Carr, wide receiver/defensive back Mark Wilson and offensive lineman/linebacker Ryan Casselberry (6-0, 200). Barker, also a free safety, passed for 688 yards .
"He can do little bit of both running and passing," Pipak said. "We run the option a good bit, and he's able to handle that and throw the ball the way we want him to."
It might not sound like much, but last season's 5-4 record by the Quakers represents significant progress for the program.
It was Quaker Valley's first winning season since 1999 and the team narrowly missed its first playoff berth since that season on a tiebreaker. To put a five-win season into perspective, the Quakers won only nine total games from 2001-07.
"We're trying to build off last season," said Quaker Valley coach Jeff Besong, who is in his fourth season as coach -- a timetable he envisioned as a takeoff for the program.
Quaker Valley has five returning starters who played both offense and defense: junior quarterback/safety Pat Conlan, senior guard/defensive tackle Zach O'Neill, senior guard/linebacker Justin Vescio, senior wide receiver/cornerback Cory Leonard and sophomore safety/wide receiver Augie Luptak.
Also, Besong is expecting big things from tall and athletic junior wideout/corner Shane Dugan, who missed last season due to injury.
Conlan completed better than 50 percent of his passes last season for 789 yards. With the graduation of 1,306-yard rusher Korrtezz Martin (Martin scored 17 of the team's 23 touchdowns last season), the Quakers are going to rely on a much more pass-oriented style of offense.
First Published August 27, 2009 12:00 am