North Xtra: Deer Lakes Lancers hoping for a replay
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"The Usual Suspects" is a popular movie from the mid-1990s.
In 2011, the sequel is playing out in WPIAL Class AA football.
Many of the typical "characters" who have been contending for WPIAL titles the past few seasons -- and for some, beyond that -- are again strong and have legitimate hopes of reaching Heinz Field late in November to play in the WPIAL title game.
The conversation, as it does many years, begins with Beaver County powers Aliquippa and Beaver Falls.
The Quips, who finished as the runner-up last season, will try to reach the title game for the fourth year in a row. They have a three-year starter at quarterback in Mikal Hall, who passed for 1,537 yards and 19 touchdowns last season.
The Tigers, who have advanced to the semifinals the past four seasons, feature running back Trey Hall, who could reach 4,000 yards for his career.
Defending champion South Fayette lost WPIAL all-time leading passer Christian Brumbaugh and four other all-conference players, but with a veteran line and senior wide receiver Zach Challingsworth returning, don't be surprised if the Lions are in the mix again.
Speaking of Brumbaugh, his brother, Luke, is the starting quarterback for Seton-LaSalle. A junior, Luke Brumbaugh teams with running back Kevin Hart (1,473 yards and 29 touchdowns last season) to give the Rebels title hopes.
Greensburg Central Catholic appears strong with the return of eight starters from a defense that surrendered a Class AA-low 7.9 points per game.
Also keep an eye on a sleeper team, Shady Side Academy, which returns quarterback/defensive back Reggie Mitchell, a Wisconsin recruit.
Here's a look at the three Class AA teams in the North Xtra circulation area:
What coach Todd Hazlett labeled a "fantasy season" has created interest where there previously was not.
"People want to be a part of it now," he said.
The attraction stems from last season, when the Lancers finished second in the Allegheny Conference and advanced to the WPIAL playoffs for the first time. They finished 7-3 in what was their first winning season since 1995.
So, what do the Lancers do for an encore?
"Honestly, I don't know if you can build on that type of fantasy season," said Hazlett, who is in his fifth year. "Realistically, this year's goal is the same as last year, to be one of the top four teams in our conference and make the playoffs. The expectations are very high, so the biggest challenge is just getting the kids to relax."
Hazlett said the Lancers have a lot of returning lettermen, but only a few returning starters. The lone starters back are senior running back/linebacker Cody Fleming, senior wide receiver Jordan Fragapane, senior defensive back T.J. Trocki and senior free safety Matt Schultz.
Also filling key roles are senior lineman Shane Sowa, junior wide receiver/defensive back Joey Rebel and sophomore offensive lineman/linebacker Jared Fragapane.
Indians coach Dave Havern was modest when assessing the prospects of his team.
"We should be OK," Havern said.
The Indians, however, have the potential to be much more than that.
They return seven starters on both sides of the ball, a group headed by quarterback/defensive back Reggie Mitchell (6-0, 175, Sr.), a Wisconsin recruit. Mitchell was named All-Allegheny Conference last season, as were center/defensive lineman Andy Geisler (6-0, 240, Sr.), a four-year starter, and defensive end/tight end Jake Ellis (6-2, 218, Sr.), a three-year starter.
The Indians, who finished with a 5-5 record and placed fourth in the conference last season, have a strong sophomore class -- four of whom started as freshmen -- that includes talented defensive back Dennis Briggs (5-10, 175) and running back Jared Brevard, who rushed for more than 500 yards.
Three-year starter Ryan Reynolds (6-1, 190, Sr.), a wide receiver/linebacker, is back, as are senior lineman Jon Laufe (6-0, 235, Sr.) and wide receiver/defensive back Tyler Petrucelli (6-2, 190, Sr.).
The Indians have been strong defensively in recent years, giving up 16.3 points per game last season and 10.3 two seasons ago.
New coach John Tortorea has a difficult task in trying to turn around a team that won just one game the past two seasons and has not qualified for the WPIAL playoffs since 1999.
"We're just trying to build a program and get interest back in the program," said Tortorea, the team's third coach in as many seasons.
Tortorea, the defensive coordinator last season, does have a lot of experience back, as 10 starters return on both offense and defense. Among the top returnees are senior lineman Jay Smith, senior fullback/linebacker Lex Gibb, senior running back/safety Jordan Vescio and senior lineman Robbie Love. Vescio and Gibb were the team's top two rushers last season.
Big things are also expected from junior quarterback Burke Moser.
"He's going to be a pretty good one when it's all said and done," said Tortorea.
First Published August 25, 2011 12:00 am