Football Preview: Return paying dividends to Penncrest’s program improvement campaign

The change was obvious enough for Ryan Smith and his Penncrest football captains to ponder last week.

Last year was Smith’s first season in charge of the Lions. Comparing where his team is this year to last year in terms of familiarity with the culture and system he has sought to install, the difference is massive.

“It’s just the development of the culture and the principles and the foundations of who we want to be as a football program, big and small,” Smith said. “We have guys in our program who are kind of reiterating daily the things that are our identity and who we want to be. It’s a big thing to be able to have guys in the program who are already taking our mission and applying it to their teammates.”

Growth away from the field is what Smith hopes will fuel increased success on it, building off a 3-8 debut campaign. With the principles in place from last year, and a bevy of underclassmen thrust into prominent roles, Smith believes he’s got a solid foundation in place.

Last year’s mark included some unsightly results, including lopsided shutouts at the hands of Strath Haven, Haverford and Garnet Valley. The two Central League wins came against Lower Merion and Harriton. But Penncrest also stuck within one point of Springfield and dropped a 16-7 Thanksgiving Eve decision to Marple Newtown, improving on a 35-8 losing margin from Week 8.

Continued growth is the mantra across the board. Jimmy Cage returns under center after getting the lion’s share of the snaps last year, going 74-for-135 for 628 yards, five touchdowns and seven interceptions. Kamrin Vaughn, last year’s second-leading receiver at 22 catches for 204 yards and two touchdowns, is back, as is leading rusher Brennan Kaut (328 yards, three scores). Backup quarterback Nick Chelo will likely find a place to contribute in the offense, and Mike Burke offers a platoon option at running back. Dylan McDougall, a 6-2 tight end, presents a big target, and Devian Hartage-Fitzgerald should get some looks in the passing game.

Many of those players got significant run last year. That was more by necessity than design, but it could pay off this season.

“Obviously sometimes you’re thrust into that position,” Smith said. “But the pros of that are that kids get experience. They get put into a position where they have to be accountable for different things, and I think it does certainly speed up the process of maturing in the program.”

The lines will be built around bookend tackles Jeremy Lehmann (6-2, 270) and Connor McCarney (6-0, 260). Brian Loeper also has experience at guard and linebacker.

Lehmann was one of the more vocal Lions in the campaign to reinstate fall football in the Central League. That ideology pervaded the Penncrest ranks, and while Smith admitted being concerned about how well his team’s numbers would withstand nothing but practice through August and September, he’s been pleased to see that the players’ commitment hasn’t wavered.

“We were enthused,” he said. “We weren’t sure how our players were going to handle (only) practice through August, practice through September and not have any games. We didn’t know if we would lose kids or what not. But we certainly did not. We had a great participation rate and the buy-in has been great. I think there was certainly an understanding that this thing was robbed from them, and I think they may understand that they’re kind of playing with house money right now. Due to that, I think you’re seeing a high level of appreciation.”

Smith knows that as well as anyone. He spent nine seasons as the head coach at Chichester, which will go without a football season this fall, the Del Val not reversing its postponement decision and instead aligning with several other District 1 schools to sponsor spring football. Smith is aware of what that kind of decision can do. His players, he reckons, are even more cognizant, within the interconnected network that is Delaware County athletics. It informs the team’s devotion to working hard this season, from spring athletes who’ve already endured a season lost to COVID-19 to those that dreaded losing (and feared that they had lost) football.

“I think that our kids are well aware of the circumstances that are going on around them, whether it’s the unfortunate situation with the Del Val or the Inter-Ac,” Smith said. “There are certainly ways for us to motivate our kids when we’re not having our best day.”

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