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Football Preview: Graham’s Penncrest rebuild includes a Colts roundup

With physical and character stature, Penncrest senior lineman Dom DeLuca is a leader of this year’s Lions. (Pete Bannan/MediaNews Group)

MIDDLETOWN >> Nine years without a winning season has become the Penncrest football program’s quiet little secret.

The only head coach who recorded a season with three wins in that time left abruptly due to personal reasons.

It’s a tough job and the Lions found someone to do it in Paul Graham. Looking at his plan, there is reason to believe it won’t take another nine years for the Lions to celebrate a winner.

Graham isn’t hailing himself as a genius. He took over when Ryan Smith left after an 0-4 start last season and guided the Lions to their only victory of the campaign.

Penncrest Paul Graham talks to quarterback Sean O’Donnell during practice. (Pete Bannan/MediaNews Group)

But Graham has history with Penncrest, having served four years as the head coach, including in 2009 when he guided the Lions to a 5-4 mark in the Central League.

More importantly, at least in the big picture Graham and his defensive coordinator, Jeff Allison are disciples of Mike Ricci, the ultra-successful head coach at Garnet Valley who retired at the end of last season. Both served under Ricci.

It’s no secret the Lions are modeling their new culture after the one the Jaguars used so efficiently through the years.

“We’ve had success here,” Graham said. “In 2008-09 was when we got to the playoffs, and that’s kind of where we want to get back to. It’s about building that culture and learning what it takes to win. To win, it’s a different level of commitment and effort and attention to detail. And they’re embracing it and they’re doing a nice job.”

Graham, by the way, doesn’t expect any team to turn into the juggernaut that Ricci built at Garnet Valley. That didn’t happen overnight. But it’s a pretty good plan to follow.

For the Lions it meant going back to a grassroots approach of hosting Rose Tree Colts football players to generate a gathering of close to 120, which helped build interest and camaraderie.

More recently there was a door-to-door “card blitz” to get the varsity players back into the community. The guys sold cards to residents that are good for discounts at area restaurants. Garnet Valley has been doing that for years.

“On the field, the coaches push us to our absolute limits to be the best possible players we can be,” senior two-way lineman Dom DeLuca said. “Off the field we’re coming together. When you have people of all ages behind you it really shows. We’re out there together, as a team. It’s not one person is doing something. We’re all united.”

DeLuca, quarterback Sean O’Donnell, running back-linebacker Matt Ferry, wide receiver-defensive back Liam Gilmore and two-way lineman Dan Le are the top returnees for the Lions. DeLuca and O’Donnell are seniors, the rest juniors. The Lions are learning the option offense and the defense the Jaguars used.

For O’Donnell, who reckons he’s more Jalen Hurts than Joe Burrow, the transition has been challenging and interesting.

“I played a little quarterback last year, and I played it freshman year,” O’Donnell said. “I switched to receiver but halfway through last year I went back to quarterback. I feel like it’s more of my natural position than receiver. I like it. We’re more of a run offense. It’s more read and react. It feels like a whole different place here from last year.”

For Smith, the Lions went 7-23. Overall, they haven’t had a winning season since 2013, when Rick Stroup was the coach.
But Graham has a vested interest in the job, for he has a son on the freshman football team and another with the Colts.

“It’s a build and that’s kind of how we’ve approached it from trying to make football popular and bring it back,” said Graham, who played football at Upper Darby, ending in 1997. “The kids have had a great offseason. They’ve worked really hard. Our numbers are up a little bit and that’s the biggest thing because we’re just trying to put a positive spin back in here. So far, we’ve had good results. The guys are excited.”

The Lions step up to the plate Aug. 26 when they host Chichester. The Central League season begins the following week against Marple Newtown at Louis Scott Field. The Lions don’t play Radnor or Garnet Valley, which also have new head coaches, until later in the season.

If the Lions can stay healthy, the promising sophomore class should be battled tested by then. The group includes, among others Asher Wynne (WR-CB), Owen Thompson (TE), Ben Kauffman (OL) and Kolby Poole (MLB), who Graham described as “pleasant surprises for sophomores.”

What is critical for Graham and a staff that includes assistant football coach Matt Burba, is to build that foundation.

“Mike was obviously the standard of excellence for this county,” Graham said of Ricci. “And really for me, of learning the culture piece, the program piece. That’s the biggest thing when I was at Garnet Valley. You learn how to build culture, build program, get more people involved. Nobody is better at program and culture than Mike. Mike would always say it’s not about scheme and Xs and Os. It’s the belief, it’s the buy-in, it’s the culture. That’s been kind of what we’re trying to implement here.”

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