Perkiomen Valley, Pottsgrove set to continue dominance
This season marks the fourth year of the Pioneer Athletic Conference’s two-division system, meaning the Class of 2020 will be the first to play their entire high school football careers within the format.
The pluses and minuses to the creation of the Liberty (all 6A schools) and Frontier (3A-5A schools) Divisions have been debated for the duration of those careers. But there’s been no argument as to the outcomes.
Perkiomen Valley showed its resiliency a year ago, overcoming an 0-2 start and a midseason injury to quarterback Cole Peterlin to claim its third consecutive Liberty Division title before topping Pottsgrove 35-17 to make it a PAC three-peat.
The battles PV faced early last season—non-league losses to Downingtown East and Wests before recovering to top Pennridge and Interboro—forged their toughness down the stretch. An 0-2 start not only gave the Vikings’ players and coaches something to prove, but created a sense of urgency, knowing that a third loss could put their District playoff standing in jeopardy. That urgency paid off, with PV finishing the regular season on an eight-game winning streak.
It’s more of the same this season as the Vikings will travel to take on Ches-Mont foes Avon Grove in their opener before again matching up with the two Downingtown schools and Pennridge.
“I know I say it every year—iron sharpens iron,” said PV coach Rob Heist. “All year long, we preach the importance of having 100 percent of our attention on that Friday’s opponent. Playing such a challenging non-league schedule allows us to establish that focus early.”
With Peterlin graduated, sophomore QB Ethan Kohler will be at the command of an offense that Heist says presents him with a nice problem—a plethora of game-changing weapons at the skill positions. Mike Dougherty, Randy Washington, and running backs Jon Moccia and Jacob Sturm offer versatility and experience throughout the offense.
“It can be tough to spread the ball around,” said Heist, “but we’ll be looking to get the ball to as many of our explosive players as possible.”
The engine for the whole operation is the Vikings’ offensive line, arguably the strongest position group in the PAC. Gavin Euker, Elias Johnston, Will Marotta, Kyle Rittenhouse, and Matthew Wilhelm—all seniors—bring size and experience to power a unit with limitless potential.
It’s the other side of the ball where PV finds its question marks in 2019. Jacob Sterling will be relied upon to steady the defensive line rotation while the back seven gets up to speed in the early going. The graduations of linebackers Hunter Ricci and Malik Smith, plus All-Area safety Austin Rowley leaves the Vikings with holes to fill, but Heist is confident that defensive coordinator Matt Young will have the unit up to speed in due time.
“We have kids we’re plenty excited about,” said Heist. “We’d like to have a few more kids to rotate in on the line, but we’ll be trying different things. It’s no secret that defense is what’s won us three league titles.”
Over in the Frontier, Pottsgrove is hearing the same story they do every August—the team lost a strong senior class, and numerous positions need to be filled. Yet every season, capable replacements step up, and the Falcons go on another deep playoff run, including last year’s third consecutive Frontier Division title and a subsequent three-peat in the Class 4A District 1 playoffs. Isaiah Taylor picked up for Rahsul Faison in running away—literally—with the league’s rushing title.
This year, the Falcons need to fill the spots of Mercury Area Player of the Year Ryan Bodolus, who’s off to Dickinson College after an 87-tackle, 19-sack campaign, as well as three-year starting quarterback Jay Sisko and starting two-way linemen Nate Tornetta and Justin Adams.
Standing in for Sisko will be senior Joe Silvestri, whose arm could bring a new dimension to the traditional ground-and-pound Pottsgrove offense. But with three starters back on the offensive line, plus leading rusher Taylor, it’d be foolish to think coach Bill Hawthorne will veer too far from the Falcons’ bread-and-butter.
Two-way lineman Darrian Seaman and defensive back Rylee Howard are the only returning starters for a Pottsgrove defense that loses Bodolus, Tornetta and Adams up front, plus all-area corner Jimai Springfield. Senior Zach Van Horn leads a group of newcomers to the starting lineup who will need to get up to speed quickly in order to maintain the Falcons’ divisional dominance.
Neither Perkiomen Valley nor Pottsgrove need to worry about complacency—not with the two Royersford schools nipping at their heels.
When Pottsgrove’s Rick Pennypacker stepped away after the 2017 season, Spring-Ford’s Chad Brubaker became the dean among PAC coaches. This season marks his 10th atop the program, and the Rams’ explosive offense should afford him plenty of chances to celebrate. First team all-area quarterback Ryan Engro and wide receiver Dante Bonanni are back for one more season, with Bonanni joined by Blaize Scarcelle, Nicholas Teets, BJ Beard, and TE James Albert to form an impressive array of targets for Engro, who set the school record with 29 TD passes in 2018.
The Rams return six of their starting front seven on the defensive side, with safety Andrew Yoon the lone returning starter for a young but talented secondary. Like their divisional rivals at PV, the Rams don’t believe in easing their way into the season, as they’ll battle Suburban One contender Central Bucks South and Harry S. Truman before clashing with District 3’s Wilson West Lawn and Exeter in the non-league slate.
Across town at Pope John Paul II, coach Rory Graver enjoys a similarly loaded offensive unit commanded by senior QB Kamal Gray (28 TD passes last season) and returning WRs Steve Skarbek and Justin Kormos. The Golden Panthers need to replace graduated running back AJ Natale, but return eight starters from a defense that allowed only 20 points per game a season ago.
A pair of close losses—one in the regular season at Pottsgrove, one in the Class 3A district playoffs to New Hope-Solebury—will provide PJP II all the motivation they need as they look to, in Graver’s own words, “raise the bar” both within PAC play and beyond.
ALSO IN THE HUNT
It was a year of improvement throughout the Frontier Division last season, with five of the six teams qualifying for the district playoffs in their respective classifications. Perhaps most impressive was Pottstown, where new coach Jeff Delaney will be tasked with following up on a campaign that saw the Trojans host a district playoff game for the first time in recent history and advance all the way to the District 1-4A championship game.
Quarterback Josiah Wiggins looks to improve on last season’s breakout, and is surrounded by versatile, capable weapons like RBs Daniel and Dereck Darden and TE/H-back Jon Oister. DE Jorge Mundo leads a defense that returns 10 starters, but must replace all-state safety Nehemiah Figueroa.
Upper Merion made a leap forward on the strength of an ornery defense that kept the Vikings in every game and allowed them to claim a couple of upset victories en route to a Class 5A district playoff appearance. Now, it’s up to senior QB Dale Clayton, with a year’s starting experience under his belt, to lead a similar leap forward on the offensive side of the ball. Coach Victor Brown has spent the offseason urging his players not to be content in last season’s upstart role, stressing the need to continue the push forward in becoming PAC contenders.
The message from coach Don Grinstead at Phoenixville is similar but perhaps a tad more specific. In his second year at the helm, Grinstead looks to improve on a 4-6 campaign that saw Phoenixville get back to the playoffs for the first time in five years. The coach will stress versatility throughout a starting lineup that will feature plenty of new faces, chief among them QB Jack Pizor and now-featured RB Aidan Foley. However, Grinstead is confident that the key to a strong Phantoms season lies in a fast start, in particular, an opening win over Great Valley that would be the program’s first win in eight years in the Battle for Route 29.
SOMETHING TO PROVE
By the end of last season, Owen J. Roberts found itself in perhaps the cruelest spot in District 1 football—they were in 17th place in a 6A classification that accommodates 16 playoff teams. The sting of the near-miss figures to ignite the Wildcats’ fire in 2019, as they return QB Cooper Chamberlain under center in what coach Rich Kolka believes could be an explosive passing game.
Building depth will be a key for the Wildcats, who lose not only Liberty Division-leading running back Marcus Martin but also first-team all-area defensive linemen Aidan Hayward and Arnaldo Montagano to graduation. Junior WR/CB Dante DeNardo will see an increased role on both sides of the ball, but the emphasis will be on the front seven as the Wildcats struggled to stop the running game a year ago.
Looking to bounce back from a 1-9 finish a year ago, Boyertown boasts perhaps the PAC’s single most dynamic weapon in 2nd-team All-Area running back Jamison Moccia. Improved offensive line play and consistency from new starting QB Noah Segal will be paramount to a bounce-back season for the Bears, who promoted assistant coach Joe Terra to defensive coordinator in hopes of erasing the memories of a difficult 2018 campaign.
CLIMBING THE LADDER
For coach Joe Milligan, it’s all about changing the culture at Norristown. When Milligan played at the school (1993-1996), high school football games were an event at Roosevelt Field as the program churned out Division 1-level college players and built a statewide reputation. In year two of Milligan’s regime, he’s hopeful that the installation of lights at the Eagles’ new home will reignite the atmosphere and home-field advantage Norristown enjoyed. On the field, he hopes to continue restoring the accountability instilled last season, where the Eagles won two of their final three games and played a one-score game (14-7) against eventual PAC champion Perkiomen Valley.
Down the road at Methacton, another second-year coach hopes to continue building on the momentum from 2018. Dave Lotier’s on-field accomplishments were modest—a week 5 victory over Boyertown that ended a losing streak that dated to 2016—but the roster size nearly tripled, and a senior-laden defense had the Warriors in every game as the season progressed. This year, the experience is on the offensive side of the ball where QB Dylan Schultz, RB Michael Torcini, and WR Larry Dickerson will attempt to become the surprise story of this season in the PAC Liberty.
A trying season at Upper Perkiomen in 2018 ended on a positive note with a 21-20 upset of Pottstown in the regular season finale, followed by the Indians avenging an earlier loss to Boyertown with a 35-8 thrashing of the Bears during PAC crossover week. The Indians replace several starters on both sides of the ball, but senior speedster RB Tyrese Reid and WR Andrew Carducci will serve as the primary weapons for the winner of the starting quarterback competition. Avoiding turnovers will be key in allowing a young defense time to grow in the early season.
Passing: This figures to be another shootout between Spring-Ford’s Engro and PJP II’s Gray, as each quarterback enters his senior year with a full complement of offensive weapons and leading a team with a chip on its shoulder.
Last season, Engro won the battle by 127 passing yards and a single TD pass, and won the head-to-head battle in Spring-Ford’s week 10 victory over Pope John Paul II, 42-21. The sequel should be even more thrilling, but the real battle will be determined by whether either signal-caller can upend their respective division front runners, Perkiomen Valley and Pottsgrove.
2018 PAC Passing Leaders[table “4” not found /]
Rushing: It would be foolish to pick against a repeat performance from last year’s leader, Pottsgrove’s Isaiah Taylor (1,472 yards, 18 rush TD). But if the Bears can get leads or keep games close, senior RB Jamison Moccia figures to see more carries. Moccia represents the PAC’s best big-play threat every time he touches the ball.
2018 PAC Rushing Leaders[table “6” not found /]
Receiving: Much like the QB position, last year’s leading receiver came down to a Spring-Ford/Pope John Paul II showdown. PJP’s Steve Skarbek outgained SF’s Dante Bonanni by 22 yards (838-816), but Bonanni accounted for five more receptions (52-47) and one more score (10-9).
The duo figure to be at or near the top again in 2019, but both senior WRs are part of loaded offenses. If you’re looking for a sleeper, OJR’s Dante DeNardo emerged late in 2018 as Cooper Chamberlain’s favorite target and could be set for a breakout as many PAC teams work to fill in their secondaries after graduation losses.
2018 PAC Receiving Leaders
[table “5” not found /]
By Rob Senior; For MediaNews Group