Of the seven high school football teams competing for the top spot in the Suburban One League National Conference, six are in Bucks County and five fall in the Midweek Wire coverage area.
After graduating last year’s seniors, going through grueling offseason workouts and practicing in the summer heat, most of these teams take the field this weekend for the first games of their regular seasons.
No one knows what these teams are capable of better than their head coaches. We caught up with them during opening week to share some thoughts on where their teams stand.
After posting a 9-4 record in a season that ended in a playoff loss to North Penn, Neshaminy coach Steve Wilmot hopes his team can go even further in 2016.
“It’s a new chapter. We had a great group of seniors last year who were determined to make the playoffs,” he said. “We don’t have a ton of seniors, but we have good-quality seniors.”
The current class includes three-year starting quarterback Mason Jones, who was named a team captain for the second time this offseason. Along with fellow three-year starter Zach Tredway, a wide receiver, Jones is expected to be integral in Wilmot’s plan to run more spread sets this year.
Center A.J. Sanko and guard Eddie Parry, both seniors and starters since their sophomore season, will anchor the offensive line.
Wilmot places the run-pass ratio at around 60-40, an increase from last year, so senior running back Will Dogba should see plenty of touches.
Overall, Neshaminy returned eight offensive starters and four on defense.
“To start the year, we really want to control the pace and tempo of the football game,” Wilmot said.
To him, that begins on the offensive side of the ball.
“I hope our strengths are to be able to control the game from an offensive point of view, to slow the game down when our defense needs a break,” Wilmot said. “We need some juniors and sophomores to step up.”
Ed Cubbage spent his first year as head coach of the Bensalem Owls building a foundation for his team to grow.
It didn’t immediately translate into wins — the team went 0-10 in 2015 to follow up a winless season the year before.
“Last year was about establishing work ethic,” he said. “I’ve been through it before and I don’t believe there’s a quick fix.”
Cubbage turned around a flailing program at Truman High School, which led to the team having its first winning season for 20 years in 2014. At Bensalem, he believes he can build a winner, too.
“The expectations for us this year is to win a couple of games. That’s absolutely out there,” Cubbage said. “We’re looking to do more than just compete.”
Cubbage is confident that a winning mentality will seep in under the senior leadership of two-way lineman and first-team SOL National Conference selection Blake Morgan, lineman Saleem Martin, running back Mikal Morris and defensive back Rob Fund, who is also being looked at as a quarterback option for the Owls.
Leadership this year is important, but long-term success hinges on the younger guys. Cubbage visited the middle school practices once a week last season to establish a relationship with the up-and-comers. The same idea goes for underclassmen, who will be given a chance to shine on the practice and game fields this season.
The Tigers returned only two starters from 2015, but what the team lacks in experience, coach Jon Craig hopes they can make up in athleticism and mental toughness.
“We have built this thing over the last couple of years to fight and compete no matter who we have,” Craig said. “We play a tough schedule, but we coach our kids up.”
The focus, from a coaching standpoint, has dialed back to routine and fundamentals so the players can gain confidence in their movements and execution.
Leading the charge will be senior quarterback Jorden Freeman, who took the reins of the offense last year after starter Mark Lopez-Shescyk went down with an ACL injury. Freeman led Truman to four consecutive wins to finish out the season.
“He’s very dynamic. He brings a special set of skills,” Craig said. “He’s the guy we’re going to look to on offense for scoring.”
The other returning starter is junior David Akinwande, a running back on offense and an undersized, but quick threat at nose guard on defense.
“We have some talented athletes, naturally gifted ballplayers,” Craig said. “The message has been that the opportunity to play has been wide open.”
Council Rock North
The Indians graduated a crop of skill players that led them to the top of the SOL Continental in 2015.
Now they’re without standout four-year quarterback Brandon McIlwain, and are putting together new offensive and defensive schemes under a new coach with less-experienced players. They also moved over to the SOL National Conference.
“There’s a lot of things that are different,” said head coach Matt McHugh, who was previously offensive coordinator at Upper Moreland. “The only thing we can’t control is just that we are somewhat young and inexperienced.”
That doesn’t include every position, however. In the trenches, this team is ready to play. All five starters on the offensive line have started or played games in past seasons. Three of them were chosen to be captains: three-year starter Pat Bartlett, junior Mark Anastasi and senior center Shane Oros, whom McHugh had specific praise for.
“You don’t realize how well your team runs until he’s out of the game,” the coach said.
Other captains include senior running back T.J. Ayer and senior linebacker and defensive signal-caller Mason Luff, a player who McHugh said, “Any coach in the nation would want.”
The quarterback position is still up for grabs, but for the Indians there was no game scheduled in the first week so the team has time to work that out before squaring off against Central Bucks South.
With a strong offseason program and an emphasis on execution and accountability, McHugh thinks his team is ready to go. He’s hoping the strong offensive line can open up the running game, and success will come from there.
“It’s part of our philosophy, that we need all 11 guys to be successful,” McHugh said. “That’s what we break practice on — ‘Do your job.’ ”
Council Rock South
Usually, coach Vince Bedesem prefers a strict platoon-style approach, with few of his players getting reps on both sides of the ball.
Going into his first game against Father Judge, he said at least seven players would be playing both offense and defense for the Golden Hawks.
One of them is sophomore Nick Gallo, who saw a lot of playing time as a freshman. He’ll be starting at wide receiver and defensive end.
“He’s a sophomore, but he doesn’t play like a sophomore,” Bedesem said.
Gallo will round out a receiving core that includes seniors Shawn Mackin and Alex Benner, who was an all-conference player last year and expected Division I college athlete. All three are 6-3 or taller, which benefits sophomore quarterback Bradley Kraut.
Other key contributors on both sides of the ball are three-year starter at inside linebacker Ryan Magrann, who will play fullback on offense; senior Andrew Short and junior John Dooley on the offensive line; junior tailback Elias Mayo; and senior defensive back Marco Mendes.
One concern for the team is depth.
“Not having that true depth is a need, but that doesn’t mean it won’t come later in the season,” Bedesem said.
One way to get there is to give some inexperienced guys a shot, which Bedesem plans to do a lot of early on.
“We’d rather let the athletes play than try to out-coach ourselves,” he said. “The message here in the first week is simplistic: play your game and play aggressive.”