By Michael Bullock:
Coach: Frank Gaffney, 3rd season (12-9)
League/Division: Schuylkill League
2019 record: 8-3 (7-2 Tri-Valley League)
Postseason: Lost to North Schuylkill 42-20 in District 11 Class 3A first round.
Passing: Comp-Att, Yards, TDs
Josh Leininger: 17-49, 340, 4
Rushing: Att-Yards, Avg, TDs
Josh Leininger: 33-314, 9.5, 7
Receiving: Rec-Yards, Avg, TDs
Shea Morgan: 24-402, 16.8, 4
Key returning players: Josh Leininger, sr., QB-SS; Brody Robinson, sr., RB-OLB; Ayden Ney, sr., RB-NG; Shea Morgan, sr., WR-CB; Ty Reynolds, sr., OL-DL; Colin Ibarra, jr., MLB; Mason Kroh, so., QB-S; Zak Hlavaty, sr., OL-De (injured).
Outlook: Since the skill-position group has speed and the ability to operate effectively in space, the Cardinals figure to be more of a finesse group than the hammer-it-out squad that featured two 1,000-yard running backs. What will take time is adjusting to a brand new group of opponents, but what could take even more time is getting a new front that could include three freshmen up to speed and comfortable against some sizable lines. Despite the obvious challenges, Gaffney & Co. remain upbeat and optimistic.
3 Things to Know:
1. Healthy Leininger will have the ball … frequently: Hampered last season by a shoulder injury that limited his availability, senior quarterback Josh Leininger will direct a Pine Grove attack that may change up a few things to fit the personnel group. Since Leininger is a threat on the edge — with his strong right arm and his terrific feet — the Cardinals hope to keep opposing defenses on full alert. “Josh Leininger is the best dual-threat quarterback in [Schuylkill County], there are no ifs, ands or butts about that,” said Gaffney of a youngster who, despite limited availability, managed to throw for 300-plus yards and run for 300 or so more. “The kid is 6-foot, can throw the rock and runs a high 4.5 40. And just has vision like crazy. … We need the ball in his hands every play — and we know that.” Even though Leininger missed so much action, he still managed to accrue an honorable mention spot in the Tri-Valley League’s all-conference secondary as a strong safety.
2. Morgan good for 48 minutes again: Remarkably talented and extremely versatile, senior Shea Morgan will spend most Friday nights between the lines … unless games get out of hand. A wide receiver when the Cardinals have the ball, a cornerback when Pine Grove is on defense and a fixture on special teams — regardless of the unit in play — Morgan is a key component in everything Gaffney’s program tries to do. While Pine Grove ran the ball almost exclusively in 2019, Morgan still managed to reel in 24 catches for 400-plus yards and four scores in limited attempts. He also carried the ball a handful of times and completed the lone pass he tried. Helps explain why the invaluable Morgan was an all-conference selection at wideout, defensive back and as a kicker. What’s frightening is Morgan could be even better in 2020 since he’s more than a year removed from reconstructive knee surgery. “Shea Morgan had almost 500 yards receiving in an offense that ran the ball 92 percent of the time. The kid was double covered, but he ran phenomenal routes,” Gaffney said. “Shea runs the ball. He threw passes for us. He catches [passes] and runs routes. He’s our kicker. He’s our punter. He kicks off for us. He’s our kick returner and our punt returner. …The kid never leaves the field. He legitimately does everything.”
3. Challenging slate awaits in new home: Although Pine Grove will open against Notre Dame-Green Pond instead of neighboring rival Williams Valley — COVID-19 forced Williams Valley to delay the start of its 2020 campaign — the Cardinals will face a series of perennial hammers as they adjust to being an average-sized school in the Schuylkill League and not one of the now-defunct (in football) TVL’s larger enrollments. In fact, Pine Grove will see such opponents as North Schuylkill, Jim Thorpe, Blue Mountain, Pottsville and Tamaqua before the regular season comes to a close. “When we played in the Tri-Valley League, all the people in the school system knew those teams. When I was at [Schuylkill] Haven, I ran the defense against North Schuylkill, Tamaqua, Jim Thorpe, Lehighton. The only school I never coached against was Pottsville, but I played against them,” Gaffney said. “For me as a coach, it’s exciting because I’m glad our kids get to play in the competitive culture that these kids are going to be playing in.” Pine Grove held the halftime lead at North Schuylkill last season in the opening round of the District 11 playoffs, but wound up falling to the powerful Spartans. Said Gaffney: “Well, that’s every week now.”