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Monday, April 22, 2024

High school football season previews 2023: Mid-Penn Capital predicted finish, players to watch and more

Three behemoth teams seem poised to rule the roost over the Mid-Penn Capital Division this fall.

Defending PIAA Class 1A state champion Steel-High brings back most of its talent and is favored to repeat at the top, but “underdog” challengers West Perry and Trinity are also playoff-hardened squads that have a good chance of wreaking havoc upon the rest of the division and possibly even testing the Rollers. There is some good talent rising from the bottom half of the division, perhaps enough to consider some of these teams contenders in other years, but it’s going to take an extraordinary effort this season for these squads just to stay off the highlight film for the stars of the Big 3.

We’re looking forward to the return of Middletown, a program looking to repair its identity after having its season canceled last year, as well as the head-to-head battles between the Rollers, Mustangs and Shamrocks.

Predicted finish: Steel-High, West Perry, Trinity, Big Spring, Camp Hill, Boiling Springs, Middletown.

Steel-High Rollers

Predicted finish: 1st

Coach: Andrew Erby

Record last season: 13-1, 5-0 Capital (1st place)

Team outlook: There’s no doubt about it, the Rollers are the team to beat not only in the Capital Division, but in PIAA Class 1A itself. Steel-High returns all of the biggest pieces from last year’s monster team, which marched right through the Capital before going on a dominant postseason run that concluded with a 22-8 win over Union Area in the state championship game. The Rollers’ machine is guided by all-state quarterback Alex Erby, who is complemented in the offense by returning all-stars in wide receiver Rell Ceasar Jr. (65 catches, 1,054 yards, 16 TDs) and running back Ronald Burnette (21 TDs, more than 1,000 yards). Steel-High will be deep at the line of scrimmage with a group of all-star caliber scrappers that include Andrew Erby Jr. (6-foot-3, 240 pounds), Devon Reid (5-10, 205) and Eugene Greene (6-2, 215). Defensively, look for last year’s Capital Defensive Player of the Year, Andrew Erby Jr., to be the first point of contact for the highly decorated Rollers’ unit, which includes some top-shelf returning talent in defensive end Green, linebackers Amari Williams and Taevon Legrande, and defensive back Jaeion Perry. Expect Steel-High to face the best the Capital has to offer — the top of the division is as tough now as it has ever been — and come away unscathed. Beyond that, it’s hard to envision a world where this season doesn’t end with a third state championship for this Rollers’ dynasty.

One player to watch: Alex Erby. Over three seasons at Steel-High, this 6-foot-4, 205-pound quarterback has lit up the Friday night skies for 9,142 yards — which equals more than five miles of offense. And if all goes according to plan this fall, Erby will break the state record of 11,084 yards established by South Fayette’s Brett Bumbaugh. A pro-style quarterback that loves standing tall in the pocket and delivering strikes, Erby possesses the size, arm strength and accuracy to take over a football game. Erby, a southpaw, used his cannon of an arm to throw for 3,389 yards and 40 TDs last season. The records and video-game numbers are nice, but look for Erby, who’s drawn college interest from all over the Division I ranks, to stay focused on the numbers that matter: Winning a fourth District 3 title and a third PIAA Class 1A championship.

West Perry Mustangs

Predicted finish: 2nd

Coach: Bob Boden

Record last season: 11-2, 4-1 Capital (2nd place)

Team outlook: The pieces are in place for West Perry to make a spirited run at the Capital Division. While most experts, including us, believe Steel-High is too powerful to dethrone, there are a group of seniors in Elliottsburg — led by all-state LB/WR Ian Goodling and Capital Second Team QB Marcus Quaker — that love their chances in the division. Goodling is the headliner of the group and rightfully so. The 6-1, 175-pounder fills a variety of roles for the Mustangs, all at a high level, including linebacker (76 tackles, 5 interceptions), wide receiver (71 catches, 1,239 yards, 14 TDs), and place kicker (65 of 67 PATs, 7 of 10 field goals). Goodling will be joined on defense by LB Brad Hockenberry (16 TFLs), DB Bryce Smith and DL Caleb Gutshall as West Perry looks to find its way without a chunk of defensive linemen lost to graduation. Offensively, the Mustangs are set in the passing department with the Quaker-Goodling connection, but they will need to find an RB to replace the production of the graduated Trent Herrera. Assuming they can address some of its holes, the Mustangs could once again repeat the success of last year, when they became the first Perry County team to win multiple playoff games in the same season. 

One player to watch: Marcus Quaker. West Perry didn’t become a good football program overnight, just by adding crop after crop of superior players to the mix. No. From a young age, the Mustangs put their collective heads down, hit the weight room, studied the film and refined their game to the point where the football field seems like their natural habitat. There’s nobody who embodies the “Mustang way” quite the same way as Quaker, a 5-11, 170-pound senior quarterback. After two years of grinding as an underclassman, Quaker had an unforgettable junior season, where he established himself as quite the dual-threat QB. As a passer, Quaker has a smooth and accurate delivery, and he delivered last year by completing 132 of 206 passes for 2,021 yards, 22 TDs, and eight INTs. Nicknamed “Spark,” he used solid speed and superior acceleration to have a rushing season most RBs can only dream about, toting the ball 139 times for 1,240 yards and 23 TDs. Opponents are at their most apprehensive when Quaker is on the move, either delivering a strike downfield or gashing the defense for a big run. Wrestling the Capital Division away from favored Steel-High sure seems like a “David vs. Goliath” proposition, but if there was ever a man to play the role of David, it’s Quaker.

Trinity Shamrocks

Predicted finish: 3rd

Coach: Jordan Hill

Record last season: 10-5, 4-2 Capital (3rd place)

Team outlook: Last year was a breakout season for the Shamrocks, who rose from the basement of the Capital Division to become one of the standout teams in the Mid-Penn Conference itself. The bad news for opponents is Trinity returns a large chunk of that talent, including Messiah Mickens, a RB who verbally committed to Penn State after a phenomenal freshman season. The Shamrocks’ QB, Caleb Wray, is back for his senior season and looking to get the ball to two of his favorite targets: Cole Cappawana (17 receptions, 333 yards, 3 TDs) and Tanie Young (16 receptions, 239 yards, 3 TDs). Add in the running talents of Cappawana (22 carries, 241 yards, 4 TDs) and Christian Joy (59 carries, 666 yards, 6 TDS), and it becomes crystal clear the Shamrocks have enough offensive firepower to overwhelm a majority of the teams on their schedule. And if there’s a defense built to take down Steel-High and all-state quarterback Alex Erby, it’s the unit from Shiremanstown. The group picked off 21 passes last year, and 20 of those interceptions return this year, led by CB Amil Way, who snagged eight picks. Joining Way are LBs Jacob Ness (101 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 3 INTs) and Tucker Paynter (74 tackles, 6 TFLs, 4 sacks), safeties Payton Schaffner (48 tackles, 4 INTs) and Collin Morrow (62 tackles, 3 INTs), and CB Mike Johnson (25 tackles, 2 INTs). Expect Trinity to finish as a Top 3 team in the Capital, if not higher.

One player to watch: Messiah Mickens. Only a freshman last season, the 5-10, 185-pound RB still found a way to look like a man among boys on the football field. Using uber speed, good ball protection and quick moves, Mickens impressed in his debut varsity season with 123 rushes for 961 yards and 18 TDs. It usually takes more than one defender to take Mickens down, and that’s assuming those defenders are within striking range. He’s a master of finding the edge and simply outrunning the entire defense into the end zone. Also a good pass catcher, look for Mickens’ overall output to increase this fall now that he truly has a grasp on the high school game. Enjoy the Mickens experience while you still can, as the sophomore is already committed to play for Penn State.

Big Spring Bulldogs

Predicted finish: 4th

Coach: Joe Sinkovich

Record last season: 3-7, 2-3 Capital (4th place)

Team outlook: Needing to replace graduated QB Ethan Eisenberg — the school’s all-time passing leader who led Big Spring to its first playoff victory in 2021 — the boys from Newville take the field in 2023 looking to establish the run. Guided by an offensive line that includes returning all-star talent in offensive tackle Logan Brennan and center Jacob Stewart, the Bulldogs will turn to a two-headed monster at RB until the team can decide on a QB between senior Chase Hope or sophomore Chase Fry. Connor Green totaled 943 yards and 10 TDs on 161 carries for the Bulldogs last season, while Grant Hall got 108 carries for 684 yards and nine TDs and hauled in 21 catches for 385 yards and three TDs. Defensively, look for the Bulldogs to turn to senior DE Zack Mell (6-3, 225) to wreck plays from the edge, and for the returning linebacking corps of Green (39 tackles), Spencer Cachara (50 tackles) and Brexton Heckendorn (30 tackles) to be a reliable one. There are plenty of pieces in place for Big Spring to compete on Friday nights, perhaps even against the giants of the Capital Division.

One player to watch: Logan Brennan. Pancake blocks aren’t a stat that is very seriously tracked, but if they were, you get the sense that Brennan — a 6-2, 380-pound offensive tackle — could be in the running as one of the all-time greats at Big Spring. A second-team selection in the Capital Division last season, Brennan spent his Fridays bullying defenders into the turf and then knocking them down again if they chose to rise. And often in the wake of Brennan’s destruction you’d see a Big Spring running back collecting big yardage without being touched. Expect more of that from Brennan in his final season of high school ball. 

Camp Hill Lions

Predicted finish: 5th

Coach: Tim Bigelow

Record last season: 5-6, 1-4 Capital (6th place)

Team outlook: Camp Hill has to be feeling good about its roster and its chances of making headway in the Capital Division. The Lions return a junior QB in Drew Branstetter, who threw for more than 2,100 yards last fall. He is joined by a talented crop of returning receivers, including Alex Long (6-3, 175), Noah Doi (5-9, 140) and Luke Becker (5-11, 160), each of whom totaled more than 350 receiving yards. With senior RB Kobe Moore (5-11, 175), a running and receiving threat, also returning, there are plenty of reasons to believe Camp Hill will keep the chains moving this year. Defensively, LBs Tommy Corbin and Moore, as well as DB Doi, return more than 300 tackles to lead an experienced group. In most years, Camp Hill would be considered a division contender. But with monsters like Steel-High, West Perry and Trinity in the mix, the Lions might have to just settle for a deep playoff run in the small-school postseason.

One player to watch: Drew Branstetter. With nine quality returning starters on each side of the ball, it’s challenging to make a choice. But when you think about which player Camp Hill can’t afford to lose, it’s Branstetter, the 6-foot-1, 180-pound quarterback. The junior has a nice arm with an easy throwing motion and knows how to make quick and accurate decisions. Branstetter completed 189 of 314 passes for 2,148 yards and 21 TDs last fall and gets back most of his receivers. With the loss of some key linemen, Branstetter’s legs may be just as important as his arm this season. He can scramble for yards when called upon, but mostly Branstetter will be using his mobility to keep plays alive. With Branstetter in the lineup, Camp Hill knows it’s always one play from turning a game around.

Boiling Springs Bubblers

Predicted finish: 6th

Coach: Brad Zell

Record last season: 4-6, 2-3 Capital (4th place)

Team outlook: Just as the Bubblers were starting to establish themselves as district contenders, they took a step back with last fall’s four-win campaign and failed to qualify for the postseason. Now with a solid group of returning players that have experienced both the highs and lows of Friday nights, it’s up to this group to determine the program’s next step. Boiling Springs looks to stay competitive this fall with an experienced group of returners in the trenches that includes all-star Rylan Bush (6-2, 265), Aron Beam (5-10, 205) and Lance Schwang. Liam Fisher returns at QB for his senior season, and the 5-7, 165-pound signal-caller could have some help this fall in the form of incoming sophomore WR Ryan Heller. The Bubblers are at their best when they can slow down the game and control the line of scrimmage. Executing that game plan will be a tall task against the Capital Division, but Boiling Springs can help its cause by tightening the defense and reducing turnovers.

One player to watch: Matt McNair. There’s a lot to love in the cerebral way in which McNair, a 6-foot, 190-pound senior running back and free safety, plays the game of football. The senior is an expert at following blocks and is patient in letting plays develop, but once it’s go-time, McNair lets his physical talents take over. McNair’s cuts are sharp as a knife, and once he’s moving forward it’s full steam ahead with punishment waiting for anyone willing to stand in his way. He’s excellent at making defenders miss in the open field and is sometimes called upon as a blocker in the run game, where he often showcases his crushing power. As a free safety, we like McNair’s vision of the field and the way he smartly reads plays in front of him. The Bubblers will have to work for everything they get in the Capital Division this year, but luckily with McNair, they have a player laying down the blueprint on just how to do that.

Middletown Blue Raiders

Predicted finish: 7th

Coach: Scott Govern

Record last season: Season canceled

Team outlook: Middletown returns to the gridiron for the first time since 2021 after last season was canceled due to extreme player hazing. This team would like nothing more than to put the scandal in the past and regain the respect the proud Middletown program once commanded. It’s going to take baby steps. There are no returning all-stars for the Blue Raiders, just a small-sized roster of players happy to be back on the field. How Middletown plans to fill its skill positions is still unclear, but the team has a trio of linemen — Loir Brunson (6-foot, 280), Malcolm Taalibuddeen (6-1, 220) and Chase Eberly (6-0, 255) — that could make the growing pains just a little bit easier. There’s plenty of excitement around the program, certainly, but it could still take some time before the Blue Raiders can once again return to their winning ways.

One player to watch: Loir Brunson. After playing last season at Albany High School in New York, Brunson returns to Middletown for his senior season. The 6-foot, 280-pound Brunson is a bear in the trenches. He generates a lot of push coming out of the three-point stance from his DT position and usually commands the attention of at least two blockers. While most DTs are there to chew up space and create tackling openings for the linebackers, Brunson has the ability to stand an o-lineman up, discard him and go for the tackle. For a man of his size, Brunson has a surprising amount of speed and can catch up to a ball carrier even if the opposition runs the ball away from him. It’s going to take a blue-collar effort for Middletown to climb its way back into Capital Division contention. Look for Brunson to play hard-nosed football and set that example.

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