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Monday, April 22, 2024

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

Perhaps in football more than any other sport, it’s experience and growth from the heat of battle under the stadium lights that can give a team a considerable edge over the competition. 

But this year in the Mid-Penn Colonial Division, almost every team is dealing with considerable graduation losses. Every team except for Susquehanna Township and East Pennsboro, that is. Both rosters are chock-full of returning all-star talent that could very well shake up the division.

Call us crazy for picking last year’s fifth- and eighth-place teams to finish 1-2, but after a thorough roster review of all eight teams in the Colonial, we believe it would be crazy for us not to make this call. The path to the crown will not be easy, however, as we expect teams like Northern and Shippensburg to play the “media disrespect” card all the way to the postseason.

Buckle up — it’s going to be yet another wild ride in the black-and-blue Colonial Division.

Predicted division standings: Susquehanna Township, East Pennsboro, Northern, Shippensburg, Gettysburg, Mechanicsburg, Greencastle-Antrim, Waynesboro

Susquehanna Township Indians

Predicted finish: 1st

Coach: Joe Headen

Record last season: 6-5, 4-3 Colonial (5th place)

Team outlook: The Wendy’s fast food franchise has already patented the slogan, “We’ve got the beef,” but those words can certainly be used to describe the wealth of size possessed by Susquehanna Township this fall. The Indians have a stable of linemen that would make even teams in the Commonwealth Division envious. And these aren’t just run-of-the-mill big men, either. Among the returning talent in the trenches is a laundry list of linemen who earned all-star accolades last fall, including blue-chip recruit Aubrey Carter (6-foot-3, 270), Mason Lubold (6-foot, 255), Jayden Riley (5-9, 240), Isaiah Riley (6-1, 210), PJ Wilson (6-3, 270), and Yendor Mack (6-1, 250). Look for Hanna’s size advantage to pay immediate dividends in a Colonial Division that is almost always won by the team who can best control the line of scrimmage. Throw in returning sophomore quarterback Torrin Evans (6-foot, 160) and a blue-chip wide receiver in Lex Cyrus (5-11, 165), and it’s easy to see why the Indians should be considered a contender this fall. 

One player to watch: Aubrey Carter. It was tempting for us to pick Cyrus, a rare talent at wide receiver who has just as many college offers as he does touchdowns, but we here at 4th Down Magazine have a soft spot in our hearts for big men like Carter, a 6-3, 275-pound man who earned both defensive and offensive all-star recognition last fall. Often right in the middle of the trenches, Carter has the firepower to explode through a double team, and also has the speed to make opposing QBs run for their lives. On the offensive side of the ball, Carter is primarily an overpowering blocker at TE who can blaze a path for the running game or give his QB as much time as he needs to complete a pass. Already with interest from Navy, Miami (Ohio), Connecticut and several others, Carter seems destined to play at the next level, so enjoy his talents now while you can still afford the game tickets.

East Pennsboro Panthers

Predicted finish: 2nd

Coach: John Denniston

Record last season: 5-7, 1-6 Colonial (8th place)

Team outlook: If there was ever a season for East Pennsboro to move up the pecking order in the Colonial Division, this one is it. The Panthers return eight starters on defense and eight starters on offense, including four of five offensive linemen and a quarterback in Keith Oates III with three seasons of varsity experience under his belt. Running back Aaron Angelo is back and is a threat both running (149 carries, 747 yards, 6 touchdowns) and catching (13 receptions, 237 yards, 4 TDs) the football. Defensively, it will be difficult for opponents to overcome beasts in the trenches like Josh Angelo and Colin Benoist, and if they do, they’ll have to contend with a linebacking group led by Oates and a secondary that includes a pair of all-stars in Breckin Swope and Paul Sanderson. It’s no secret that many teams in the Colonial are dealing with heavy graduation losses, so the division is up for grabs if the Panthers decide they want it.

One player to watch: Josh Angelo. Checking in at 6-foot and 240 pounds, with a smoking-fast 40-yard dash time of 4.67 seconds, East Pennsboro’s stud defensive end is the embodiment of the cliche “bigger, stronger, faster.” There are very few offensive tackles, if any, in the Colonial Division that can stand up to Angelo without the help of double-teams. Not only can Angelo overpower the bigger boys in the trenches, he can also use his speed advantage to quickly accelerate his way to the quarterback. Angelo was a monster as a junior last fall, accumulating 62 solo tackles, 17.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks to go along with six pass deflections, one punt block, one caused fumble and two fumble recoveries. The bad news for opponents is that keying in on Angelo is not exactly a great option, as that would open up more opportunities for fellow down lineman Benoist, who racked up 13 TFLs and seven sacks of his own last year. Any way you look at it, opponents will have to always be aware of where No. 71 is on the field. 

Northern Polar Bears

Predicted finish: 3rd

Coach: Bill Miller

Record last season: 8-5, 5-2 Colonial (2nd place)

Team outlook: Over the years, many media outlets have tried, and failed, to identify when exactly the Polar Bears will be due for a “rebuilding” year. It’s been eight consecutive winning seasons for the boys in Dillsburg, who always seem to find a way to plow forward, even after losing irreplaceable talent to graduation almost every fall. This fall is no exception as, once again, Northern has a lot of holes to fill with the graduation of all-star players all across the field. It’s tempting to once again bet against the Polar Bears, but we wouldn’t recommend it. While Northern has to break in a new quarterback and a fresh crop of wide receivers, senior running back Cole Bartram is back from a 1,600-yard rushing season, and he’ll be running behind all-star center Spencer Siegel. Defensively, linebackers Bartram and Magarrin Macke combine to bring back more than 230 tackles, 19 tackles for loss and four sacks. The Polar Bears will be green at several positions this season, but if they can rally behind their stud players and mature as the season progresses, they’ll be a tough out every week.

One player to watch: Cole Bartram. While Northern lost some great players to graduation, the Polar Bears should consider themselves lucky to still have Bartram — a 5-11, 195-pound sledgehammer of a running back and linebacker — in their ranks. He is already considered one of the baddest men in Pennsylvania after finishing as the PIAA Class 3A runner-up at 189 pounds in wrestling last winter and is committed to wrestle at Lock Haven. Look for Bartram, a First Team Colonial Division selection on both sides of the ball, to be a workhorse for the offense. A downhill runner, he seeks out contact and is a battering ram at the line of scrimmage. Solid fundamentals and group tackling are a must to bring down Bartram, who will make a fool out of any defender going for haphazard arm tackles. On the defensive side of the ball, he has an uncanny ability to diagnose the play, slip away from potential blockers and put himself in position to make the tackle before the play even has a chance to pick up steam.

Shippensburg Greyhounds

Predicted finish: 4th

Coach: Eric Foust

Record last season: 8-4, 4-3 Colonial (3rd place)

Team outlook: Colonial Division titles have become the norm in Greyhounds Country, but last fall was a break from the trend. Did that discourage the kids from coming out this season? Not a chance. While the 151 players listed on Ship’s MaxPreps roster certainly seems like an inaccuracy, it’s clear that players have a strong belief and investment in the program. And it’s going to take all the dedication coach Eric Foust and his staff can squeeze out of this group for the ‘Hounds to have a successful season, considering Shippensburg has the unenviable task of replacing its top passer, receiver and running back. Even with all of the uncertainty, though, there’s something that tells us things will turn out just fine for Shippensburg, which has made 12 postseason appearances in the last 14 seasons.

One player to watch: Landon Carbaugh. We’re still waiting on news of college offers for the senior, a 6-2, 270-pound offensive lineman who snagged Second Team honors in the Colonial Division last fall. In the meantime, we’ll just sit back and enjoy the destructive nature of Shippensburg’s starting left tackle. Carbaugh has a great initial pop when he bursts out of his stance and is even more effective when he has time to gather momentum during a trap play. With all of the Greyhounds’ major skill players lost to graduation, this season is going to come down to the guys up front like Carbaugh. The more power that can be manufactured in the trenches, the easier it will be for Ship’s new cast of skill players to build confidence and make plays.

Gettysburg Warriors

Predicted finish: 5th

Coach: Matt Heiser

Record last season: 8-3, 6-1 Colonial (1st place)

Team outlook: Against the predictions of all the experts, the invaders from the York-Adams League made a big impression in their return to the Mid-Penn Conference last fall. The Warriors ran roughshod over the Colonial Division, winning all but one divisional game to capture the crown. In the process, they piled up a whopping 18 Colonial all-star selections. But now it’s time for Gettysburg to face the bad news: Only one of those all-stars is back for the 2023 season. Young talent will have to emerge, and develop fast, if the Warriors want to have any chance of defending their division title.

One player to watch: Brady Heiser. In a Colonial Division that is built almost exclusively around running the football, Gettysburg is home to the division’s deadliest quarterback. The 6-1, 200-pound signal-caller is going into his third season as the team’s QB and is coming off a 2022 campaign where he accounted for 19 TDs and more than 2,000 passing yards, an effort that earned himself a spot as a First Team division all-star. What makes Heiser dangerous is his ability to scan the field and make quick and accurate decisions. He possesses a deep-ball ability to stretch the field, and when opponents commit their resources toward stopping the pass, that’s when Heiser can do damage with his feet, either from scrambling or designed run plays like the option. While Heiser has yet to receive an official college offer, he has already received messages of “good luck” on Twitter from the Penn and Dartmouth football programs.

Mechanicsburg Wildcats

Predicted finish: 6th

Coach: Anthony Rose

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

Team outlook: Mechanicsburg’s streak of three consecutive winning seasons came to an end with last year’s four-win campaign. The Wildcats would like nothing more than to get back on track this fall, but their work will certainly be cut out for them as they are tasked with replacing talent all across the field. That includes finding a man to fill the shoes of Sage Thomas, a linebacker who was named the Colonial’s Defensive Player of the Year last season. There are a handful of returning players, including two-way all-star Justin Bardo (linebacker/interior lineman), defensive back Josh Smith, and starting quarterback Jeffrey Lougee. If the Wildcats can get some plays and leadership from this small core group, they could be a player in a Colonial Division where several teams are also adjusting to significant lineup turnover.

One player to watch: Jeffrey Lougee. Mechanicsburg has lost as much talent to graduation as anybody in the Colonial Division, but the good news for the Wildcats is they are bringing back Lougee, one of the division’s most experienced returning quarterbacks. The 6-foot, 175-pound Lougee, committed to play college baseball for the Duke Blue Devils, slings the football with the zip of a fireballing pitcher. Lougee is just as deadly on his feet. He has the speed to scramble and a large enough frame to lower his shoulder and punish linebackers and defensive linemen. Named an Honorable Mention “athlete” in the Colonial last season, Lougee doubles as a playmaking cornerback with big hops and the wheels to go step-for-step with opposing receivers.

Greencastle-Antrim Blue Devils

Predicted finish: 7th

Coach: Devin McCauley

Record last season: 5-7, 1-6 Colonial (8th place)

Team outlook: Forgive us if we’re starting to sound like a broken record, but Greencastle-Antrim is yet another team in the Colonial Division that was hit with severe graduation losses. Among the players in the rear-view mirror is running back Tavon Cooper, the Colonial’s Offensive Player of the Year, who gave everything he had to help carry the Blue Devils to a five-win season. Repeating, or even surpassing, that level of success will require the “next man up” at multiple positions to bring intensity to the table. The Blue Devils do return a pair of defensive all-stars in lineman Parker Funk (6-1, 245) and linebacker Logan Shifflett (5-11, 185) and their leadership will be very crucial to how well their unit can hold serve against the bruisers of the Colonial. Greencastle also returns starting QB Logan Alvey (6-foot, 170), so the cupboard isn’t completely bare, but rising talent will have to develop fast if the Blue Devils hope to be players in the division.

One player to watch: Parker Funk. One second. That’s the maximum amount of time that most opponents have to stop the 6-1, 245-pound down lineman. Funk explodes out his three-point stance exceptionally fast, uses his arms to create space between himself and the blocker and then takes advantage of that separation to slip off and make plays. Watch his highlight film with the sound on, and you’ll hear several collective gasps from the crowd pitying the QBs that were left crunched up in his wake. Funk doubles as a star on the offensive line, and when his number is called upon for the trap block, he has a history of pancake-blocking would-be tacklers into the shadow realm. It could be a tough year for Greencastle in the Colonial, but regardless, Funk will very likely look the part of a man playing amongst the boys.

Waynesboro Indians

Predicted finish position: 8th

Coach: Mark Saunders

Record last season: 3-7, 2-5 Colonial (7th place)

Team outlook: After a brief stint as Chambersburg’s head coach that ended in 2015, Saunders gets another chance to lead a program, this time at Waynesboro. Saunders’ coaching skills will certainly be put to the test as the Indians return just one all-star — place kicker Andrew Soffe — from last year’s three-win season. The key for the Indians will be to identify their playmakers and put them in position to make plays and build confidence. Of course that’s easier said than done in a Colonial Division that isn’t exactly known for being kind to young and rebuilding squads. This season could very well be a baptism under fire for the boys in the ‘Boro, who will have to grind hard to stay competitive this fall.

One player to watch: Alex Torbica. Last season as a sophomore Torbica got some valuable varsity reps, and Waynesboro is hoping that experience will pay dividends this season for the 6-5, 195-pound tight end. Not only is Torbica a tall target, he also has soft hands to collect the ball and is willing to mix it up as a blocker in the running game. With the Indians set to break in a new quarterback this fall, Torbica could very well become that “safety blanket” receiver for Waynesboro in short-yardage passing situations.

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