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Thursday, February 29, 2024

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

The most unpredictable division in the Mid-Penn is back for what promises to be another wild season this fall, and we’ve given ourselves plenty of headaches trying to determine just who exactly will finish on top.

Defending champion and perennial PIAA contender State College gets our tentative nod, but we could just as easily see Harrisburg winning the division, with Central Dauphin and Cumberland Valley giving close chase. Even if you’re going to watch the teams in the bottom half of the division, it’s still more than worth the price of the ticket to see the talent of the Commonwealth up close. It’s not every day you can see an RB like State College’s D’Antae Sheffey, who drew Division I offers during his freshman season, or offensive lines that can completely control games, like the ones possessed by CV and CD.

Every year in the Commonwealth seems to offer its fair share of upsets and instant classics, and we see no reason why that can’t be the case once again this fall. Buckle up!

Predicted division finish: State College, Harrisburg, Central Dauphin, Cumberland Valley, Carlisle, Chambersburg, Altoona, CD East

State College Little Lions

Predicted finish: 1st

Coach: Matt Lintal

Record last season: 13-1, 7-0 Commonwealth (1st place)

Team outlook: Similar to Bishop McDevitt, it’s never appropriate to say State College is in a “rebuilding” state, no matter how many all-stars it loses in a given season. Yes, the Little Lions have lost their fair share of talent from 2022, with eight selections from the Commonwealth First Team graduating, but we wouldn’t be surprised in the least if State College found a way to successfully defend its division title this fall. The Little Lions will need to replace quarterback Finn Furmanek, and luckily senior Owen Yerka seems up for the job. Yerka got a fair amount of on-the-job experience last fall, going 38 of 75 for 479 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions, while also rushing for 347 yards and six TDs on 50 carries. He will be joined in the backfield by D’Antae Sheffey, who totaled more than 1,700 rushing yards as a freshman last season. State College will be anchored defensively by defensive tackle Justin Castro-Dixon (6-foot, 350), inside linebacker Mike Gaul (6-1, 195), safety Cooper Brushwood (5-7, 155) and cornerback Ty Salazar (5-11, 165), who also earned honorable mention honors as a wide receiver and return specialist. Look for Commonwealth Coach of the Year Matt Lintal to once again guide his State College team to a Top 3 finish, if not another championship.

One player to watch: D’Antae Sheffey. This 6-foot, 190-pound RB exploded onto the scene as a freshman last season and racked up an unreal 1,725 rushing yards and 22 TDs on 223 carries. With three full years of high school football still left to play, Sheffey already holds offers from five Power Five schools. On film, Sheffey certainly didn’t look like a freshman. Combining power and speed, Sheffey has the option to run around defenders or right through them. He’s patient behind his run-blockers and has an arsenal of moves, including a spin move, juke and stiff arm, that he uses to keep himself out of harm’s way. Sheffey is also a threat in the passing game, where he hauled in 17 passes for 167 yards and two touchdowns, with some of those catches being high-difficulty receptions that a freshman RB usually has no business making. We’ve already seen so much from Sheffey, who is also a home-run threat in the return game, so it’s natural to feel those goosebumps when thinking about what kind of player Sheffey could still become.

Harrisburg Cougars

Predicted finish: 2nd

Coach: Calvin Everett

Record last season: 11-3, 6-1 Commonwealth (2nd place)

Team outlook: If there’s one thing you never want to see as an offense, it’s Harrisburg staring you down on the other side of the ball. While the Cougars lost a significant amount of talent, there’s a certain fear that comes with facing off against remaining all-star returners DB Raytel Bryant (54 tackles, 5 INTs), DT Ryan Epps (63 tackles, 18 TFLs, 3.5 sacks), DE Jayrell Britton (59 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and OLB KyMir Williams (65 tackles, 12 TFLs, 1 sack). While Harrisburg’s defense looks for another big year in the Commonwealth, we’re expecting the Cougars’ offense to reload as well. Shawn Lee Jr., an honorable mention selection at QB last fall, will lead the offense and look to continue his partnership with super sophomore WR Elias Coke, who caught 24 passes for 409 yards and six TDs last fall. The offensive line is still a work in progress, but with Sir-Kayne Venable (6-4, 290) and Kevin Brown (6-5, 235) leading the unit, Harrisburg has a couple of all-stars ready to plow the way for Lee & Co. The Cougars are easily a Top 3 team in the Commonwealth, but as is often the case with them, our guess is as good as yours where they will finish.

One player to watch: Shawn Lee Jr. With nearly 2,500 yards of rushing lost to graduation and an offensive line that will need time to gel, the pressure will be intensified on junior QB Lee, who was Harrisburg’s third-leading rusher last season. Not only did Lee run the ball 110 times for 584 yards and 10 TDs, he also proved himself to be an effective passer, completing 140 of 207 passes for 1,744 yards, 17 TDs and eight INTs. Working primarily out of the shotgun, Lee sports a solid arm and has good timing with his receivers. He is at his most dangerous when he is on the move. His scrambling can, and often does, turn broken plays into first downs, but it can also buy him time in the pocket when he’s facing danger. Not one to panic, Lee is great at making adjustments on the fly. Expect another big season, and perhaps a monster season if the offensive line can come together.

Central Dauphin Rams

Predicted finish: 3rd

Coach: Glen McNamee

Record last season: 3-7, 3-4 Commonwealth (5th place)

Team outlook: We counted back in Central Dauphin history as far as we could and it’s confirmed, last year’s three-win campaign broke a streak of at least 17 consecutive winning seasons. Was it a fluke? We’ll find out soon enough as senior QB Key’Ron Plummer gets another crack to lead the offense after injury spoiled the season for him and CD alike last fall. He will be protected by one of the nastiest returning offensive lines in the midstate, led by guard Anthony Robsock (6-6, 257) and tackle Evan Bushong (6-5, 277). Central Dauphin will have to find a way to replace more than 1,500 rushing yards lost from the graduation of David Chase and Devin Shepherd, but senior RB Miles Copper (26 carries, 169 yards, 1 TD) seems up for the challenge. Defensively, the Rams return a host of hard-nosed players, led by senior DE Jett Franz, who logged 80 tackles and 12.5 sacks a year ago. Franz will be joined by DB Ayden Smith (68 tackles), LB Kyle McCullough (76 tackles, 2.5 TFL) and DL I’Zhior Moon (56 tackles). With CD’s experience in the trenches, we’re expecting the Rams to at least hold serve with their opponents, and possibly dominate if the skill players can hit their stride. 

One player to watch: Key’Ron Plummer. After having his junior campaign derailed by a shoulder injury in the early stages of last season, Plummer is back to give the QB position another shot in 2023. In limited action last season, the 6-foot-1, 175-pound Plummer completed 17 of 32 passes for 206 yards, one TD and one INT. Plummer possesses a strong arm and is equally gifted with his legs, which can be used to extend plays or simply generate yardage. Central Dauphin’s chances this season hinge largely on whether Plummer can stay healthy and be productive. The Rams’ staff certainly believes in Plummer, as does Wheeling University, which has already offered the signal caller an opportunity to play at the next level.

Cumberland Valley Eagles

Predicted finish: 4th

Coach: Josh Oswalt

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

Team outlook: Cumberland Valley made the playoffs last fall in the third year of the Josh Oswalt era, but there are multiple questions that need to be answered before the Eagles can take flight again this season. The first is who is going to replace QB and Commonwealth Offensive Player of the Year Isaac Sines? CV is looking to make its decision at signal caller between senior Deagan Rardain and juniors Kaden Schoenly and Grant Shepley. Whoever wins the job will be protected by one of the most battle-tested offensive lines in the Commonwealth, led by Tyler Merrill (6-5, 305), Noah Brown (6-foot, 245), Tre Grohman (6-foot, 225) and Mekhi Tichenor (6-foot, 225). Look for another beneficiary of the experienced line to be RB Bryce Staretz, who racked up 147 carries for 738 yards and six TDs last season. Defensively, CV will be looking to rally behind senior inside linebacker Alex Sauve, who was a first-team selection after logging 65 tackles and one INT last season. The Commonwealth is always an unpredictable beast, but the Eagles’ stability in the trenches has us believing they’ll be competitive in every game they play this year.

One player to watch: Caiden Pines. It doesn’t matter if he’s on offense or defense — when the ball is in the air, look for Pines to make the play. The 6-foot, 170-pound Pines is aiming to build off a junior season where he earned Commonwealth Honorable Mention honors as both a wide receiver and defensive back. Pines has good speed, with a 4.57-second time in the 40-yard dash, but it’s his catching fundamentals that make him especially effective. Whether the ball is underthrown or aired out too high, Pines has a knack for catching the ball out of position. Last year he totaled 304 yards and six TDs on 16 receptions. As a cornerback, Pines will be expected to once again stick with the best receiver on the opposing team while also baiting the QB into making ill-advised throws. He logged 26 tackles and three interceptions last fall. If colleges were looking for another reason to consider Pines, take a look at his special teams game film and watch how seriously he takes the unheralded role of blocking the opposing team’s “gunner” on punt return plays.

Carlisle Thundering Herd

Predicted finish: 5th

Coach: Brandon Cook

Record last season: 6-5, 4-3 Commonwealth (3rd place)

Team outlook: With two straight playoff appearances in the books, Carlisle will be looking to pull off the trifecta under first-year head coach Brandon Cook, who was an assistant on the Herd staff from 2016-2018. Repeating the success of last season will be easier said than done for a Carlisle team going to battle with a new QB and an inexperienced offensive line. Senior Lucas Smith has won the starting job at signal caller after having success in limited reps last fall, throwing for 344 yards and two TDs. He’ll have a nice target to throw to in the form of WR Carson Swartz (29 catches, 758 yards, 6 TDs) but will need some balance in the offense from top returning rusher Marquise Miller (13 carries, 117 yards, 3 TDs) to keep opposing defenses honest. Senior all-star Jeremiah Hargrove has transferred to Trinity for this season, but his twin brother Eli is back from a torn ACL and is ready to make a big impact on both sides of the ball. Carlisle has quite a few divisional games that could be considered coin-flip games, and fast development in the trenches will certainly have an impact on how many of those games the Herd can win.

One player to watch: Carson Swartz. The biggest returning playmaker for the Herd is Swartz, a lightning-fast receiver in the business of making over-the-head circus catches like Willie Mays. Standing at 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds, Swartz can run the 40 in 4.49 and, combined with great hands, he is Carlisle’s biggest deep-threat weapon. He has the speed to simply outrun defensive backs and create separation in the secondary but has proven himself time and again when challenged to make contested catches. A team-oriented player, Swartz is willing to take the big hit to secure a catch and is a playmaker on special teams. Swartz was a Commonwealth Second Team selection at WR last fall, and if he can form a bond with Smith, we could very well see him standing among the best in the conference at the end of this season. 

Chambersburg Trojans

Predicted finish: 6th

Coach: Mark Luther

Record last season: 3-7, 1-6 Commonwealth (7th place)

Team outlook: Chambersburg’s strength lies in its treasure trove of skill players, as the roster is dotted with talented players who can pass, catch and run as well as anyone in the Commonwealth. The riddle coach Mark Luther needs to solve, however, resides in the trenches. The Trojans will be green up front, both offensively and defensively, and their chances of success this fall will bank largely on how well both units can gel. If the Trojans’ line can build some confidence and continuity, look for senior QB Riley Harmon and WRs Andy Jean (5-8, 161) and Rhaigeon Parker (5-10, 153) to have a big season, and for RB Dayre Senft to keep defenses honest. On the other side of the ball, LB Stanley Lozius (5-11, 195) leads a defense that is looking to make steps forward after allowing 25.9 points per game last season. There are pieces in place to field a good football team in Chambersburg, but it’s going to take an extraordinary effort to move up the Commonwealth ladder.

One player to watch: Riley Harmon. When you’re trying to navigate the choppy waters of the Commonwealth Division, it’s best to have a battle-tested quarterback at the helm of the ship. Harmon, a 5-10, 170-pound senior, gives the Trojans just that. Harmon likes to sling the ball downfield and does so with a pretty spiral. He’s got a great rapport with Jean and Parker, and his ability to scramble and stay focused downfield gives his senior teammates even more opportunities to make plays. It’s this elusivity that leads us to believe that Chambersburg will have a chance to be competitive this season, even with a new-look offensive line.

Altoona Mountain Lions

Predicted position: 7th

Coach: Vince Nedimyer

Record last season: 6-6, 2-5 Commonwealth (6th place)

Team outlook: Altoona brings back one returning all-star player — OL/DL Hayden Speece (6-2, 265) — but there is enough in the cupboard for the Mountain Lions to once again grind out some wins this fall. Alex Yost, who totaled nearly 1,000 rushing yards in 2022, is lost to graduation, but there are several players who could help fill that gap this season, including sophomore Julian Hazlewood (20 carries, 211 yards, 1 TD) and seniors Bron Mosley (24 carries, 190 yards, 1 TD) and George Jackson (33 carries, 124 yards, 1 TD). Quarterback Brennen Freiwald is back for his junior season after completing 44 of 100 passes for 686 yards, five TDs and a pick last fall. Most of Freiwald’s weapons at WR are gone, so top returner Mark Harrington (3 catches, 86 yards, 1 TD) will undoubtedly have to pick up production. Altoona’s defense brings back a number of experienced players, including Mosley (26 tackles, 3 TFL), Harrington (32 tackles, 1 INT), sophomore Logan Wukovich (40 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 sack) and senior Evan Boose (38 tackles, 3.5 sacks).

One player to watch: Logan Wukovich. It’s no easy task for a freshman to earn playing time in the rugged Commonwealth Division, especially so at middle linebacker, but the 6-foot, 195-pound Wukovich did just that for the Mountain Lions last season. He wasn’t born ready for the varsity playing field, but rather he hustled his way into the Altoona lineup. A high-energy player with a big motor and even bigger heart, Wukovich is sharp at reading the opposing offense and doesn’t get fooled by deception. Wukovich still has room to grow into his body and the potential to develop into a star. That’s scary news for the rest of the Commonwealth, considering Wukovich still has three full years of high school football yet to play.

CD East Panthers

Predicted finish: 8th

Coach: Lance Deane

Record last season: 3-7, 1-6 Commonwealth (8th place)

Team outlook: Heading into his third year as head coach, Lance Dean is trying to build a quality football program at CD East. But as he’s learning, piecing together a squad is no easy task when the pieces keep on graduating. The Panthers will be looking to compete in the Commonwealth without a single one of their six all-star selections returning to the high school field this fall, including super DT Vincent Jackson-Carroll, now at Nebraska. With that said, Dean’s Panthers have some promising returning athletes looking to make their mark. Jared Porter and Xavier Armstrong are both solid at the RB position, and both double as fearsome defenders in the secondary. In the trenches, Adam Putric (5-10, 248) is another player looking to make an impact on both sides of the ball. Zach Brown, a 6-2, 210-pound TE/LB, earned some reps as a freshman last fall and looks to be a key member of the team in 2023. We’d love to see East take a step forward in the Commonwealth, but it’s going to take a few more emerging stars before we can envision the Panthers moving up from the bottom half of the division.

One player to watch: Jared Porter. CD East could very well have a star in the making in Porter, a 5-foot-9, 170-pound junior RB/DB who already has a college offer from West Virginia. Porter clocks a 4.5 in the 40, and believes he can go even faster, but the secondary standout is just as renowned for his ability to unleash big hits. Receivers should start to get nervous if Porter isn’t draped all over them deflecting passes, because that means the ball is about to get separated from them in a much more forceful manner. Offensively, Porter is a fast and slippery ball carrier who can make sharp reads at the line of scrimmage. Once the shifty Porter hits the hole and finds the open field, it’s off to the races. Porter missed the Commonwealth all-star team as a sophomore but has the tools to make a run at this list, and perhaps more.

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