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Tuesday, July 16, 2024

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

It might not last long, but for now there is a ray of hope for teams in the Mid-Penn Keystone Division hoping to catch up with Bishop McDevitt, a team which has had its offensive line absolutely gutted from graduation losses.

But the reality is the backups for the Crusaders are almost always good enough to start at any other school. And even if you can find a way to expose the new-look offensive line, they still have plenty of other game-breaking talents at other parts of the field to overwhelm even the most game teams in the Keystone.

It’s going to be a fun battle for second place between Cedar Cliff and Milton Hershey, with Lower Dauphin, Mifflin County and Hershey all looking to prove they belong in that tier. Red Land and Palmyra could have difficulty staying in games this fall, but there are some high-quality players on those squads who can set an example for the years to come.

It’s going to be a fun division to watch as all games not involving Bishop McDevitt should carry a certain level of unpredictability.

Predicted division standings: Bishop McDevitt, Cedar Cliff, Milton Hershey, Lower Dauphin, Mifflin County, Hershey, Red Land, Palmyra

Bishop McDevitt Crusaders

Predicted finish: 1st

Coach: Jeff Weachter

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

Team outlook: For most schools, extraordinary graduation losses in the trenches can be backbreaking. But for defending state champ Bishop McDevitt — which lost the equivalent of an entire college offensive line with the departures of Riley Robell (James Madison), Gabe Arena (Virginia Tech), Kameron Zaengle (Edinboro), Dimitri Chacon (Bloomsburg), and Ethan Straining (Shippensburg) — it’s just a matter of reloading. McDevitt will have time for its new o-line to gel as it navigates through Keystone Division play, and if that mission is accomplished the Crusaders have the firepower to once again contend for a PIAA championship. It all starts behind center with junior quarterback Stone Saunders, a 6-foot-2, 200-pound gunslinger committed to Kentucky who threw for 3,583 yards and an obscene 54 touchdowns to go along with five interceptions. The majority of those passes will go to superhuman wide receiver Rico Scott, but look for Nevan Hopkins (6-foot, 185) and tight end Nick Slogik (6-5, 240) to have pass-catching duties ramped up this fall. Defensively, it’s going to be challenging for opponents to accomplish much of anything as the Crusaders return all-star linebackers Ty Kephart (6-foot, 195) and Maurice Barnes (6-2, 200), defensive backs Hopkins, Chase Regan (6-foot, 180), and Jaire Rawlison (5-10, 175), and defensive linemen Slogik and Dallas Davenport (6-foot, 260). Look for this edition of McDevitt to once again overwhelm the Keystone Division and make a deep run into the postseason, possibly concluding with another PIAA championship.

One player to watch: Rico Scott. We’ve been told the film on Scott is not, in fact, being played in fast-forward, rather that’s just how much blinding speed is possessed by the freakish 6-1, 190-pound senior receiver. As soon as Scott secures a pass, whether it’s in the flats or deep down the sideline, it’s a race to the end zone that the Alabama verbal commit almost always wins. Scott isn’t always tested by DBs at the high-school level, but when he is, he displays the great hands and athleticism to make plays under duress. His first move after the catch is enough to shake off the most well-prepared tackler. Last year Scott cashed in 66 receptions for 1,184 yards and 18 TDs. We’re excited, and maybe a little bit scared, to see the damage this dude does in the Keystone this fall.

Cedar Cliff Colts

Predicted finish: 2nd

Coach: Colin Gillen

Record last season: 7-4, 5-2 Keystone (3rd place)

Team outlook: If there’s one team that has a chance to be competitive with feared Bishop McDevitt, at least in spots, it’s Cedar Cliff. The Colts bring back a treasure trove of senior all-star talent on defense, including LBs Nathan Lusk, Carter Enders and Michael Jones, and DBs in Julius Tirado, Taeon Abraham and Elijah Wilbourn. Whether you’re looking to run or pass, the Colts have got you covered. Offensively, junior QB Bennett Secrest (6-foot, 190) is back to lead the offense after accumulating 1,281 passing yards and 17 TDs last fall. He has already built a strong connection with WR Lusk (37 receptions, 458 yards, 6 TDs) and will be aided by the return of RB Jones (109 carries, 502 yards, 4 TDs) in the backfield. Cedar Cliff has a handful of quality linemen to replace, so look for Cooper Hambright (5-11, 220) and TE Enders to lead by example for the boys in the trenches. Also on the agenda for coach Colin Gillen and his staff is finding a replacement for Derek Witmer, who made a big impact on special teams as a First Team Keystone kicker and punter. With that said, there’s plenty of talent at Cedar Cliff, and we see no reason why the Colts can’t lock up that second-place position and maybe, just maybe, put a scare into the Crusaders.

One player to watch: Nathan Lusk. If the ball is aired out anywhere near the same continent as Lusk, there’s a good chance the sure-handed linebacker and wide receiver is going to come down with the ball. A 6-1, 190-pound footballer just brimming with athleticism, Lusk is looking to repeat the success of last fall, which landed him on the Keystone’s First Team for defense and Honorable Mention for offense. Lusk has the size and fundamentals of a solid linebacker, but it’s his presence as a ball-hawking defender that makes opponents think twice about running plays in his direction. He can split out to play cornerback as needed and knows how to time blitzes as well as anyone. On the offensive side of the ball, Lusk has made the habit of turning sure-to-be incomplete passes into acrobatic receptions. Even when a defender is draped all over him, Secrest has the confidence to throw in tight windows because Lusk repeatedly makes plays on passes that would be low-probability catches for most receivers. With Lusk on the field, you get the sense that Cedar Cliff will always have a chance to make the defensive stop or big conversion, even when facing a superior team.

Milton Hershey Spartans

Predicted finish: 3rd

Coach: Jeff Boger

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

Team outlook: There are enough playmakers in the stable at Milton Hershey for the Spartans to put up some big numbers this season. Just how big those numbers get is largely dependent on projected starting QB Jason Burney, a southpaw senior who put up some decent numbers while backing up Kenny Emile last fall. Burney will have a couple of all-star receivers to throw to in Angel Roberts (6-foot, 180) and Mohamed Koroma (6-foot, 165) and will be joined in the backfield by senior running back Elijah Johnson, who earned Second Team honors in the Keystone in 2022. When considering Milton Hershey also brings back stud offensive linemen Noah Gibbs (5-11, 295) and Lany Brode (6-2, 280), it’s easy to envision the Spartans lighting up the scoreboard this fall. The defense will be led by senior linebacker Michael Blidi (6-2, 225), defensive back Kaden East (6-foot, 185) and strong safety Burney. We’re not sure if Milton Hershey has what it takes to spring an upset over Bishop McDevitt, but the Spartans should have plenty in the cupboard to give the rest of the Keystone problems.

One player to watch: Mohamed Koroma. Any time this dude gets his hands on the ball it’s like lightning in a bottle, and the coaches in the Keystone certainly noticed this last season when they voted Koroma a Second Team all-star as both a receiver and return specialist. Opponents would be wise to kick the ball to someone other than the 6-foot, 165-pound spark plug with great vision who seems to see the holes before they even open up. Of course, kicking away from Koroma won’t stop him from being the primary target on offense. Last year as a junior he caught 40 passes for 532 yards and eight TDs. Milton Hershey will do whatever it takes to get him the ball, even if it’s just tossing it to him in the flats and letting him work his magic. Even when the Spartans don’t call Koroma’s name, he stays engaged in his blocking assignments and doesn’t take plays off. With the ability to run precise routes and make sharp cuts, the speedy Koroma could be one of the breakout stars of the Keystone this fall.

Lower Dauphin Falcons

Predicted finish: 4th

Coach: Josh Borreli

Record last season: 4-6, 2-5 Keystone (6th place)

Team outlook: Slowly but surely under the college-style direction of coach Josh Borreli, Lower Dauphin is starting to regain some of the respect that once made the program feared throughout the Mid-Penn. Borreli has some tough assignments in front of him, like trying to replace the QB-WR combo of seniors Bryce and Charlie Fortney, but he has a hard-nosed RB in Ty Millhimes who will keep the chains moving all season. Defensively, the Falcons are returning nine starters, including all-star talent in LB Nathan Stuckey (6-foot, 180) and DBs Brandon Fritz (6-2, 180) and Wes Heagy (6-foot, 180). Our biggest concern about LD is size — the biggest man on the roster is 238 pounds, and the top returning lineman, all-star Connor Hassinger, checks in at 5-10 and 200 pounds. Staying healthy will be key, and if the Falcons can do that they are tough enough to win every 50-50 matchup the Keystone throws at them.

One player to watch: Ty Millhimes. After watching junior season film on Millhimes, we’re absolutely convinced this 6-2, 215-pound stud was born on the football field. Whether he’s shaking off defenders like practice pylons from his running back position, or wrecking plays when blitzing as an outside linebacker, or just taking kickoffs to the house, Millhimes certainly looks like he’s in his natural environment on the field. He’ll be most depended upon on offense, where his hands and speed make him a threat both as a runner and receiver. Millhimes carries so much muscle that opponents would be better off trying to tackle a bowling ball. Last year he accounted for more than 1,200 yards of offense and 17 total touchdowns. Defensively, look for Millhimes to be a leader. He is great at pursuit and creating angles and is a sure-handed tackler. Carrying the same hefty measurements as the offensive linemen that try to block him, Millhimes is an immovable object. He just maintains his ground, sheds his blocker and makes the tackle. Millhimes is a player that wants to be on the field every single play, and if his wish is granted this fall Lower Dauphin could have an even better season than expected.

Mifflin County Huskies

Predicted finish: 5th

Coach: Shane Breon

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

Team outlook: After two years of winless football, Mifflin County rebounded in a big way last season with just its third winning campaign since the fall of 2011. Shane Breon was named the Keystone Coach of the Year for the Huskies, who return both experience and confidence for their Friday night scraps. Mifflin County has battle-tested studs at RB in Deakon Scheaffer and QB in Landon Eichhorn (1,580 yards, 17 TDs, 10 INTs), but the Huskies will need to find a way to fill the (oversized) shoes of graduated all-star linemen Ryan Stahl and Elijah Osborne if they’d like to see their playmakers continue to make plays. They have a two-way returning all-star in Parker Kearns, who racked up 82 tackles as a linebacker, while catching 22 passes for 340 yards and a touchdown as a wide receiver. The Huskies earned a lot of respect last season, but they will probably be seen as an underdog again in 2023. That would be a grave mistake for opponents, as they have the pieces in place to be competitive on a weekly basis.

One player to watch: Deakon Schaeffer. The Huskies will go as far as the speedy 5-7, 190-pound running back will take them. As a junior last season, Scheaffer piled up 1,058 yards on 192 carries (5.5 yards per carry) to go along with 10 TDs. When Scheaffer finds the hole, he slams on the turbo button to run away from defenders in the secondary. His speed — clocked at 4.55 in the 40-yard dash — is enough to make the opposition nervous, but it’s Schaeffer’s shiftiness that makes those opponents look like fools. It’s these qualities that make Scheaffer a dangerous kick returner and a big threat in the receiving game as a back who can catch passes in the flat or split out wide. Last fall Scheaffer caught 17 passes for 270 yards and four TDs. In order for Mifflin County to repeat its success from last season, it is going to need players who don’t give up on plays. Expect Scheaffer, always willing to churn his legs just to get that extra yard, to set that example.

Hershey Trojans

Predicted finish: 6th

Coach: Mark Painter

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

Team outlook: Graduation losses always hurt, but when you lose a player like Marcus Sweeney — a lock-down defensive back, acrobatic receiver and superior return specialist — it almost feels like you’ve lost five or six players. Sweeney is just one player the Trojans need to go on without; they also need to replace their starting quarterback. They are turning to Sweeney’s younger brother, sophomore Cameron Sweeney, to take on that role. We don’t know what kind of arm the younger Sweeney has just yet, but we can confirm his legs work just fine and could be key in keeping plays alive while he learns the position. Look for Angel Cabrera, a 6-foot, 230-pound battering ram of a running back, to get a healthy amount of carries after totaling 111 for 625 yards and eight TDs last fall. Cabrera is nearly as large as the two returning all-star linemen opening holes for him: Tucker Valoczki (6-3, 240) and Cory Schaffer (6-2, 225). On the defensive side, the linebacking corps will be led by returning all-stars Cabrera and junior Sean Elliott (6-foot, 215). Hershey has the pieces to have a nice season, but execution from the new players at key positions will likely be what determines whether the Trojans have a winning or losing season.

One player to watch: Cameron Sweeney. Whether it’s fair or not, heavy expectations will be placed on the 6-foot, 155-pound Sweeney, just because of his last name. For that, the sophomore can thank his older brother Marcus, who nailed down First Team Keystone honors at three different positions in his final year at Hershey. Luckily, the younger Sweeney is more than just a name. As a freshman getting playing time at cornerback, Sweeney showed that he wasn’t intimidated by playing with the older kids. He has the speed to stick like glue on receivers, the size to play physical and the height to make plays on the ball. How will these skills translate on the other side of the ball, where Sweeney will be taking on the role of QB? Well, we’re just as curious as you, and that’s one of the many reasons we’ve selected Sweeney as our player to watch. 

Red Land Patriots

Predicted finish: 7th

Coach: Eric Depew

Record last season: 2-8, 1-6 Keystone (7th place)

Team outlook: After taking lumps in the Keystone Division for several years, Red Land has a solid group of seniors that just might be able to reverse the losing trend. The Patriots will be led up front by a couple of all-star offensive tackles in Addison Janovich (6-1, 265) and Anthony McCutcheon (6-foot, 266) who will pave the way for wrecking ball RB Colton Hoffman. Throw in some blocking and pass-catching from Second Team Keystone tight end Bryce Phillips, and it’s easy to envision the Patriots generating some push this season. Hoffman, Phillips and Janovich will pull double-duty on defense, with DB Anthony Shay also returning to make life miserable for opponents. The Patriots might not have the firepower to keep up with a lot of teams in the Keystone, but they have the size to ensure, at the very least, they won’t be pushed around.

One player to watch: Colton Hoffman. It’s hard to find a player who is both slippery and seeks out contact, but the 6-foot, 215-pound Hoffman sure seems to fit the bill. Give the physical RB a running head start and there’s very little that can stop him. Hoffman is willing to lower his head and deliver the kill shot on would-be tacklers, and when the rest of the defense swarms him he repeatedly finds ways to hop away from the scrum and get to daylight. Hoffman’s qualities also translate to the defensive side of the ball, where he mans the middle linebacker position. He’s elusive and rarely takes on full blocks from the opposition before laying the wood on the ball carrier. Hoffman is more than a heat-seeking missile. He has a great knack for reading plays and knows when to stay home and cover the pass. Last year Hoffman was an Honorable Mention selection in the Keystone at both positions. That stock could rise significantly this fall.

Palmyra Cougars

Predicted finish: 8th

Coach: Chris Pavone

Record last season: 1-9, 0-7 Keystone Division (8th place)

Team outlook: Life in the Keystone Division hasn’t been easy in recent years for Palmyra, which will be searching for its first winning record since the 2018 season. While the Cougars do return eight starters on each side of the ball, Friday nights at Buck Swank Stadium will be a little harder to navigate without the services of junior RB Juan Figueroa, who transferred to Bishop McDevitt this season. Palmyra will be breaking in a new QB this fall, but on-the-job training should be a little easier for the signal-caller with the return of WRs Keagan Kleinfelter (19 catches, 115 yards, 2 TDs) and Kadan Readinger (16 catches, 233 yards), and a duo of offensive linemen in Andrew Manning and Kadin Jones. Defensively, Palmyra has a few returning all-stars in DL Manning, LBs Kyle Koennecke and Jones, and DB Kleinfelter — who combined for more than 240 tackles last season. There’s plenty of experience on the field for the Cougars, but only time will tell if that will be enough to stay competitive with the big dogs in the Keystone.

One player to watch: Kadin Jones. If Palmyra hopes to earn a few wins in the Keystone this season, the Cougars will need a few hard-nosed athletes to set the tone on the field. Enter the 5-11, 195-pound Jones, a middle linebacker and center who stays tough year-round by also competing in wrestling and lacrosse. An Honorable Mention selection on both sides of the football last year, Jones accounted for 97 tackles, including seven TFLs. Palmyra knows the middle of the field is safe with Jones on patrol, as he doesn’t get fooled on play calls and can cover the run and pass with equal precision. Look for Jones, a specialist in the fundamentals of tackling, to set a shining example for the young players with his textbook technique.

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