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Monday, April 22, 2024

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

Even though the Mid-Penn Conference’s far-flung Liberty Division featured outright champions each of the past two seasons — Juniata in 2021 and Upper Dauphin last season — this time around the seven-team scrap for league supremacy may be tighter than it’s been since many of these programs called the Tri-Valley League home.

Even back as far as the Twin Valley Conference.

So, dig in, pay attention and make sure to raise your voice a few octaves when your favorite team begins its quest for a Liberty crown and hopefully a berth in a panoramic postseason picture.

Predicted order of finish: Line Mountain, Juniata, Susquenita, Upper Dauphin, Newport, Halifax, James Buchanan

Line Mountain Eagles

Predicted finish: 1st

Coach: Brandon Carson

Record last season: 4-7, 3-3 Liberty

Team outlook: Line Mountain has 10 players back on defense and nine on offense from a season ago when a daunting non-league slate put Brandon Carson’s club in an early 0-3 hole. But this group is still climbing the developmental ladder even though it sports experience just about everywhere. While feature back Ian Bates will draw plenty of attention after becoming the first Line Mountain sophomore to rush for more than 1,000 yards, carries will be available for Nolan Baumert, Chandon Maurer, Quinn Dunkelberger and freshman Noah Ringes. Sophomore quarterback Kaiden Maurer also returns, and he’ll have targets available, with classmate Max Johnson likely to find the ball coming his way often — especially early. A veteran front featuring Colby Rebuck, Kohen Shingara and Jackson Kauwell has enough size to move defenders and protect Maurer. On the defensive side, Carson really wants to get after people up front, at the second level and across the secondary. If these Eagles can build early confidence — Athens, Danville, Tri-Valley and Middletown make up the non-league slate — look out once league play begins to unfold. These guys really want a league title and a home date in the District 4 Class 2A playoffs.

One player to watch: Ian Bates. A threat to go yard any time he latches on to the football, Bates’ season really began to take shape before September ended — especially with the dependable Baumert out with an ankle injury. When it came to a close, he gained a sophomore record 1,219 yards and scored 15 touchdowns running the ball. Bates also hauled in a team-high 16 receptions and yet another score. Add everything up and you’ll understand why the diminutive youngster with the high-octane chassis was tagged the Liberty’s Offensive Player of the Year. Bates, however, also held his own in the secondary by making 39 tackles, picking off one pass and causing one fumble. He’s also a threat on special teams.

Juniata Indians

Predicted finish: 2nd

Coach: Kurt Condo

Record last season: 8-4, 5-1 Liberty

Team outlook: Juniata’s program may graduate key performers every year, but Kurt Condo’s squad typically has more than enough talent — and the requisite numbers — to put competitive sides on the field every fall. And this year is no different. So while the Indians’ early opponents may find themselves trying to figure out who’s going to carry the football or plug a gap on the defensive line, Condo and his experienced staff will shake some youngsters who’ve spent the past season or two in the shadows and turn them into prime-time performers. One player everyone already knows about is sophomore Jasper Shepps, who likely will move into the quarterback position after spending his first varsity season catching passes and chasing down receivers. And since Shepps led the Indians in receiving in 2022, his understanding of the Juniata passing game should help him make a smooth transition. Plus, having burly back Seth Laub ready to churn out sizable chunks of yardage in the run game and as a receiver will bump Shepps’ comfort level. While replacing Liberty Defensive Player of the Year Jonathan Kauffman will be next to impossible, Lane Peiper appears to be the heir apparent after starting his first two seasons. Although unable to defend their 2021 Liberty title, Condo’s Indians made their third straight appearance in the PIAA Class 4A state tournament after winning their third District 6/9 championship. Rarely an easy out.

One player to watch: Seth Laub. Dependable throughout his varsity career, Laub’s productivity in the backfield and at linebacker figures to increase in his final high school season since he’s a load at 220-or-so pounds. While Laub last season ran for 468 yards, he averaged more than 6 yards per carry and scored five times. He also caught six passes, scoring once. Where he figures to really thrive is defensively, especially since his 65 stops ranked him behind only Kauffman and Peiper and earned him a second-team All-Liberty selection at linebacker. Need more? The kid also can punt the football.

Susquenita Blackhawks

Predicted finish: 3rd

Coach: Rick Gibney

Record last season: 5-5, 4-2 Liberty

Team outlook: Although the Blackhawks have been somewhat enigmatic since a sizable group of seniors entered the varsity scene as freshmen, perhaps this is the season when those puzzling losses become victories and ‘Nita finally finds a way to squeeze into postseason play. Then again, one never knows how playing for a third head coach in four seasons will impact what happens on the playing surface. Nonetheless, it wouldn’t be a surprise if first-year skipper Rick Gibney — a former Blachawks QB — turns his quarterback-playing son, Derek, loose during the latter’s final high school campaign. Derek Gibney stands 6-foot-4, weighs 230 pounds and has the ability to thread a pass through a keyhole and the mobility to run away from a quality rush. Susquenita also returns a bunch of targets — Derek Gibney’s twin brother, Drew, Blaise Swancer and Athan Robinson on the flanks, Kamar Lewis at tight end and Bryce McKee out of the backfield — so if there’s time to throw these guys have people capable of making plays. In fact, spread sets might be ‘Nita’s favored alignment when on offense. If these guys can ring up points, then a defensive unit that will feature many of these same players may only need to stop the other guys two or three times to gain a savory result. These guys have the talent to make things happen, but do they have the confidence needed to contend for a crown?

One player to watch: Derek Gibney. Poised to start behind center for the fourth consecutive season — he also plays defensive end and punts — the powerfully built Gibney has all the prerequisites needed to be able to throw the ball all over the yard. And with a strong right arm, terrific feet and more than enough foot speed to make him difficult to catch and bring down, the 6-4, 230-pounder may be ready to lead the Blackhawks to the top of the Liberty table. And there isn’t a Liberty defensive coordinator that’s not leery of finding a way to slow Gibney & Co. down. In fact, each and every one of them will exhale deeply once they’ve watched the clock run out and hear the horn sounding — hopefully with a victory tucked away. What’s interesting about Gibney is his ambidexterity. No one would be surprised to see him make a throw with his left arm, particularly since he punts with his left foot.

Upper Dauphin Trojans

Predicted finish: 4th

Coach: Kent Smeltz

Record last season: 8-3, 6-0 Liberty

Team outlook: Although picking Kent Smeltz’s squad to finish in the middle of a remarkably competitive Liberty Division pack might be surprising to many, the Trojans did watch a sizable senior class (16) march off in the spring with their diplomas in hand. And those departures are a lot to overcome, particularly since that group featured some talented linemen and a productive array of skill people. Nonetheless, these guys will be tough to take out regardless of the players on the field and won’t yield their 2022 crown without a heated scrap or two. While UDA may need some time to iron out its offensive front and ground game, Smeltz believes junior quarterback Aidan Bingaman is ready to shoulder whatever load necessary to keep the Trojans relevant and firmly in the Liberty title chase. Several other players to keep an eye on include junior running back/defensive end Caleb Snyder, tight end/inside linebacker Tegan Engle and two-way back Tyler Erdley. Dangerous group.

One player to watch: Aidan Bingaman. Although Smeltz has admitted Bingaman encountered his share of struggles at the start of the 2022 campaign, he was pleased how the talented youngster absorbed instruction throughout the season and began to grow more comfortable with each game. Standing 6-1 and checking in at about 180 pounds, Bingaman, who also plays d-end and punts, corralled a second-team all-star nod last season after completing nearly 58% of his passes while throwing for 1,264 yards and 15 touchdowns. What’s important to note is Bingaman, a drop-back passer not likely to run all that much, was only intercepted three times while attempting just more than 150 throws. Fast forwarding to 2023 — and yet another season under the tutelage of UDA quarterback guru Tom Hain — Bingaman may need to spread the ball around until some of his youthful receiving corps grows accustomed to Friday night’s excessively bright lights. He’s not Randy Martz nor Todd Gittings yet — they were some of Hain’s top-notch QBs in the 1970s — but Smeltz is genuinely upbeat about how good Bingaman can be before his Trojans career comes to a close.

Newport Buffaloes

Predicted finish: 5th

Coach: Todd Rothermel

Record last season: 2-8, 2-4 Liberty

Team outlook: Following several difficult seasons — and some frustrating setbacks — Todd Rothermel’s Buffaloes are hoping to regain their swagger and return to the top of the Liberty standings. And if his old-school approach works — strong play along both fronts is a staple — the ‘Port may be able to surprise a few people along the way. Especially after the Buffs closed the 2022 season with consecutive victories over Halifax and James Buchanan. Obviously, we’ll see what happens once the season begins to unfold. What we do know about Rothermel-coached squads is they will compete hard against everyone they play. What we don’t know is which of the Buffaloes will emerge from the Katchmer Field shadows and step up to the level that’s expected of those front-line players under Friday night’s bright lights.

One player to watch: Zach Bellis. If Newport popped players off an assembly line somewhere beneath Buffalo Mountain, the remarkably competitive Bellis (sr., OL/LB) would fit a fiery profile dating back to Rothermel’s coaching days at Line Mountain. While the 6-1, 200-pound Bellis was a warrior in the middle of the Buffs’ offensive front last season, he really stood out defensively while leading the ‘Port with 71 tackles — including 10 ½ behind the line of scrimmage. Bellis also registered one quarterback sack, posted four QB hurries, recovered a pair of fumbles, swiped one pass and blocked four kicks. In other words, the football seems to find this the honorable mention all-league choice (on both sides of the ball) so he can make whatever play is necessary to thwart a scoring drive. Terrific player who many opponents will try to avoid by scheming plays away from wherever he sets up.

Halifax Wildcats

Predicted finish: 6th

Coach: Roy Wall

Record last season: 1-9, 0-6 Liberty

Team outlook: Whether Roy Wall opts to adopt the Navy Spread attack he utilized so effectively during his decade-plus at neighboring Millersburg remains to be seen, but Halifax’s first-year skipper does have some skill people who can make plays — if time permits everything to unfold the way it’s drawn up. Yes, Wall has returned to the Susquehanna River’s east bank, stepping into a difficult position left vacant when Earl Mosley retired. If Wall can surround his skill players with linemen capable of occupying defenders long enough to enable runners to get to the second level, then the ‘Cats may be able to move the ball consistently. In sophomore Teegan Carroll and senior Mason Enders, Halifax has quarterbacks who can throw the football. And with the likes of Peter Ranck and Landon Areford, the ‘Cats have talented youngsters capable of breaking open in the secondary and making catches. Then, there’s senior back Isaac Miller — a do-everything type who can run and catch — who just might thrive in a Navy Spread that emphasizes fullback play. Stay tuned.

One player to watch: Isaac Miller. Anyone who happened to glance at Halifax’s defensive statistics a season ago and wondered if there was a misprint somewhere next to Miller’s name, the answer was and is no. The 6-foot, 190-pound senior who plays ‘backer and running back was all over the field a year ago, particularly when the Wildcats were trying to get the football back, totaling 157 tackles from his inside linebacker position. While seven of those stops just happened to occur behind the line of scrimmage, Miller also posted one quarterback sack and recovered a pair of fumbles. No wonder he landed a first-team defensive nod on the Liberty Division’s all-league contingent. Miller also led Halifax in rushing in 2022, collecting 511 yards and six touchdowns while averaging more than six yards per pop. He also caught six passes out of the backfield, posting another TD.

James Buchanan Rockets

Predicted finish: 7th

Coach: Cliff Pine

Record last season: 3-7, 1-5 Liberty

Team outlook: While Cliff Pine’s Rockets lifted off quickly by winning three of their first four games — JB toppled York Tech, Clear Spring (Maryland) and Halifax, but lost to Biglerville — they were unable to maintain their early momentum against the Liberty’s stronger adversaries. Unfortunately for JB, some significant graduation losses may slow their progress in 2023, even as Pine wheels into his fourth season fronting the program. Skill people such as John Stoner, Alex Beeler and Spencer Line have exhausted their eligibility and will not be available on Friday nights — unless they’ve been added to Pine’s staff or help out by taking tickets. So, we’ll see what happens as 2023 plays out.

One player to watch: Jacob Frey. Since the senior rarely left the field, JB’s 48-minute man spent most nights trying to make plays all over the field — whether at running back, linebacker or returning kicks. And at least one opposing coach said after a game during Frey’s sophomore season, “I’d love to have him on my team.” Well, JB isn’t about to let him escape Franklin County because they need him to run, catch and pass out the water bottles during timeouts whenever the Rockets have the ball. Heck, he might even spend time during the run-up to some game taping his defensive teammates’ ankles — and that’s before he spends the rest of the night pursuing ballcarriers, receivers and kick returners. A quality player who was recognized last season as a second-team all-star on both sides of the ball. If JB hopes to upend a Liberty opponent or two, they’ll need this guy to shoulder a sizable portion of the load.

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