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Thursday, July 18, 2024

Mid-Penn Liberty Division Breakdown

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

Susquenita is a year older and more mature, so Augie Glass’ Blackhawks could pose a challenge to Kurt Condo’s Indians. Upper Dauphin is hoping to fill some significant vacancies up front and at the quarterback position, yet Kent Smeltz’s Trojans will continue to attack throughout.

Brandon Carson’s youthful Line Mountain program, if it can survive a super-challenging three-game gauntlet at the start, has quality at a lot of positions. Todd Rothermel is hoping to get Newport revved up – and back in the discussion – by unveiling a different offensive scheme.

James Buchanan is still trying to figure out what its Liberty playmates are all about, but Cliff Pine’s Rockets will continue to stick with their pound-the-rock approach. And the youngsters at Halifax are facing yet another numbers shortage, so Earl Mosley will test his freshmen early.

Quite simply, these programs will get after one another – as they have in many cases for 50-plus years and even longer. Some things just don’t change.

Team: Juniata

Predicted finish position: 1st 

Coach: Kurt Condo (4th season, 19-12)

Record last season: 10-3, 6-0 Liberty

Team outlook: Condo’s Tribe returns seven starters on both sides of the football, but there are some concerns along the lines. The good news in Mifflintown is all-league performer Jonathan Kauffman, who played center last season yet is ticketed to move to guard, is back. Since Juniata was without quarterback Jacob Condo for a sizable portion of the 2021 regular season, Aaron Kanagy was able to log plenty of playing time, and he should be better in his first full campaign as the starter. Having backs such as Seth Laub, Waylon Ehrenzeller and Casey Smith still in the stable — as well as tight end Makih Hunt — is another plus. If linemen can be groomed quickly defensively, the presence of a strong linebacking corps and a ball-hawking secondary will make it difficult for opponents to reach the end zone. Kurt Condo decided to bring all of his freshmen up to the varsity, and they will dress on Friday nights. One youngster likely to do more than just pull on a red jersey is freshman Jasper Shepps, a likely starter at safety who will play split end when he’s not serving as Kanagy’s understudy. This remains a defense-first squad that will be stingy. “We’re cautiously optimistic,” Condo said. “We have a target on our backs, but these kids know how to win and they put in a lot of time during the offseason.”

One player to watch: Jonathan Kauffman. While Kauffman packs enough giddy up to get out in front of Juniata’s ballcarriers, the nagging question is how did the 6-foot, 220-pounder not land on a first-team all-league defensive nod from the Liberty skippers in 2021? Arguably the top returning defender in the Liberty, Kauffman’s 66 stops a season ago tied him with nose guard Trent Martin for second in that category. He also piled up a team-high 14 sacks and fell on three fumbles. Remarkably mobile, the high-motored Kauffman will rarely come off the field this fall since he also thrives on punt and kick coverage.

Team: Susquenita

Predicted finish position: 2nd 

Coach: Augie Glass (2nd season, 4-5)

Record last season: 4-5, 3-2 Liberty

Team outlook: Just being a year older, bigger and more mature should translate to better results on the football field — at least that’s the way second-year head coach Augie Glass is thinking, particularly since his Blackhawks are in their second season running his high-octane attack. Susquenita returns nine starters on both sides of the football. And with a host of experienced skill-position types among the returnees, Glass is hoping his offense will really perk up as the Blackhawks debut their artificial playing surface. Start with junior quarterback Derek Gibney, a strong-armed type who can also use his 6-4, 230-pound frame to cause all sorts of problems in short-yardage situations. “He’s starting to slow things down,” Glass said. “(Derek) was always in a rush, but he’s become much better at reading defenses.” Gibney also will benefit since his twin brother, Drew, and Blaise Swancer are back on the flanks while small yet tough-minded Bryce McKee can run the ball and catch it out of the backfield. While Susquenita figures to be much more efficient offensively, Glass knows his defensive unit must consistently make plays and get opponents on the ground if the ‘Hawks are going to be successful. “We definitely have to score points, make tackles and stay healthy,” Glass said. “It’s as simple as that. I really do think we can go far.”

One player to watch: Blaise Swancer. Having grown some 2 or 3 inches to 5-11 or so, while adding roughly 25 pounds to his lean frame, sophomore wideout Swancer spent the offseason attending highly competitive camps that had him lining up against quality defensive backs and linebackers and fine-tuning various parts of his perimeter game — such as his route running and hands. “Blaise should be fun to watch this year,” Glass said. Swancer also is a candidate at a crowded safety position, but he’s capable of playing on the corner as well.

Team: Upper Dauphin

Predicted finish position: 3rd 

Coach: Kent Smeltz (6th season, 36-16)

Record last season: 9-2, 4-1 Liberty

Team outlook: Sixth-year skipper Kent Smeltz believes his program — looking for its third District 3 championship appearance in four years after falling to York Catholic last season in the Class 2A title game — is far enough along in the process that he prefers expanding his players’ roles when talking about a young player moving into a first-team spot or upping his snap total. Smeltz and his staff have been busy finding replacements for their losses to graduation in the spring, and much of the work concerns the available vacancies up front and at quarterback. “Guys who were maybe on a rotational-type basis last year, we’ve got to look to them to step up and be an impactful player for us,” Smeltz said. Since all-league QB Wil Laskowski is among the departed, sophomore Aidan Bingaman likely will get the first shot at succeeding his dual-threat predecessor. Other needed moves came up front, where tackles Peyton Wentzel and Sean Wenrick need to mesh with players such as Aidan Ritter, Chase Grassmyer and Keatin Dieffenbach since Chase Lentz, Dillon Johns and Colton Reed have graduated. What’s good is the Trojans are returning senior Brady Morgan, who can go yard when the Trojans are on the move offensively or in the return game. Experienced backs such as Konner Walker and Alex Hepler will offer a change of pace yet just as much firepower. The losses of Johns and Lentz may be felt just as much on the defensive side of the ball since both thrived in UD’s attack-minded scheme that gets numbers to the ball and puts pressure on quarterbacks. A quality secondary featuring Morgan and Landon Mace should do just fine if the Trojans can force opponents to throw.

One player to watch: Brady Morgan. One of those do-it-all types, the 5-10, 170-pound Morgan is a home-run threat every time he touches the football. The Upper Dauphin senior can run past defenders and/or corkscrew them into the ground with a head-shaking move that slides him into space. Yet at the same time, Morgan, who can squat 405 pounds and run a 4.45 in the 40, is durable enough to take on contact if it means an extra yard or two and an opportunity to move the sticks or crack the end zone. “Brady is a very, very good player,” Smeltz said. “He’s an excellent student, so respectful and just a great kid to have around. … We’re very excited to see what he can do.” Morgan did plenty a season ago, rushing for 873 yards and 13 touchdowns on just 95 totes (9.2 yards per carry) and catching a team-high 17 passes for 152 yards. Morgan is a known threat in the return game and recorded three interceptions and two fumble recoveries

Team: Line Mountain

Predicted finish position: 4th 

Coach: Brandon Carson (7th season, 28-36)

Record last season: 2-8, 2-3 Liberty

Team outlook: Brandon Carson’s roster sports just three seniors that have logged significant minutes and two that are out for the first time. Nonetheless, the Eagles have plenty of experience bouncing around their practice fields in lower Northumberland County. Line Mountain is carrying the momentum of a modest two-game winning streak that closed out the 2021 regular season and popped Line Mountain into the District 4 playoffs opposite eventual state champion Southern Columbia. Diving in the mud at waterlogged Ressler Field following a decisive late win over James Buchanan simply serves as a constant dose of positive reinforcement. “Everyone remembers that (moment) and they all want that feeling every single game,” said senior tight end Brayden Boyer, the first-team Liberty Division all-star who led the Eagles a season ago with 16 receptions. While Boyer will again serve as a prime target on the edges and between the hashes, it would seem as if sophomore Blake Readinger is the likely No. 1 quarterback although freshman Kaiden Maurer is right there. The Eagles’ Nolan Baumert also returns after rattling off 100-yard outings in Line Mountain’s final three regular-season contests, while the likes of Yari Johnson, Colby Rebuck, Josh Scott and Kohen Shingara provide a veteran presence up front that may rejuvenate the Eagles’ ground game. “We’re going to have to establish the run,” Carson said. “We’re going to have to move people up front, and we’re gonna have to be able to move the ball.” Line Mountain’s defense also sports plenty of experience as inside linebacker Chandon Maurer and defensive back Connor Finlan are among those returning.

One player to watch: Brayden Boyer. Now standing 6-3 and carrying 215 well-distributed pounds, the dependable Boyer has spent the offseason preparing for a 2022 campaign that likely will find him on the field for at least 46 minutes per outing as a talented receiving tight end (who can slide into the slot), defensive end, kickoff specialist and punter. Boyer’s size also is a potential physical nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators with smallish backfields. “(Brayden’s) definitely quicker and he’s definitely stronger,” Carson said. “He’s looked really good at practice, and he’s also taken on a leadership role and he’s owning that and owning the season.” Boyer also is a problem on the edge, whether defending the run or chasing quarterbacks. Heck, he totaled nine tackles for loss with many of them coming in the opening quarter of Line Mountain’s JB win. “I’m expecting more of that type of performance from him,” Carson said.


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Team: Newport

Predicted finish position: 5th 

Coach: Todd Rothermel (11th season, 61-43; 15th season overall, 94-56).

Record last season: 2-7, 2-3 Liberty

Team outlook: If you struggle against an adversary and you’ve tried different thing to solve that particular puzzle, why not join them and run the same stuff? That’s what Todd Rothermel was thinking when he decided to install the Pistol Wing-T offensive scheme that Upper Dauphin has been so successful operating since Kent Smeltz moved into the top spot following his run as the ‘Port’s defensive coordinator. Rothermel also considered his program’s personnel, which returns just three seniors, and attended a clinic in central Ohio headed by UD assistant Rick Stewart before going all-in. Since a handful of smaller yet mobile linemen are returning to the Newport front — and the Buffaloes’ new scheme features misdirection and players moving everywhere — Rothermel believed they could handle the transition. Running back Aiden Dishman should find more lanes to run in, while returning starter Mason Messick possessed the requisite skills and the ability to diagnose what opposing defenses were bringing to be able to read, react at the line of scrimmage and get the football in the proper hands. Come this weekend at Camp Hill, we’ll see how far along the Buffs are. Not as experienced defensively, Newport will field a veteran d-line featuring Tyler Geer, Zach Bellis, Caleb Lesher and Noah Weller — all of whom are part of the Buffs’ offensive front — while Dishman logged snaps at outside ‘backer. Rothermel hopes, his offensive unit will move the ball, control the clock and punch in a few scores — all while keeping opposing attacks idling in neutral and off the field.

Two players to watch: Aiden Dishman, Mason Messick.Dishman, a senior, is bigger and stronger (5-10, 175 pounds) than in 2021 when he gained some 500 yards a season ago. Rothermel genuinely believes his feature back can thrive in Newport’s sparkling new scheme since the movement within the offense should allow Dishman to go in either direction as opposed to functioning as a tailback and relying on Student Body Right or Student Body Left to rip off a reasonable gain. Messick’s role is even more different since the 5-9, 155-pounder must make a battlefield decision at the line of scrimmage that puts the football in the right set of hands instead of running the play that’s called in from the sideline or dialing up an audible.

Team: James Buchanan

Predicted finish position: 6th 

Coach: Cliff Pine (3rd season, 2-12)

Record last season: 1-8, 1-5 Liberty

Team outlook: Determined to build a program in Mercersburg and McConnellsburg, Cliff Pine likely will stick to the philosophy that his James Buchanan squads have displayed since the Rockets returned to the Mid-Penn Conference stable — run, run and run some more. With quarterback John Stoner, fullback Nathan Brake and halfback Jacob Frey still sporting JB green, that ground-happy approach may work against some of the slower and less-experienced Liberty Division defenses. However, against the upper-echelon sides, predictability isn’t likely to be successful — and it hasn’t been. One example occurred in JB’s regular-season finale at Line Mountain, where the Rockets totaled negative-38 yards on the ground and didn’t complete a pass. Since o-linemen Cam Pine and Dalton Ebersole are back, they might be able to provide enough space to slip runners into space and/or reach the second level.

One player to watch: Jacob Frey.His numbers last season certainly didn’t move any functioning needle — none of JB’s individual stats did — but the senior halfback did enough things well in JB’s season-ending setback at Line Mountain to impress Eagles head coach Brandon Carson. In addition to returning the second-half kickoff 81 yards for JB’s first score, he also motored in from 13 yards out later in the third quarter to bring the Rockets closer. Don’t be surprised if he improves on his 135 yards from scrimmage last season.

Team: Halifax

Predicted finish position: 7th 

Coach: Earl Mosley (5th season, 13-25; 16th season overall, 68-86-2)

Record last season: 1-7, 0-4 Liberty

Team outlook: While the numbers were better when Earl Mosley’s Wildcats opened preseason training camp, it didn’t take long before bumps, bruises and more dropped Halifax’s roster size from 22 youngsters to 17. And while the dangerously small numbers on hand mean the ‘Cats can’t afford a single physical setback, there’s also plenty of freshmen eager to jump in the fray and find out what Fridays are all about. “This is one of the youngest teams I’ve coached,” Mosley said. “Just coming together and believing in one another, that’s really key. We’re not measuring this year with success based on our won or lost column. We just care how we come together.” While junior veterans such as WR/DB Peter Ranck, RB/ILB Isaac Miller and RB/LB Landan Klinger do return, junior Carter Enders is nursing a significant injury and unlikely to play this season. That means freshman Teegan Carroll will be behind center while three or four of his classmates are holding down other starting roles. “He has a huge upside, but he’s just a freshman. He’s a tough kid,” Mosley said. “He’s going to be something special by his junior year.” Sizable sophomores Blake Hoover and Zach Witmer are the most experienced players up front. Creating space for the backs is another must or the ‘Cats won’t be able to sustain any drives.

One player to watch: Peter Ranck.Getting him the football in space or downfield in the vertical passing game is a must-do for Mosley’s Wildcats after he caught a team-high 27 passes last season for 355 yards and three TDs. And that’ll be incumbent upon Carroll, or whomever is throwing the football, to get the rock to the ‘Cats’ dangerous junior, a second-team all-league selection in 2021. Ranck also will be stationed in the Halifax secondary and he’ll be a regular on the kickoff and punt return units, so 48-minute performances will be regular occurrences.

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