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Schuylkill League Preseason Breakdown

As much as things change from one season to the next, don’t seem surprised if the 2022 campaign plays out in remarkably similar fashion for the three Schuylkill County football programs that once called the Twin Valley Conference and Tri-Valley League home.

Separated by just a few miles and one well-placed mountain, Williams Valley and Tri-Valley likely will decide the Colonial-Schuylkill consortium’s White Division championship when they collide yet again in the Hegins-Valley View Metroplex in an anticipated Week 10 scrap.

There were two installments of this fierce backyard scrap a season ago, with Williams Valley playing host at Stauffenberg Field. Tri-Valley claimed the regular-season matchup – and the White Division crown – but Tim Savage’s Vikings avenged that loss by capturing a third straight District 11 Class 1A championship.

What’s different is these fierce playmates can only meet one time since Williams Valley was bumped up to Class 2A – by one youngster – and that’ll happen in Week 10. 

And while Pine Grove struggled mightily the past two seasons, the Cardinals genuinely hope to generate plenty of positive waves while beginning a difficult upward climb made more difficult by a shift to the bigger-school Red Division from their perch in the White.

They’ll all kick off the 2022 season Friday night against non-league adversaries.

WILLIAMS VALLEY VIKINGS

Head coach: Tim Savage (11th season, 94-27).

Last season: 9-3 overall, 3-1 in the Colonial-Schuylkill’s Blue Division. Won District 11 Class 1A championship and advanced to the state playoffs.

Outlook: With nine players returning on both sides of the ball – including all-state feature back Alex Achenbach (1,716 rushing yards, 6.4 yards per carry, 16 rushing touchdowns) – Savage’s Vikings are chasing their fourth straight District 11 championship and yet another berth in the PIAA’s championship. While the bump to Class 2A might generate plenty of anxieties on any number of sidelines, the Vikings are unlikely to alter what they do and when they do it. “You can throw in a 2012 film and it’s the same,” Savage said. “We’re gonna bomb it, stretch block it, trap it, those sorts of things.” While Achenbach will get plenty of touches, fullback Logan Williard is back at full strength following a truncated 2021 and quarterback Isaac Whiteash figures to be much more comfortable in his second full season as starter. And with the likes of Ezi Hite, Brayden Shadle and Cruz Banda up front – all four-year starters – the Vikes have options. They’ll also continue to bring it defensively – they’ll miss ball-hawking middle linebacker Jackson Yoder and edge rusher Hunter Wolfgang  –   attacking opposing offenses while trying to pile up takeaways. For those fans who enjoy high-octane offensive football, pull out your calendars and circle Sept. 23, since that’s the night Loyalsock pays a visit to the Stauff.

Player to watch: Brady Evans. For those who may have begun screaming at a notable absence a few lines higher, please don’t fret. Long at 6-foot-4 and remarkably mobile whenever he blows past an unsuspecting defensive back or breaks off a crisp route, Evans is capable of tormenting opposing secondaries – even though those on the other sideline know what’s coming. All Evans did a season ago was haul in 46 passes for 844 yards (18.3 yards per reception) and 13 touchdowns. He also more than held his own in the secondary in 2021, swiping three passes while totaling 24 tackles. Heck, he’s also Williams Valley’s punter.

TRI-VALLEY BULLDOGS

Head coach: Jeff Sampson (5th season, 29-13; 16th overall, 90-81).

Last season: 9-2 overall, 5-0 in the Colonial-Schuylkill’s Blue Division. Advanced to the District 11 Class A championship game.

Outlook: While Sampson’s squad sports plenty of experience – seven starters return on both sides of the football – there’s some concern among those in Schuylkill County’s West End since the Bulldogs are trying to replace three-year starter Jonas McGrath at the quarterback spot and they have some openings along the offensive front. As for the vacancies alongside burly center Justis Troutman and tackle Ayden Rodichok, grooming linemen will fall to Sampson and assistant coach Mike Ulicny. Kole Miller is the likely starter amongst four QB candidates on the 41-man roster since he backed up McGrath in 2021. What helps is the Bulldogs return a hammer at fullback in Jake Scheib while lightning bolt Kameron Wetzel is back at his familiar halfback spot – a potent one-two that combined for nearly 1,600 rushing yards a season ago and 21 scores. Perimeter targets include Jolten Flory, Jake Tietsworth and Layne Yoder should Tri-Valley go up top. On the defensive side of the ball, keep an eye on senior ‘backer Reece Huntzinger since he’s moving inside after wreaking havoc on the outside. Huntzinger led the ‘Dawgs a season ago with 83 tackles, but also tacked on six quarterback sacks while swiping two passes and recovering one fumble. Scheib and Troutman will blow up plenty of blocking schemes and running plays from their defensive tackle spots. Tietsworth, Yoder and Wetzel will man the secondary roles yet again while Flory has been moved to outside backer after spending 2021 at defensive end. And the future will become the present since Sampson believes freshmen Cole Gemberling will make an early impact at outside linebacker. This is a seasoned outfit that has enjoyed loads of success and may pile up plenty of victories if those vacancies can be ironed out.

Player to watch: Kameron Wetzel. About to start for the third straight season, the elusive Wetzel can drive opposing defenses batty as they try to put the 5-10, 175-pounder on the ground. A home-run threat any time he touches the football, Wetzel can run it (881 yards rushing, 9.5 yards per carry, 13 touchdowns), catch it (4 receptions, 22 yards per catch, 2 touchdowns) or go yard in the return game. He’s also a capable defensive back after intercepting one pass in 2021. “If we can create a seam or a crease for Wetzel, he’ll get through it,” Sampson said. “He also has great field vision, but he can turn on the afterburners when he needs to.” And since Wetzel shares the spotlight in the offensive backfield with Scheib, don’t look for the Bulldogs to overhaul their game plan any time soon. “We have two of the better backs in the area,” Sampson added. “Why change things up when you have those two horses?”

PINE GROVE CARDINALS

Head coach: Dave Shiffer (1st season)

Last season: 1-9 overall, 0-5 in the Colonial-Schuylkill’s White Division.

Outlook: While the Cardinals endured a difficult 2021 campaign – Pine Grove’s lone victory came against Shenandoah Valley – Shiffer’s first club was uprooted from the White Division and relocated to the Red. That likely means colliding with programs from bigger schools such as North Schuylkill, Jim Thorpe and Tamaqua, but it also means racking up frequent bus miles with trips to Northern Lehigh and Notre Dame-Green Pond. While the Cardinals undoubtedly will ride their big offensive front as much as possible, creating lanes for feature back Lane Lehman will fall on the shoulders of Carter Raudabaugh, Tyler Sleva, Brennden Etzweiler, Hunter McConnell and Xaviar Yeagley. Protecting quarterback Mason Kroh, who can throw and run, is another must for Shiffer’s sizable front. They’ll return a sizable offensive line averaging 250 pounds per big eater – and four of the five are experienced juniors while 265-pound Carter Raudabaugh is one of Pine Grove’s seven seniors.  While Pine Grove brought back eight offensive starters – wideout Dalton Geesey is the notable loss – the Cardinal defense sports seven returnees. They do need to find a way to match the numbers that ‘backer Colin Ibarra racked up game after game. “He was a stud,” Shiffer said of Ibarra. “That’s a big loss.” Another plus is Pine Grove’s secondary features yet another quality group of defensive backs highlighted by Lehman and Nick Wolff, who can cover and level opposing receivers. Since Pine Grove’s roster features just seven seniors, Shiffer’s objectives aren’t centered on results. “My goal this year isn’t about finishing at the top of the division, but just being a competitive football program,” Shiffer said. “My main goal is leaving every week saying we gave our best effort and we were competitive while competing week-in, week-out and for four quarters.”

Player to watch: Mason Kroh. Moved all over the field a season ago when Pine Grove’s offense had the football, Kroh could have been tagged the Cardinals’ Swiss Army knife. While Kroh tacked up some 900 yards a season ago, the 17-year-old will be a full-time quarterback this time around. “He’s a do-it-all offensive weapon,” Shiffer said of Kroh. While Shiffer can appreciate Kroh’s versatility, right now he wants his talented senior to concentrate on running the show and directing traffic. Kroh likely will get plenty of looks on the defensive side of the football, as well, as Shiffer’s Cardinals try to get things moving in a positive direction.

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