RIDGWAY — The second annual District 9 League Football Media Day went off last Wednesday, getting the preseason unofficially started.
While teams got going on Monday with PIAA-mandated heat acclimatization workouts that’ll go throughout the week, 20 of the league’s 21 teams — 10 in the Large School, 5 in the Small School South and 6 in the Small School North converged on Aiello’s Cafe.
The league’s preseason coaches poll revealed the top three teams in each of the three divisions:
— Large School: 1. Clarion, 2. Ridgway, 3. Brookville.
— Small School South: 1. Curwensville, 2. Elk County Catholic, 3. Redbank Valley.
— Small School North: 1. Coudersport, 2. Smethport, 3. Otto-Eldred.
Last year, the Brookville Raiders were the preseason No. 1 pick by the Large School coaches. An early-season injury to starting quarterback Jack Krug knocked the Raiders off the rails for a few weeks and they wound up finishing 6-5, placing third in the division and losing to Brockway in the first round of the Class 2A playoffs.
It’s Scott Park’s fifth season and he hadn’t gone through a schedule like he did last year.
“What jumped out to me was that you don’t know who you might need to count on,” Park said. “I know I never dreamed of Robert (Keth) being our quarterback. We have to stay healthy. I never had a team like last year. Had we stayed healthy, I felt we would have been very, very successful. It’s the same way this year. We have to stay healthy. We have talent and the people we need and probably the strongest part of our team is our line. Have have an opportunity to do a lot of things, but we have to stay healthy.”
And so far so good for the Raiders, who had a productive summer. Park’s numbers weren’t as high as he’d wish at the start of this week’s heat acclimatization workouts — in the low 50s counting freshmen.
The summer went quick, but the preseason is here now for the Raiders, who scrimmage Mercyhurst Prep at home on Aug. 17 at 11 a.m. They’ll open the season at Bradford Aug. 23.
Krug, who missed most of the season with a broken collarbone sustained in the Raiders’ second game against Brockway, is back and healthy and very anxious to get going. Despite seeing action in seven quarters over three games, Krug threw for 930 yards and 14 touchdowns against no interceptions.
“It was a hard time for me because I enjoy football and it was Bryan (Dworek) and Cabe’s (Park) last hurrah,” Krug said. “If everyone’s healthy last year, we win the district title. Everyone knows that around the district. Personally, it was a big blow, but … there’s no reason for us to not do that this year.”
Senior Ian Thrush is the team’s top returning receiver after catching 29 passes for 650 yards and nine TDs. He’ll make up a still-capable receiving crew that includes junior Kyle MacBeth and Keth, who threw for over 2,100 yards and 22 touchdowns in eight games.
“(Bryan and Cabe) were both amazing receivers and it’s big shoes to fill, but I’ll play the game that I can play,” said Thrush. We have a decently solid receiving corp. If all of us can do our job, it’ll make up for Cabe and Bryan from last year. I need to just focus on catching the ball this year. I dropped quite a bit, probably costing me five touchdowns.”
Junior Elliot Park, a two-way starter on the line, is part of what Coach Park feels is a strength — two back on the offensive line and four on the defensive side.
“They’ve been in the weight room in the summer … They’re all big boys and can move well,” said Elliot Park. “If Jack wants to run for 1,000, we’ll get it done for him. Especially, last year … we were a tight offensive line, but this year we’re closer and more of a family. We all work on the same page. We might have an off play but we’ll do what we need to do to help the receivers get a touchdown.”
Defensively, the Raiders have eight starters back and Coach Park feels it could be his best unit since he became head coach at his alma mater.
Park lost two assistants to St. Marys as Chris Dworek left to become head coach of the Flying Dutchmen with offensive coordinator Frank Varischetti going with him. Dave Fitch, a former assistant with Park in Sheffield, and former Brockway assistant Andy Martino join the staff that returns defensive coordinator Nick Nosker, Jim Rush, Bob Fye and Jeff Park.
“I’m pretty excited,” Park said. “There are a lot of people who feel we lost a lot and we did, losing two all-state receivers to graduation. But we have all kinds of people catching the ball, some freshmen who have come in and are catching the ball.”
At Clarion, it’s the first year of the long-talked about co-operative with Clarion-Limestone. They’ll wear Clarion uniforms, but will play some games at C-L this year.
Head coach Larry Wiser and his varsity staff weren’t available at media day because of a team camp commitment elsewhere. However, junior high staffer Randy Cathcart was on hand to facilitate some information.
At the outset, the now three-school setup that also includes North Clarion and Cathcart indicated that their preseason roster includes 19 players from Clarion, 19 from C-L and six from North Clarion.
For C-L, District 9’s all-time single-season rushing leader returns in senior Austin Newcomb, who ran for over 2,600 yards and 35 TDs. He’s also one of four of the top five leading tacklers from the defense with senior Mitch Knepp, junior Kyle Bottaro and senior Ben Smith.
For the Bobcats, junior quarterback Cal German saw some time behind graduated starter Archer Mills. Junior Cutter Boggess ran for over 300 yards and was the leading returning tackler for the Bobcats’ defense.
It’ll be Wiser’s 31st season overall as head coach. Former C-L head coach Dave Eggleton is the team’s offensive coordinator. Also on the staff are former Bobcat Camron Kirkland, former C-L assistant Doug Knepp, former Union head coach Dave Louder and longtime Bobcats assistant Lee Weber.
The Bobcats visit Marion Center for their scrimmage on Aug. 17 before opening the season at Punxsutawney Aug. 23.
The home opener will be played at C-L Aug. 30 against Moniteau. The other home game at C-L will be Homecoming on Sept. 20 against St. Marys. Three home games are scheduled for Clarion University’s Memorial Stadium.