RIMERSBURG — A winning season for the first time in the co-operative program’s first four years and a share of a division title, last year’s 7-4 campaign was a good one for the Union/A-C Valley Falcon Knights football team.
Head coach Brad Dittman enters his third year with a 23-man roster — no freshmen, who are all playing junior high this fall — with 10 of those being seniors. It’s a small but experienced roster.
And of course, it’s just nice for Dittman to talk about a season that begins at Brockway Friday night. It wasn’t so certain not that long ago.
“I think for me personally and I think for the kids, we’re excited,” he said. “We didn’t know if we were going to get to this point or have the opportunity to do it and now we’re staring down the barrel and heading to Brockway for our first game. We’re excited to be at this point and opportunity to play.”
The Falcon Knights will have a new quarterback, but return three offensive linemen, most of their backfield and top receiver. Defensively as well, most of their top tacklers are back on the unit.
“I’ve asked the guys here since we started just to be humble and keep coming to work every day and do what they need to do to you know to make themselves better and to make our team better,” Dittman said. “We have a bunch of veterans who have been with me for two years that are seniors now. They know the program, they know what we’re doing. Our philosophies really haven’t changed from last year as far as our offense and our defense. Our terminology is all the same. So having those veterans with a shortened summer and offseason leading up to this has really been a huge benefit for us.”
Senior Tanner Merwin is the new quarterback. He was one of the team’s top playmakers on both sides of the ball last year. He caught 28 passes for 430 yards with a team-high 6 TDs, but Dittman is more than comfortable with Merwin along with 6-foot-5 sophomore Bailey Crissman backing him up.
“(Tanner) was our backup last year and he’s really worked his butt off this offseason with (assistant coach) Dan Reed, working with his throwing motion and mechanics so he’s made big strides,” Dittman said. “We’re pretty excited about where he is. He’s an athlete, he’s fast and he’s quick and smart.
“Bailey is your prototypical quarterback and he’s done really well with the coaches so don’t be surprised if you see a combination of both of them this year.”
Junior Caden Rainey (38 catches, 564 yards, 4 TDs) led the team in catches and yards, so he’ll be the top target along with senior Karter Vogel (7-42, 1 TD) as the top returning pass catchers.
“To say that Caden is important to this team is an understatement,” Dittman said. “We can play this kid anywhere and we have multiple guys who can play any position, so we’ll move Caden around and you’ll see him at different positions to take advantage of what defenses give us.”
Senior Nickolai Semanco, and sophomores Ryan Cooper and Skyler Roxbury are other receiving targets.
On the line are returning starters Ethan McFadden and Drayk Wolbert, both seniors, at tackle while junior Carter Terwint is back at guard. Sophomore Mike Card, who made the varsity roster last year as a freshman, looks to be the other guard opposite Terwint. Sophomore Landon Henery appears to be the center with juniors Andrew Verostek, Braxton Marsh and Peter Hardy all looking for playing time and providing more depth on the line.
Dittman said the tight end spot isn’t settled with someone rotating in from another already mention spot.
That group will try to open up holes for a backfield that Dittman figures will feature the same committee-type look like last year. Seniors Kyler Culbertson (73 carries, 480 yards, 4 TDs) and Eli Penny (42-269, 3 TDs) were the top two rushers with senior Gaven Bowser (44-188) also getting carries. Expect Merwin to be a running threat from QB as well as even Rainey.
“We have three, four or five guys who can run the football and we’re not afraid to give it to anybody, so you won’t see a feature back for us, a committee, but it might come down to whoever has the hot hand,” Dittman said.
Defensively, the Falcon Knights return the bulk of their lineup minus the graduated Small School South Division Defensive MVP Colton Hoffman. Merwin is back at cornerback after picking off a team-high five passes last year, returning two for touchdowns. Rainey, Culbertson and Vogle will also fill in the four spots at cornerback and safety in the team’s 3-4 set as Dittman will try to limit Merwin’s defensive reps if he can.
Cooper, Roxbury, Semanko and McNaughton are other defensive back probables.
At linebacker, three starters are back with Bowser, Penny and Terwint. Wolbert or Crissman could fill the fourth spot along with Hardy and Verostek.
On the line are Card, junior Colton Murray and McFadden along with Marsh and Henery with all rotating through three spots.
There appears to be depth on what is a smallish roster, but it’s bigger than last year when the Falcon Knights were heading into more than one game with 16 or 17 players.
“The good part about us is we try to play the guys and want them to get the experience, have a hand in our program and everybody gets better,” Dittman said. “The kids believe in that and we have 23 guys who can play football and that’s the exciting part about it.”
Also on Dittman’s staff are Chris McNany, Kline Terwilliger, Ray Fox, Greg Wolbert, Cullen McNany, Bob Bowser and Bryn Chalmers.
Seniors: Tanner Merwin, Kevin McNaughton, Nickolai Semanco, Eli Penny, Karter Vogle, Kyler Culbertson, Gaven Kriebel, Gaven Bowser, Drayk Wolbert, Ethan McFadden.
Juniors: Braxton Marsh, Caden Rainey, Peter Hardy, Andrew Verostek, Carter Terwint, Colton Murray.
Sophomores: Skyler Roxbury, Ryan Cooper, Jacob Bowser, Jimmy Powell, Bailey Crissman, Mike Card, Landon Henery.