RIMERSBURG — Year 3 of the Union/A-C Valley football cooperative begins Friday night at Clarion-Limestone.
It’s not only a transition year for the Falcon Knights who have former A-C Valley head coach Brad Dittman at the helm, but for the district football landscape as well. The Falcon Knights are part of the new District 9 League Small School South Division with their former KSAC Small rivals in the Lions, Redbank Valley and Keystone, but also former Allegheny Mountain Leaguers Elk County Catholic and Curwensville.
Those teams along with a few from the Small School North make up this year’s schedule. So there’s a lot of new, including the coaching staffs around D9 as Dittman is one of nine new coaches.
“I’m excited to be back coaching,” said Dittman, who coached the last four A-C Valley teams from 2012-15 with a 3-36 record. “I love to coach football and these kids have been great and embraced me. They’re doing everything we’re asking them to do and it’s a good group that works hard. The administration has been very supportive, the athletic directors have been supportive of me. Getting to know the kids and figuring out the logistics of travel, I’m still learning some of that as we go … The transition as far as the players, coaches and administrations and the ADs has been awesome.”
He has a 30-man roster, including 13 sophomores and one freshman, with 16 from A-C Valley and 14 from Union.
“I’m very happy with what we’re seeing on the football field and I’m pretty pleased with 30 kids on the roster,” Dittman said. “There’s no doubt about it with this co-op that both schools need each other.”
The Falcon Knights, 1-9 last year, will look for a new quarterback as well as rebuild a running game that lost its top two gainers. The offense was balanced yardage-wise a year ago, but their 14.4 points per game will need a boost if more wins are to come.
Junior Luke Bowser and sophomore Tanner Merwin are the quarterbacks with Dittman giving Bowser the early edge, but indicating both could see snaps.
“Both will see the field, but we’re liking where Luke’s at right now,” Dittman said. “He’s a junior, he can make about any throw on the football field, he’s a smart kid and he picks things up really quick. He has to work on his feet a little bit, but we love what Tanner is doing as well. Luke’s got the strong arm, Tanner is younger but he has some feet and can move with some good vision. Running the ball, Tanner gives us that option, but Luke does as well. Both bring something to the table.”
Senior Jonathan Powell (32 carries, 105 yards) is the leading returning rusher. He and junior Tony Thompson will see time at tailback with senior Nolan Cumberland moving from tight end to fullback.
Cumberland (19 catches, 290 yards) and Powell (15 catches, 224 yards) are the leading returning receivers. Senior Quintin Weaver and Dalton Callander will be the main targets at receiver this year with juniors Russ Carr and Colton Hoffman working at tight end.
Senior Joe Dehart, a two-way KSAC Small School All-Conference player on the line last year, helps anchor a line that Dittman feels goes eight or nine players deep. He’ll play at tackle or perhaps center while seniors Caleb Penny and Brady Cullen, juniors Colby Best, Layton Stewart and Oscar Puryear, and sophomores Drayk Wolbert, Leroy Byler and Ethan McFadden will see time in the trenches as well.
“We’re going to roll with this offensive line,” Dittman said. “They have the leadership and our success depends on them gelling together as a unit and being able to do the things we ask them to do. We have some experience and size and eight or nine who can play. We should be able to keep them fresh and hoping to do that and let them lead us and give our backs a chance to make plays.”
Dittman said his defensive setup will at least start with the 3-4-4 alignment, but will likely evolve into a four-man front when facing spread offenses.
Dehart, who led the unit with five sacks, anchors the line with Penny, Kline and Stewart also among the leading linemen. Cullen, the team’s top tackler at 9.7 stops per game last year, and Best are the two inside linebackers with a group of others looking to fill the two outside spots — Carr, Bowser, Hoffman, sophomore Gaven Bowser, Wolbert and sophomores Kylar Culbertson and Eli Penny.
In the backfield, Weaver and Cumberland are the free and strong safeties while Callander, Powell, Thompson, junior Carson Snyder, Merwin and freshman Caden Rainey will work at the two cornerback spots.
Cumberland, last year’s starter, will probably start the season as the team’s punter with Culbertson backing him up. Place-kicking duties are up for grabs at this point.
While the Falcon Knights play their South Division foes, they’ll also have dates at home with Sheffield and Port Allegany with trips to Otto-Eldred and Cameron County.
“I’m excited about it and we talked about the travel,” Dittman said of the new setup. “We don’t know a lot about these northern teams and we get to go to different stadiums and play different competition and schools more our size and get to see different facilities. I think it’s going to be great.”
Dittman’s varsity staff includes Ray Fox, Chris McNany, Buddy Merwin, Clay Kennemuth, Butch Guntrum along with volunteers Bryn Chalmers, Greg Wolvert, Kline Terwilliger and Cullen McNany.
Seniors: Chase Kline, Quintin Weaver, Nolan Cumberland, Caleb Penny, Joe Dehart, Brady Cullen, Dalton Callander, Jonathan Powell.
Juniors: Tony Thompson, Colby Best, Russ Carr, Carson Snyder, Luke Bowser, Colton Hoffman, Layton Stewart, Oscar Puryear.
Sophomores: Gaven Bowser, Drayk Wolbert, Kylar Culbertson, Karter Vogle, Daniel Duncan, Chase Cobbett, Tanner Merwin, Eli Penny, Leroy Butler, Jude Burkett, Ethan McFadden, John Planker, Jerry Fair.
Freshman: Caden Rainey.