Finally, at long last, the summer doldrums are coming to an end.
After three months of restless inactivity, football season will shortly be back in full swing. This weekend, all seven area teams will kick off their 2012 seasons, from locales ranging from Ireland, the Jersey shore and in our backyard at Northeast High School, which will host three of the five local openers.
The final day of August officially welcomes high school football back to Northeast Philadelphia. In the Public League, Washington looks to offset the loss of its best offensive player by winning coach Ron Cohen his 13th league title; Frankford hopes to ride record-setting quarterback Tim DiGiorgio to completing some unfinished business. Northeast kicks off 2012 with a brand new head coach; Samuel Fels subs in one do-it-all playmaker for another; and Abraham Lincoln hopes losing 23 seniors to graduation will not prevent another solid season.
In the Catholic League, Father Judge hopes a trip to Ireland starts a season for the ages, while Frank McArdle and Archbishop Ryan look to build on a positive campaign and hopes to win the program’s first league game since 2007.
Nobody knows how things will look come November, but in the final week of August every team starts anew, with freshly formed championship aspirations gaining strength in the minds of the players, coaches and fans. How the chips will fall remains to be seen, but whatever the case, the Northeast Times is thrilled to have football back for what is sure to be another memorable season.
AAAA GOLD DIVISION
Last season: 8-4 overall, 5-1 league (won Public League championship)
Head coach: Ron Cohen, 28th season (Career: 241-69-2)
Outlook: Washington is no stranger to Public League success, but the 2011 season even surprised longtime head coach Ron Cohen. Cohen is set for his 28th season on the Washington sideline and last year won his 12th league title since 1989. But the Eagles spent most of 2011 playing as semi-underdogs in a season that Cohen called “very strange” after Washington took down favored Frankford in a 20-13 championship thriller.
The deep Eagles could be back in the driver’s seat this season despite losing the immensely talented Hakeem Sillman to graduation. Sillman rushed for more than 1,700 yards and 27 touchdowns in 2011; now, the team plans to return to a “run-by-committee” approach to offset Sillman’s absence, with seniors Donald Smith and Marquis Edwards (a Northeast transfer) and 5-foot-5 junior Ken Everage. Following last year’s blueprint, Washington will rotate two senior quarterbacks in Dave Gavrilov and Al Augustine, who combined for 12 touchdowns and more than 1,000 yards a year ago. Gavrilov is a typical pocket passer, while Augustine, who has a scholarship offer from Towson University, can beat you with his feet. The team’s top three receivers — Shaquan Allen, Rene Villafane and Rasheed Black — all return.
Known for producing standout defensive players (current University of Florida defensive tackle Shariff Floyd and Baltimore Ravens linebacker Jameel McClain come to mind), this year’s name to watch is Justin Moody, a 6-foot-3, 280-pound two-way lineman who already has several scholarship offers to choose from. The Eagles are used to winning behind strong running backs, deep offensive and defensive lines and impactful special teams players, all of which should be par for the course again this season.
“The truth of the matter is, I always think we should be good,” Cohen said. “We lost some key players, but our kids like the challenge. They expect tough games, so mentally, they’re ready for it. I’ve been around long enough to know the ball doesn’t always bounce your way, but I like the togetherness of this team.”
Last season: 8-3, 6-0 (lost in Public League championship game)
Head coach: Will Doggett, second season (Career: 8-3)
Outlook: With Will Doggett’s first season at the helm of Frankford’s football program came record-breaking performances and an unblemished regular season league mark. It was as storybook as it gets, that is, until Washington took advantage of some costly Pioneer turnovers in the championship game. With that crushing loss in November still fresh in their minds, Doggett and company hope to finish what they started.
Luckily for Frankford fans, Tim DiGiorgio returns under center. Last season, DiGiorgio obliterated Public League passing records by throwing for 2,357 yards and 30 touchdowns. His arsenal of weapons was diminished by graduation, as Savoy Martin, Kelly Johnson, Mike Brown, Marquan Scott, Aaron Allison and Brandon Strong and their 114 catches (of DiGiorgio’s 136 completions) are gone. That leaves senior Renz “Rodeo” Compton as the team’s top returning wideout, who registered eight of his 21 receptions for touchdown catches in 2011. Compton’s younger brother, Wydell (Lorenzo Compton, Renz’s twin, is the team’s center), is also expected to contribute at wideout, as is Prince Cooper and transfer Denzel Turboville.
The Pioneers will introduce plenty of new faces on the offensive line and defensive unit, as DT Kadar Jones and OT Unique Davis are the most established holdovers.
“Not a day goes by where I don’t think about that [championship] game,” DiGiorgio said. “We know we have to forget about it, but we also use it as motivation. We expect to be pretty solid, a good football team that expects to win that Public League championship game.”
Last season: 7-5, 3-3 (lost in 1st round)
Head coach: Jim Adams, first season
Outlook: Northeast last won the Public League championship in 2010, but a lot has changed since. The Vikings turned in an inconsistent, uneven 7-5 campaign last year, and for the most part, the team alternated wins and losses until the final three, all Northeast victories. Now, they will have to clash with Frankford, Washington and the rest of the unforgiving Public League without head coach Chris Riley, who stepped down to concentrate on his duties as the school’s athletic director.
In Riley’s place steps Jim Adams, who served as one of Riley’s top assistants the past few seasons, and was the former coach’s top choice to fill the vacant position. Adams will certainly have his hands full, but his knowledge of the league and Northeast’s program should help him keep the Vikings in the conversation. Whether that happens this season remains to be seen, especially as the quarterback position works itself out. Northeast has three QBs who will likely see action in the senior trio of David Pulliam, Harold Alexander and Daquan Bohannon. All three will be needed on both sides of the ball, but one of Adams’ goals is to have each guy play at his biggest strength position, which likely means Pulliam getting the majority of the reps under center, while Alexander especially will be turned loose as a defensive back as he seeks to catch the eye of college recruiters.
Other names to watch out for are receiver Devon Dillard (21 catches, three touchdowns) and OL/DL Bernard Houston, who should anchor the defense, likely the team’s biggest strength while the offensive unit formulates an identity. Offensive playmakers Shimeek Carter, Laquille Nesbitt and Marquis Edwards are gone, which will leave opportunities for other guys to step up. No matter what, the Vikings will have to count on the seniors to offset the loss of Riley, a proven winner.
“We have some great kids,” Adams said. “The seniors are the ones going through the greatest transition, and I expect the team to be competitive and to give their best efforts at all times. If we block and tackle better than our opponents, then we’ll be right back (where we want to be).”
Last season: 4-8, 2-4 (missed playoffs)
Head coach: Bill Harrigan, fifth season (Career: 17-28)
Outlook: Bill Harrigan has the unenviable task of keeping the Fels Panthers competitive in a division that includes heavyweights Frankford and Washington, Central (newly added to the Gold Division), as well as respected programs Northeast and Germantown. In 2011, Fels went 0-5 against those teams, losing by an average of more than 29 points per game. The Panthers will face an even bigger obstacle without their top playmaker from last season in wide receiver Nijay Kelly, who hauled in 61 catches for 1,075 yards and 11 touchdowns in his final two seasons.
“We played those teams much closer than the scores indicated,” Harrigan said. “Coming into this season, we only lost three starters, so our expectations couldn’t be much higher. We want to continue to progress and show that we belong in this division while continuing to establish ourselves as a program.”
Kelly’s place in the spotlight will now be occupied by senior do-it-all athlete/playmaker Jamiel Hines, a four-year starter. Hines’ presence was felt all over last season, as he carried the ball 42 times, caught 11 passes and plucked five interceptions on defense, two of which he returned for touchdowns (he scored an additional three TDs on the ground and two in the air). Harrigan referred to Hines as an “incredible athlete who would play nose guard if I asked him to,” and his versatility on both sides of the ball will be key to Fels being able to stay competitive in league play. Hines won’t be alone, as the Panthers return 19 starters in what Harrigan is hoping will be the most accomplished season in the seven-year history of the program.
Additionally, quarterback will be a position to keep an eye on, as Fels had six players take at least one snap at the position. In the option offense that Fels runs, the QB position isn’t as vital, but someone will need to feed Hines and others the ball. Three names to watch will be Isiah Brinkley, also a defensive back, Marc Prompt and Messiah Mitchell, a trio that combined to throw 10 touchdowns last year. Besides needing someone to step up under center, the Panthers will be undersized at the line of scrimmage, and will need strong performances from Hines and the defensive unit as a whole to stay afloat.
“This is going to be our chance, our opportunity to prove we can compete with these teams on an even footing,” Harrigan said.
AAAA SILVER DIVISION
Last season: 7-5, 5-1 (lost in 1st round)
Head coach: Ed McGettigan, third season (Career: 12-12)
Outlook: Lincoln has been a model of consistency in the Public League of late, suffering just one overall losing season since 2007. But that season was the last time the Railsplitters really separated themselves from the pack, winning 10 games and advancing to the Public League quarterfinals. To do so this season, Lincoln will have to absorb the loss of 23 seniors to graduation, returning just four starters on a team that won five of its six division games a year ago.
One of those four starters is senior quarterback Miguel Sanchez, the undisputed leader of the Lincoln offense. In 2011, Sanchez threw for 1,169 yards and 10 touchdowns, three of which came in a win over Fels. Led by the veteran signal caller, offense should be the team’s strength. The other returning starters are OL/DL John Lewis, LB Kaelin Burke and DB/RB Giovanni Johnson, who had two interceptions last season and will get some looks at running back.
“If we give our best effort every week, we should be a contender,” McGettigan said. “We have a lot of dedicated student-athletes on and off the field, and obviously it helps to have your starting quarterback back. A lot will depend on if we’re healthy, but the guys worked real hard during camp, and it’s my job to make sure they’re prepared for game day.”
Last season: 7-4, 2-2 (lost to La Salle in semifinals)
Head coach: Tommy Coyle, 13th season (Career: 70-71)
Outlook: By the time this football preview prints, the Crusaders will be nestled somewhere outside of Dublin, Ireland, where they will kick off their 2012 season in the grandest of fashions. It took a lot of hard work and generous contributions from a plethora of people, but this Friday head coach Tommy Coyle and a Judge traveling party of almost 200 people are expected to be in Ireland to root the Crusaders on against Notre Dame Academy of Scottsdale, Ariz.
It will be the trip of a lifetime for sure, but just a few short days after they return to the states, Judge will be in action on the road at Council Rock South. Coyle and assistant Fran Costello have already vowed to start preparing for Council Rock on the plane ride home, but will such an extravagant trip burn Judge out or push the team into shining even brighter?
Everybody on the Judge side seems to believe it’s the latter, and it will have to be in the Catholic’s AAAA division, which includes perennial title contenders La Salle, St. Joseph’s Prep and Roman Catholic.
It won’t be easy, as the Crusaders lost 24 seniors to graduation, including captain Eric Condron, top rushers Matt Smalley and Raul Quinones (more than 2,000 yards from scrimmage and a whopping 37 total touchdowns), starting quarterback Rob Daniels and top receivers John Landis and Tim Mills.
As tends to be the case, loss brings on opportunity for others. At the forefront of Judge’s transformation will be quarterback Ryan Mackiewicz and a core of track-and-field standouts (Smalley was a track star himself, so the blueprint has worked in the past for the Crusaders).
Emerging names expecting to help on offense include DB/RB Marquis Seamon, a long jumper, and sprinters WR Sean Fitzgerald and RB Samir Bullock, as will tight end Albi Arapaj, who caught 16 passes a year ago. Matt Robinson and Brandon Spatz will contribute on both sides of the ball, while DT Dan Toner and OT Vince Lostracco should anchor the lines. Coyle has combated key losses by compiling depth, which the Crusaders will need to harness if they expect to hang with La Salle, Roman and the Prep.
“I’d tell all of ours fans and supporters to get ready for a fun season,” Lostracco said. “And expect us to be playing for a championship in November.”
Last season: 5-6, 0-4 (missed playoffs)
Head coach: Frank McArdle, fourth season (Career: 8-25)
Outlook: The Raiders may not have won a division game since Frank McArdle took over four years ago, but progress isn’t always measured in total victories. Ryan has been a league doormat for several seasons, but the program seems to be turning a corner.
Over the last few years, the Raiders have had trouble winning any game at all, suffering through a 20-game losing streak that spanned almost two full seasons in 2008 and ’09. However, last year, while still remaining winless in league games, Ryan won five of its seven non-league contests.
“We’re way better than we were last year,” McArdle said. “Last year we proved we’re a tough out and we’re not a pushover anymore. Our kids feel those days of the past are over.”
Ryan expects to build around its offensive line, which features four returning starters and a converted defensive lineman (Ed Bier, Brian Robbins, Joe Ruskowski, Joe Hansbury and Ryan McGee) to protect whoever is the starting quarterback. Vying for the job are Mark Ostaszewski and Judge transfer Brian Kennedy, one of whom will be replacing the graduated Mike Anusky, a “huge leader” who threw for 1,111 yards and 13 touchdowns a year ago. Kennedy is more of a typical pocket passer, while Ostaszewski can use his feet to make life difficult for the opposition. Neither has established himself as the definitive choice just yet, but McArdle praised both for their hard work and dedication in the offseason.
Another name to look out for on both sides of the ball is Bobby Romano, a talented baseball player who is opting to replace Mike Palmer as the team’s most versatile playmaker. Jeremiah Agrio-O’Reilly (Pennsbury transfer) and Dylan Rowan (the team’s leading rusher last year) will be in the mix at tailback.
“Our motto is ‘Keep chopping away,’” McArdle said. “This is the best time of the year, as we prepare all year to get to August. That down period for Ryan, I think, is over, as we’re way better than we’ve been in a long time. I know we’re better and how hard the kids have worked. I want them to start seeing the results they deserve.” ••