POTTSVILLE - With the first day of practice set for this Monday, the Schuylkill County Football Coaches Association held its annual Media Day kick-off at Maroon's Thursday.
Coaches and players representing the county's scholastic gridiron squads had the chance to meet and greet with sportswriters and broadcasters at the luncheon.
North Schuylkill, which won the Anthracite League and District 11 Class AA championships last season, is the favorite to repeat in the Anthracite, according to the preseason poll of the league's nine head coaches.
The Spartans received eight first place votes and 80 points to top the poll, followed by Schuylkill Haven with 62 points and one first place vote. Tamaqua was third with 59, Marian fourth with 58, Jim Thorpe fifth with 47, Shenandoah Valley sixth with 31, Panther Valley seventh with 26, Minersville eighth with 23 and Mahanoy Area ninth with19.
"North Schuylkill is everyone's pick, and they are the clear favorite," said Marian Coach Stan Dakosty.
"North Schuylkill is definitely the top team, and other teams will be fighting to keep with them," added Jim Thorpe Coach Mark Rosenberger.
"I think you are looking at North Schuylkill, Tamaqua and Marian, and then there's a number of teams that are bunched together," said Panther Valley Coach Frank Damian.
Tamaqua was 8-3 last year, posting its second straight eight-win season. The Blue Raiders earned their first-ever District 11 playoff berth, falling to Panther Valley in overtime of the Class AA quarterfinals.
The Raiders are garnering attention as a possible contender in the Anthracite due to the return of running back Grif Griffiths, who rushed for 1,333 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, as well as Ryan Palsgrove, a four-year starter at quarterback; fullback Garth Lakitsky; tailback Jarred Muffley; linebacker and flanker Matt Edmonds; and linemen Carl Wittig, Peter Conforti and tight end Jon Ansbach.
"It's appreciated," said Tamaqua Coach Sam Bonner, in his fourth season at the helm. "It's been awhile since Tamaqua has been mentioned among the top teams in the league, but the preseason doesn't mean anything. It won't mean anything until we prove ourselves."
The Raiders graduated All-state wide receiver Anthony Bumbulsky from that team and will have to rebuild along their lines a bit with the departure of Mike Gurcsik, Justin Hubosky, Eric James, Erik Krause and Dakota Krapf.
Marian finished an uncharacteristic 3-7 a year ago, only the fourth time in Dakosty's 33 years in charge that the Colts ended below .500.
While the Colts lost some key performers in running back Bruce Balliet, wideout Joe Kloap and tackle James O'Connor, plenty of younger players received experience last season, which is reason to believe they can reverse their fortunes.
"At one time, we started six sophomores and a freshman last year, and the thing that has us excited this year is, while we have 10 seniors back, we have 51 kids out who are in grades 9 to 11," said Dakosty. "We're still a young team, but we know the challenge ahead of us."
Paul Martin rushed for over 1,000 yards as a sophomore for the Colts, and he leads a group of returnees that include quarterback Corey Quick, running back Evan Bellizia, wide receiver Eric Baker, tight end Dominick Richards, offensive linemen Anthony Pilla, Brett Befano, Mike Skotek and Brendan McGowan; and linebackers Anthony Damiano and Jordan Weber.
Jim Thorpe posted a 4-6 mark last season. Most of the time, scoring points was not a problem for the Olympians, who were led by all-time passing leader Corey Cinicola, but stopping the opposition was; Thorpe surrendered 281 points, an average of over four touchdowns per game.
"Last year we didn't play well defensively, and this is an opportunity to get better," said Rosenberger, in his 13th year as head coach. "We're optimistic. We have the potential to be a solid football team, but potenial doesn't mean a whole lot. We're capable of being in the mix of things if we work hard and dedicate ourselves to it."
In addition to Cinicola, the Olympians need to replace running back Carl St. Hill, tackle Mike Carpenter and wideout Scott Storm.
Terry Moll takes over at quarterback, and other Olympians who will have an impact include running backs Shane Edwards, Jon Fritz and Phil Schrom; receivers P.J. Johnson and Sean Green; tight end Tom Acker; linemen Tyler Mangold, Wes Hurley, Sean Leslie, Ben Moore and Steve Hayes; and linebacker Connor Jamison.
Panther Valley returned to the postseason for the first time since 1999 a year ago, ending a 9-3 after an overtime loss to North Schuylkill in the District 11 AA semifinals.
The Panthers were hard hit by graduation, however. Gone are First Team All-Staters in wide receiver Jake Dunn and linebacker Ryan Richards, as well as quarterback Casey Lawrence, running back Kyle McAvoy, receiver Jeff Corby, linemen Greg Pecha, Jason Harrison and Andrew Tucker, linebacker Ryan Porambo and defensive back Kevin Schaller.
"We have just four starters back," said Damian, entering his fourth season. "We are hoping the work ethic our seniors showed last year will rub off on the younger kids we have this season.
"We only have eight seniors, so we are taking it one step, one practice, one day at a time."
Joe Revell is the frontrunner at quarterback for the Panthers, who return Brock Mitchell at tight end, Mike Weaver at wide receiver, running back Josh Vega and tackle Anthony Staivecki.