Northern Lehigh's only question mark heading into the season was its offensive line.
While the Bulldogs returned all of their offensive skill players, all five interior linemen graduated from the 2009 district runners up.
Over its first 11 games this year's group proved there was no drop off from last season. With Saturday's District 11 Class AA championships, the unit showed that it could be even better this year.
"Never in a million years did we think our offensive line would be stronger as a unit than it was last year," said Bulldog head coach Joe Tout. "We were pretty good up front last year. We didn't think that would be possible."
The Bulldog line, coming off a disappointing performance against Jim Thorpe, bounced back by beating North Schuylkill up front in the 25-23 district title victory. The team rushed for 188 yards on 43 carries, which is below its average but very good considering the opponent.
"They were big up front," said left tackle Carl Sahlberg. "They were one of the best defensive lines we've faced."
Tout, who is also the team's offensive line coach, put together this line during the offseason. The five interior players and one of three tight ends are all seniors taking full advantage of their only year as varsity starters.
In the middle is center James Geronikos (5-8, 180), a former fullback who was behind Matt Gill and Kirk Bender on the depth chart.
"We looked at our needs and we said to him in March, we need you to move to center," Tout said. "So he made the move and he's gotten better all year."
At the guard spots Tout inserted the hard-working Ruth brothers, Andrew and Daniel, who both check in at 5-10, 175. They didn't see a lot of varsity time until this year, but they still showed up for every offseason weight lifting session.
"I don't think they've missed in five years," Tout said. "They haven't ever complained. They never said a word. They just worked."
The tackles, Carl Sahlberg (6-3, 290) and Kyle Heiser (6-4, 280), give the Bulldogs some much-needed size and strength up front.
Tights ends Nick Valentini (Jr., 6-0, 160), Caleb Johnson (So., 6-4, 190) and Mike Buresh (Sr., 6-3, 220) round out the unit.
Because none of the interior linemen start on defense, they can stay pretty fresh during games.
Northern Lehigh rushed for 3,476 yards over it's first 11 games and averaged 8.6 yards per carry as a team. The line helped Cody Remaley set a new Colonial League rushing record and is a huge reason the team is headed to the state playoffs.
"We knew it was going to be tough with everyone leaving last year," said Sahlberg. "We just had to come in, work hard in the offseason and just get better. We have really good backs. All we have to do is give them a couple inches and they're gone. It's real easy with backs like them."
"They give us a lot of credit," said Andrew Ruth. "In reality, they deserve all the credit in the world. They're the best backs anyone could ask for."
The respect is mutual. After every game Remaley showers praise upon the lineemen, which he did again.
"We knew they had a big defensive line," Remaley said. "Our line did an awesome job of stepping up and getting on the blocks."
Remaley's compliments do not go unnoticed. The guys up front appreciate every word.
"Most backs you see in the NFL, all they care about is their numbers," Sahlberg said. "Cody really cares about the line and what we do and how we block for him. He really respects us."
Although most of these linemen watched the 2009 district final from the sideline, that loss to the Spartans motivated them for this year's run and the title-game rematch.
Northern Lehigh has been preparing for another district final showdown since just days after last season ended.
"Since December we've been lifting," Andrew Ruth said. "It's just been hard work."
"And we know that there's more to come," added Sahlberg.