Raiders have reason for optimism
It has been more than a half century since Tamaqua achieved what it has done on the gridiron the past two seasons.
The Blue Raiders followed up 2008's 8-4 record and Eastern Conference Class AA title game berth with the school's first-ever District 11 football playoff berth last year, finishing with an 8-3 mark.
The last time Tamaqua put together back-to-back eight win seasons was in 1956-57.
Admittedly, that is a tough act to follow, but the return of their entire backfield gives the Raiders reason for optimism this season.
"We have the capability to have a third straight playoff year," said Tamaqua Coach Sam Bonner, who is 19-14 as he enters his fourth season. "We have to stay healthy, and we lost some seniors, so we hope to have the younger kids come around. The underclassmen have to step up and fill their shoes."
Tamaqua's biggest holes are at wide receiver and up front.
Anthony Bumbulsky was an All-State selection at receiver, catching 40 passes for 579 yards and six touchdowns, averaging 14.5 yards per reception.
The Raiders will also miss starting offensive linemen Erik Krause, Mike Gurcsik and Justin Hubosky as well as nose guard Eric James, who was a disruptive force on defense.
Other seniors who graduated include linemen Dakota Krapf, Andrew Petritsch and Dustin Wentz and ends Tom Robin, Steve Kupetz and Ryan Miorelli.
"Bumbulsky was a large part of our passing game, and guys like Gurcsik and Krause played for three years, so we were able to do things with our offensive line that we didn't do in the past," said Bonner.
Tamaqua does return 13 letterwinners, but the bulk of the squad is still young; there are only eight seniors on the roster for grades 9-12. Some of the upperclassmen, including Grif Griffiths, Garth Lakitsky and Ryan Palsgrove, are four-year varsity starters.
Offensively, the Raiders outrushed their opponents more than 2-to-1 (2,451 to 1,059). Griffiths led the way with 223 carries for 1,333 yards and 14 TDs. He is closing in on the 2,000 yard career mark, entering this season with 1,886.
"As a runner, Grif's starting to get more of that cutback feel, but he still has the power to go north-south," said Bonner.
At fullback is Lakitsky, who at 6-2, 221 is a force carrying the ball or as a blocker. Lakitsky, Griffiths and senior Matt Edmonds form a formidable trio of linebackers on defense.
"Garth rushes for around 300 yards (286, with three TDs), and we want to find different ways to get him the ball," noted Bonner.
At quarterback, Palsgrove completed 54 of 132 passes for 910 yards and nine TDs; he has passed for 2,983 yards for his career. A double threat, he also rushed for 274 yards and six TDs a year ago.
"Palsgrove makes as many plays for us with his legs as with his arm," concurred Bonner. "He has the ability to make a busted play into a big play."
The Raiders also return speedy junior flanker Jarred Muffley, who carried 58 times for 333 yards and four TDs.
With Bumbulsky gone, the Raiders need to develop their receiving corps. Senior Jon Ansbach is back at tight end, and junior Matt DelBorello and sophomore Tyler Krell could join their backfield mates as options.
"Teams are going to load up on us, so we have to spread it around a bit," explained Bonner. "We will look for our backs out of the backfield and put them in position to make plays in the open field."
Up front, there are two three-year starters returning in junior Peter Conforti (5-11, 219) at center and senior Carl Wittig (5-11, 180) at guard.
Junior Tyler Groner (5-9, 202) is pencilled it at the other guard, while juniors Tylor Wolfe (6-1, 300) and Mike Sweigert (5-10, 208) are at the tackles.
The Raiders also have a weapon in junior Lance Williams, who kicked 32 extra points last season.
Defensively, Bonner expects to use multiple looks, switching with 5-2, 4-3 and 5-3 alignments.
Tamaqua has been mentioned among the contenders for Anthracite League honors, but with District 11 qualifying just four teams for the Class AA playoffs this year, the Raiders have little margin for error.
"We were 8-2 going into Districts last year and were seeded fifth," said Bonner. "Every game counts."