Ron Poniewasz Jr.
New Castle News
NEW CASTLE —
Shoulder pads were clashing, whistles were blowing and coaches were yelling.
It all signified the return of high school football across the area and state yesterday as the first day of football practice kicked off for eight Lawrence County schools.
Two new coaches — Pat Cuba (Laurel) and Mike Commesso (Shenango) — also took the field with their squads.
Teams worked out in various conditions as well. In the morning and into the afternoon, temperatures were comfortable with splashes of periodic sunshine. Later in the day, those splashes were the result of a brief shower.
“We got one crack of thunder, but thank goodness there was no lightning,” Cuba said. “There was only one crack so we didn’t have to go in. These kids will stay outside. They don’t care if it’s a driving rainstorm. They’ll stay out here and practice.”
Said second-year Neshannock coach Fred Mozzocio of the conditions, “I like it hot. I like to burn them into shape. But you have to take what they give you. I didn’t like the rain, but the kids liked it. They had fun with it.”
The brief rain was enough for the Scotties to take a break from their work before going back for a final half-hour.
“We figured we’re not going to get anything done but slop around in the rain so we took a break,” Union coach Stacy Robinson said. “The ball gets wet and you’re just wasting time so we went in and did some functional exercises to maintain our strength.”
Numbers continue to decline around the county, with 326 total players suiting up yesterday. In 2009, 358 gridders took part on the opening day. But 341 came out in 2010, 336 in 2011 and 335 last year.
“I don’t know if football is big in a lot of homes,” Robinson said. “There was a time when the Steelers were the only thing in town and everybody based their Sunday on it. You’ve got people that might be watching the Home & Garden channel now, HGTV, instead of the Steelers. The world’s changing.”
Laurel (42 this year and 40 last year), Mohawk (41 this year and 36 last year) and Neshannock (41 this year and 39 last year) were the only schools to see a spike in numbers.
“It’s real simple, this is a tough, tough game. It’s not for everybody,” Mozzocio said of the numbers issue. “There’s a lot of other things to do that’s more conducive to our society right now.
“This is a tough thing to do. I think some kids just choose to do other things that are less grueling on their every day lives. Lawrence County is still a football county and I think we’ll have a good showing all the way through the county in all classifications.”
Second-year Red Hurricane coach Joe Cowart welcomed 52 participants to the first day of practice, which was down by one from last year to open camp.
“I’m happy with the numbers,” Cowart said. “Our numbers are down a bit from last year. I think we finished with 57 a year ago. That's about our number.
“If we could get up in the mid 50s or low 60s I’d probably be more excited. I think we have quality with the quantity. It will be interesting through camp to develop our depth.”
Cowart’s crew worked on a variety of aspects during practice.
“We did offense in the morning and we went defense in the afternoon,” Cowart said. “I did like what I saw in the morning.
“Our guys are rounding into shape. We had a good summer as far as preparation. We’ve been able to hit the ground running based on our offseason preparation and work; I thought it was a good morning practice.”
ELLWOOD CITY LINCOLN
The Wolverines dropped to 43 players after suiting up 46 a season ago. But Ellwood City coach Don Phillips was pleased with the figure.
“We have 43 right now and the way it looks, this is our roster for the season,” he said. “Any time you’re in a double-A school and you have that many kids, that tells me that you have a decent number.
“You always like as many kids out for football that you can have and that really want to participate. We don’t look and say that we have to have this number every year. We want to encourage a lot of kids to play and we want the kids to feel that they want to participate and be a part of all of this.”
The Wolverines made sure to balance out their drills on the first day.
“The morning was all offense and the afternoon was all defense,” Phillips said. “(This) morning we’ll work on both.”
Phillips did have a player go down with an injury. Junior offensive/defensive lineman Brett Gibson broke a finger. According to Phillips, Gibson figures to contend for playing time.
“He’s a nice kid and a hard-working kid,” Phillips said of Gibson. “But he’s going to need a couple of days to let that thing set.
“Once we’ve got some setting in there and it starts to heal we’ll brace that baby up and pad it up, protect him and let him get back out here.”
Cuba, who coached at Neshannock for five years from 2007 to 2011, was pleased at the Spartans’ numbers.
“The work ethic is excellent and I’m happy with the amount we have out,” Cuba said. “It’s just a matter of getting them up to game speed. They’re doing a nice job and they’ve done a nice job all summer.
“We’re in pretty good shape physically, as far as the conditioning part of it. I’m very happy with that part of it.”
Cuba expects things to pick up the rest of the week on the Laurel practice field.
“The hitting wasn’t physical enough,” he said. “The possibility is there. We have good speed and we’re physically strong, but we don’t know how to apply that to game speed right now.”
Laurel’s Spencer Jones, just a sophomore, made an impression on the coaching staff on the first day.
“Jones hustles all the time,” Cuba said. “He plays tailback on the scout team. He gets hit, he gets right back up and is ready to go again.”
Wide open battles will highlight the Spartans’ camp agenda.
“I would say the solid position is Josh Dando at quarterback,” Cuba said. “But everything else is wide open.
“(Juniors) Matty Conway hustles and Clayton Sharek hustles. Right now, everything is wide open, though. That’s what we’re trying to tell them, you have to compete.”
Despite having a long tenure in the coaching ranks, Cuba said he was still anxious for the start of camp.
“I guess I was a little bit nervous,” Cuba said. “I’ve been doing this about 32 years now. But the butterflies will be gone (today).”
Third-year Warriors coach Joe Lamenza is pleased at the interest his program is generating after snapping a 14-game losing streak in the season opener last year and finishing with a 2-7 mark.
“The numbers are steadily going up here at Mohawk,” Lamenza said. “I’m happy with the progress. You always like the progress.
“I like to think what we’re doing is catching on. We’ve implemented a lot of things in our program and I like to think that things are catching on.”
Lamenza started with fundamentals on the opening day.
“We worked on our base offense and base defense,” Lamenza said. “I’m pretty pleased with what I saw.
“There were a lot of mistakes that we need to correct. You can tell that we have a lot of guys back from years past and that’s why practice ran so smooth. The schedule was familiar to many guys.”
Lamenza noted one luxury that he hasn’t had through his brief stint at Mohawk.
“We have some depth that we haven’t had in years past,” Lamenza said. “We do have some positions that we haven’t solidified and that’s what makes these two scrimmages so important.”
The Lancers have an eager bunch of 41 out to improve on last season’s 10-2 mark, which included a share of the Big Seven Conference crown and a berth in the WPIAL Class A semifinals.
“We’re happy with the number. The kids that we have here, they’ve been here all summer,” Mozzocio said. “They’ve worked their tails off and they know what to expect out of us coaches.
“This year’s team, we want to go a little further now. Their battle cry is they want to make history this year. We’ll take a day by day approach and go from there.”
Neshannock worked three separate times yesterday.
“We worked on the basic fundamentals, all of our base stuff, both offensively and defensively,” Mozzocio said. “When you get into full pads again, it’s a whole different speed.
“I’d say the effort was good. Were we happy overall with our execution and performance? Probably not where we thought we should be. But that’s OK, we’ll get there.”
Commesso, a 1991 Mohawk graduate, is in his first season as a varsity football coach. His first practice attracted 44 Wildcats players to the practice field.
“Obviously we’d like it to be higher,” Commesso said. “As we continue to build the program up we’d like to get those numbers up into the 50s for sure.
“I’m happy with them, but the goal is to build that number up. I think there is quality in that number. I think we have a strong senior class.”
Though Commesso is in his first head varsity coaching job, he can turn to reliable sources for guidance if needed. His dad Lew, a former Mohawk head coach, and Don Costa, a former Ellwood High and Geneva College coach, are on Mike’s staff.
“There’s a lot of good football coaches and a lot of good advice I can tap into,” Mike said. “We have a new staff and a new system. Nobody is penciled in as starters right now. We’re letting everyone compete.”
The first practice was highly anticipated for Mike. The Wildcats worked on base stuff like fundamental tackling, base offense and base defense as well as getting lined up properly.
“I was very excited,” he said. “I didn’t get much sleep (Sunday) night. I was just excited to get a chance to build a program and get with the kids.
“We’ve been lifting and all the other stuff. It was nice to put on pads today and get a chance to see what they could do with pads on.”
The Scotties finished 7-4 last year and reached the WPIAL Class A quarterfinals, but they dropped from 24 players last season to 23 yesterday.
“I’m not surprised with it,” Robinson said. “We tried our efforts to get a few more people out as we do every year. It’s not the first time I’ve walked down this road. Twenty-three people.
“It’s not the same 24 people that we had last year, but we’ll work with what we’ve got. We’ve got to sustain. We try to get 10 out of each grade for a minimum, but we haven’t been able to do that the last few years.”
Robinson paced the Scotties through the first day of drills.
“We just covered the basics,” he said. “The guys are a little eager to get after each other a little bit. But we have to be smart with how we have contact and everything up here with limited numbers.
“We’re veterans at it. We’ve been down this road before so we’ll try to get it done and be smart with what we do. We worked on the fundamentals, offense and defense, how to tackle properly to avoid injuries. We worked on that a lot. See what you hit. We’re concentrating on that. I have to get them to the dance at least.”
Union lost nine players from last year’s preseason roster to graduation and those members played a vital role in the team’s success.
“There’s some battles where people have to step in and fill some shoes,” Robinson said. “There’s some pretty good football players that left in June. It’s time for other people to step up and stake a claim for themselves.”