NEW CASTLE —
The sounds of fall returned yesterday.
Coaches were yelling. Whistles were tootin’. And shoulder pads were popping.
High school football is back around the state, with the first day of practice kicking off.
Two first-year coaches — Joe Cowart (New Castle) and Fred Mozzocio (Neshannock) — also got their careers started.
Comfortable morning temperatures greeted a total of 335 participants. The temperatures rose gradually throughout the day, but not quite to the levels they have reached in recent weeks.
“I don’t know who planned this, but it’s phenomenal,” Cowart said of the conditions during the afternoon practice. “As long as we don’t get rained on. But it’s been great to this point.”
The number of players around the county continued to fall, even if it was just slightly. Last year, 336 players suited up on the first day and two years ago it was at 341. Three years ago, the total was 358.
Cowart welcomed a county-high 53 Red Hurricane players to practice. That figure is up by two, but does not include most freshmen for the second straight year.
“It’s been great. Our numbers are very good,” Cowart said of the turnout. “I’m very excited about it. We have about 28 juniors. That’s our big group right now.
“Our junior high numbers have been great. It’s exciting to see it transfer over to the varsity level.”
The ’Canes opened the morning session by working on defense before switching over to offense and special teams in the afternoon.
“The energy has been great,” Cowart said. “We want our kids to be able to not question what they’re going to do in a particular situation. Whatever the situation is, they should know what the standard is for that situation, what we expect as a coaching staff.”
New Castle opened camp at Taggart Stadium for the second straight year. In previous years, the ’Canes went away to camp.
“There’s a positive to both sides,” Cowart said. “I love going away. For the team-building purpose of it, it’s tremendous. But being here, the facilities here are tremendous. As far as getting things done on the turf, it’s wonderful.
“We’re trying to save money for the district for the most part. We won’t do something unnecessary. It is a great thing to go away, though.”
Quarterback has been one position that was locked up early on for about the last seven or eight years. Michael Bongivengo held the spot and then passed the torch to Johnny Matarazzo. But now Cowart has a battle to find Matarazzo’s replacement.
“Quarterback is one of the top battles for us,” Cowart said. “Right now, our No. 1 quarterback is a freshman, Pat Minenok. He’s going to play a bunch for us.
“But going into camp, it doesn’t matter what position it is, every day at camp is going to be a battle. I don’t care how great you were on Friday night, come Monday when we go to practice, you’ll be evaluated on a daily basis.”
Julian Cox, a junior quarterback who transferred from Ellwood City Lincoln, is on the ’Canes’ depth chart, according to Cowart.
“Julian is with us. He will help us in some situations,” Cowart said, adding that Cox has to sit out the first two games of the season for “team reasons.”
“When he comes back, he’ll be a big part of this football team.”
ELLWOOD CITY LINCOLN
Despite a slight decline in numbers, Wolverines coach Don Phillips is pleased to have 46 players out for the team.
Last year, 50 kids came out for the opening of Ellwood City’s camp.
“Right now, we have a couple of kids that we’re trying to see where they stand eligibility-wise. We’re right in that same number as last year.
“Our numbers are good. When you’re a double-A school the size of Ellwood, and you’re getting around 50 kids to work with, that’s a nice number.”
The Wolverines, who suffered through losing seasons most of the decade, are bidding for their third straight trip to the WPIAL playoffs this year. Phillips knows it won’t be an easy task.
“We like to hope the playoffs are expected of us now,” he said. “We’re to the point now that the kids know it takes a lot of hard work and dedication. We play in a very tough conference (Midwestern Athletic Conference).
“When you start looking at our conference, anybody can beat anybody. It’s that simple. You can not take your eyes off the New Brightons, Riversides, the Freedoms, Mohawk. Everybody else. On any given night, every team gets excited to play. If you aren’t up to your game, they can hand you a defeat.”
Phillips said his team made good use of the first day of practice, working on offense in the morning and defense in the afternoon.
“We tried to set the tone, trying to get the kids to understand that mental approach we need to have if we’re going to be successful,” Phillips said. “That mental approach is because of the nature of not only our conference, but the very nature of playing in western Pennsylvania. It’s very physical and if we can’t meet that challenge then we’re going to struggle.
“Right now, our kids had a normal first day in the sense of we’re still trying to get everybody organized and used to their equipment.”
Cox ranked fourth in the county in passing last year with 501 yards, five touchdowns and six interceptions. He rushed for 279 yards as well. Jared Meyers, a junior, is the only returning Ellwood player that attempted any passes last year. Meyers, now a junior, was listed as a running back last year.
“Quarterback is one of many battles that is wide open. But I wouldn’t say it’s our biggest battle,” Phillips said. “Cox is just like losing a guy to graduation. That’s how I treat it. It’s nothing against that young man.
“I graduated Kyle Crawford last year, now I have to replace him. We had a lot of players where graduation took them from us. I want to see who has the ‘I’m playing’ type of attitude on this team.”
The Spartans, who boasted 40 players, impressed coach Jerry Holzhauser on the first day.
“We’re pretty much working on fundamentals like everybody else,” he said. “We got a lot accomplished in the summer. We’re a little more advanced than I thought we would be. I’m calling things and they know what we’re doing. That’s great.
“You hope that each practice is better than the last. Midweek is when things could get sluggish and you have the chance of things going downhill. But right now, we’re pretty happy.”
Laurel, which is looking for its first WPIAL playoff berth since 2009, dropped down to the Class A Big Seven Conference. The Spartans competed in the MAC for the past two years. They were in the Big Seven when they last qualified for the postseason.
“It’s a tough conference,” Holzhauser said. “You don’t have Monaca anymore. All the schools are tough, though, and good football schools.
“It’s a little different than Aliquippa, Beaver Falls and Jeannette. But if you underestimate your opponent, you’re going to be in trouble. It’s good football in the Big Seven.”
Holzhauser said his team will use camp to settle position battles.
“Position battles are all over the place,” Holzhauser said. “Quarterback, running back, line. They all recognize it, I think.
“We have to replace (running back) Dylan Jones and that won’t be easy. We have Matt Conway and James Steele battling. They both have real good speed and they want to play.”
The Warriors carry a 14-game losing streak, longest in the county, into the season. But that didn’t stop 36 players from coming out for second-year coach Joe Lamenza.
“In our conference (MAC), that’s about what it is at most schools,” Lamenza said of the numbers. “Some are higher. But it’s usually between 35 and 40 guys.
“Every coach wants more players, but I’m not discouraged. We have great kids and they’ve been working hard. We had a great offseason with those kids and they’ve got a great commitment.”
Mohawk practiced on the offense in the morning and defense in the afternoon, while doing some lifting in between.
“We started to get better at a lot of things,” Lamenza said. “The practice was as good as can be expected to this point.”
Graduation hit the Warriors hard. Gone are starters Tim Glass (quarterback) and John Fleck (running back).
“We started five sophomores and a freshman last year,” Lamenza said. “We have some holes to fill and there are a lot of positions up for grabs.
“We’re looking for the best 11 and that’s what camp is for. We have an idea of who the guys might be and who their backups might be. But really it’s a puzzle and you have to make the pieces fit.”
Mozzocio greeted 39 Lancers, which is down from 43 a season ago.
“You always want as many bodies as you can get, of course. But we feel pretty comfortable with the 39 kids that are here,” Mozzocio said. “They’ve been pretty much tested throughout the summer and they know what’s expected of them and they’re here, ready to work.
“These are the 39 guys that we feel comfortable with on this football team.”
Neshannock squeezed in three practices yesterday, working the offense in the morning, defense in the afternoon and special teams in the evening.
“We have pretty much our whole offense in place, except for some little things here and there that we’ll throw in throughout the year,” Mozzocio said. “We basically went back to the basics and started working on our base blocking techniques.”
The Wildcats’ numbers swelled to 47, up from 37 a year ago. But Shenango coach Ryan Mayo acknowledged what the increase in players means for his program.
“That’s good quality and quantity that we have,” Mayo said. “We have the most depth that we’ve had in my time here.
“I don’t know that we have any superstars in our midst. But we have a lot of good football players and we’re deep. That’s a positive for us.”
Mayo’s group started with the basics.
“We had an offensive practice in the morning and we had a defensive practice in the afternoon,” Mayo said. “We started with fundamentals.
“The first day is an important tone-setter. You can tell a lot about the team’s personality on that first day. How business-like they are. How hard they will work. How tough they are mentally and how they will prepare. It’s not a make-or-break proposition. But it is important.”
Shenango doesn’t have a large senior class, “a handful” according to Mayo, and there will be many position battles throughout the squad.
“This year’s football team will be a lot like next year’s football team because of the small senior class,” Mayo said. “I like what I’ve seen so far.
“I thought we had one of our best summers in terms of attitude and attendance. You could see that in today’s practice.”
Scotties coach Stacy Robinson has a larger group to work with this year — 24 players — but not by much. That tally is up by just one over last season for one of the smallest schools in the WPIAL.
“It’s no surprise. We saw this coming a few years ago,” Robinson said. “We’re at that stage in our program with 89 boys in our school, if you look at percentages, we still have about 30 percent of our boys in our school out which is I guess a good thing.
“We’ll keep grinding. I don’t think anyone is going to take any sympathy on us. We’ll deal with it. The thing about this year’s team, as opposed to last year’s team, we have some people that are probably going to be some of the best at their position around. We’ve got some players. We might not have a lot of them, but they can get it done.”
The work Union got done in the summer helped going into the first practice.
“We’ve had a good turnout over the summer,” Robinson said. “We were able to rehash offensive schemes and defensive schemes.
“Now you can do it at a little bit of full speed when camp opens. Naturally we started out with the basics.”
Depth will be an issue for the Scotties throughout camp and the season.
“The position battles are lukewarm when you have 24 guys,” Robinson said. “You have to be a special person to push yourself when you don’t need to be pushed.
“We have a few guys that will do that anyway. Competition would make us better, but unfortunately we don’t have it.”
Union, which couldn’t go off to camp last year because of declining numbers, will go to Slippery Rock University for the rest of the week tomorrow.
“Our booster club is great. They said if we want to go to camp, we can go to camp,” Robinson said. “Even though it’s limited numbers, we didn’t go last year because of that reason. We have some guys that want to go and we owe it to them.”
Greyhounds coach Terry Verrelli was pleased with the 50 players that came out. Last year, Wilmington had 52 on the first day.
“I’m happy with that number,” Verrelli said of the 50 players. “If we’re in the high 40s, that’s pretty normal.
“Last year was a little above normal and so is this year.”
Verrelli noted the ability of the players that arrived for the first day of practice.
“I think we have a lot of quality,” Verrelli said. “We’re young; we lost most of the starters from last year’s team.
“The younger ones will have to step up and take their place now.”
The Greyhounds kept things pretty standard in the early stages of the preseason.
“We worked on the basic fundamentals,” Verrelli said. “The coaches can find out who belongs and where.
“We really liked what we saw. It’s not so much the running of the plays that’s important, it’s more important finding out the level a kid is at and their aggressiveness.”
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NEW CASTLE —
The sounds of fall returned yesterday.
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