Last year’s New Castle High football team played through an up-and-down season in a year of transition.
It was the first time in six years the team wasn’t led by a Big 10 recruit after being paced in the past by the likes of Malik Hooker, Geno Stone and Marcus Hooker and didn’t clinch a playoff spot until the final week of the season. The Red Hurricane’s stay in the WPIAL Class 4A playoffs was a short one, falling, 49-16, to top-seeded Thomas Jefferson.
This year, the ‘Canes are hoping to build on the experience many of the returning players earned last year. Oh, and some returning all-conference offensive linemen and an electric running back should help, too.
Coach Joe Cowart, who quarterbacked the ‘Canes to the program’s last WPIAL title 20 years ago, enters his eighth season as the leader on the sideline and sports a 40-34 record with playoff appearances in all but his first season.
“We have high hopes,” Cowart said. “We’re setting our goals high. We want to compete for a section championship, compete for a district championship and compete in the state of Pennsylvania. That’s where we set our bar every year and we’re not lowering the bar.”
The ‘Canes return linemen Rocco Robinson, a first-team all-conference lineman from last year and Bernie Fabian, who earned all-conference honors the last two years. They’ll anchor both the offensive and defensive lines, which will play a big role in Cowart’s hope this year’s New Castle team will be able to limit offensive turnovers and penalties while forcing more defensive takeaways.
“We think Rocco is going to really anchor us on both sides of the line of scrimmage,” Cowart said. “We’re going to pair him on defense with a defensive end in Jaylan Cox, who we think can really take a big step forward going into his junior year.”
Cowart said he looks for Fabian to set the tone up front as a senior.
“Those guys up front, we’ll go as far as those guys will take us,” Cowart said.
Running behind that line will be senior Demetris McKnight, an athletic enigma with the combination of size, speed and strength. Last year, McKnight played quarterback after missing the first four games following an undisclosed team suspension.
“Demetris is probably our most gifted player and will be one of the most gifted players in our league,” Cowart said. “He’ll be important to us on both sides of the football.”
The ‘Canes offense plans to move him around the field to utilize his skill set. That could mean he could also line up split wide as a receiver or as the quarterback.
“We’ll try to keep the defense guessing and try to get him in space and get him as many touches as we can throughout the course of the year,” Cowart said.
Taking over at quarterback will be sophomore Michael Wells. Wells played junior high football, but didn’t go out for the team last season. He’s no stranger to high-pressure situations, however, working his way into the starting lineup for the WPIAL champion boys basketball team last winter as a freshman.
“Mike obviously has a pedigree as a young guy playing varsity sports as a basketball player last year,” Cowart said. “Mike did not play football for us last year, so he’s a little behind as far as just understanding the varsity football game, but he’s really done a good job of being involved and getting involved in the offense and being a leader at the quarterback position. We’re expecting good things from him.”
New Castle finished fifth in the Northwest Eight Conference last year behind South Fayette, Blackhawk, Beaver and Knoch. The ‘Canes pick up with conference play in the Week 1 home opener against Montour after a Week 0 date with host Shaler.
“Our offseason has been good,” Cowart said. “We’re pleased with where we’re at. We think the summer has gone well. The first couple weeks of training camp has gone well for us. We’ll hit the ground running from Week 0 against Shaler.”