Not only did Neshannock High’s football team get back to the postseason, but the Lancers won a title as well.
A year after missing the playoffs, the Lancers responded with a WPIAL Class 2A Midwestern Athletic Conference championship. As a result, the team had six players named to the MAC Top 22 teams in Braden Gennock, Joey Antuono, Nico Nuzzo, Spencer Perry, Andy Presnar and Ethan Weatherby.
Shenango’s Reis Watkins, Jason Kraner, Jake Stephenson and Anthony Campoli joined Mohawk’s Nick Beam and Hunter Faulk in the Top 22 as well. Shenango’s Jimmy Graham was named the MAC’s coach of the year.
After opening the season with a nonconference loss at Avonworth, Neshannock went to work against MAC foes. The Lancers outscored their first three, 132-37. New Brighton handed the squad its lone conference loss, but Neshannock bounced back to run the table to claim the title with a 6-1 mark.
The Lancers opened the playoffs with a 31-13 win over Serra Catholic. Their run ended at 9-3 with a 20-0 setback to Brentwood in the WPIAL quarterfinals.
“It was a really good bounce-back season for us. We had some bad luck last year and just missed the playoffs. The guys were determined to right the ship and get Neshannock football back where it belongs and they did it,” Neshannock coach Fred Mozzocio said. “They did it with hard work. It was a very physical and trying season. We weren’t a big football team, but the guys made sure they went out and were the most physical team each week. That’s how we were able to win a MAC championship and get to the WPIAL quarterfinals. I am very proud of everyone. There were a lot more of our guys that should’ve been on the first team on this list.”
Gennock, a senior, earned honors at running back. He led the county with 1,507 yards on 220 carries. He added 12 receptions for 188 yards and finished with 22 touchdowns.
“He had a fabulous season. He put a lot of time and effort in during the offseason to build his body up to take the pounding he’d get from the conference, since he got the opportunity to be our featured back,” Mozzocio said. “In my mind, he is the MVP of the league. I don’t think there was a guy who was within eight touchdowns of him. He just had an outstanding year.”
Antuono, a junior, was honored on the offensive and defensive lines.
“He did a great job for us and is a hard worker. He puts a lot of time and effort into both sides of the football,” Mozzocio said. “He’s always working on his technique to get better and doing anything he can to be the best player he can be. It showed in his performance. I am glad he was recognized for that hard work.”
Nuzzo, a senior, was honored on the offensive and defensive lines as well.
“It was another outstanding year for him,” Mozzocio said. “He will really be missed. He was with me as a ball boy when he was in fifth grade. It’ll be odd not seeing his face in the weight room in the offseason. He is a great person and young man. He put a lot of time and effort into our program. I am happy to see him recognized.”
Perry, a junior, was recognized on the defensive line.
“He is a guy who, entering his freshman and sophomore years, we saw a lot of potential in and we knew he’d blossom into a great player. What he did for us on the defensive side of the ball was unbelievable. He and Nico teamed up at defensive ends and batted down balls and put lots of pressure on quarterbacks. We expect to see big, big things from him next year.”
Presnar, a senior, earned honors at linebacker.
“He has been a big part of our program. He had an MVP-type season for us,” Mozzocio said. “The plays he made for us were unbelievable. He had a huge, huge senior year.”
Weatherby, a senior, was honored at defensive back.
“We convinced him to come out and play his senior year with his friends. Once he committed in the winter last year, he was there for 98 percent of the workouts. He came a long way,” Mozzocio said. “He was a big contributor on both sides of the ball. I am happy I got to coach him and he got be part of this football team.”
The Wildcats completed a big turnaround in the fall. They went from 1-9 last year to narrowly missing the playoffs. A 3-4 mark in MAC action was not good enough for one of the top four playoff spots. Overall, the team finished 6-4 in its second year under Graham.
“The kids played hard this year. I think the culture is starting to change a bit and the kids are buying into the system,” Graham said. “You just can’t replace experience. Going 1-9 last year, unfortunately, we were forced to play a lot of young players.
“We’re trying to build the program and a lot of our kids got a lot of experience. We have a nice core group coming back that got some time. We’re optimistic, to say the last,” he continued. “We feel what we have going on is a good thing, but we still have to go out and execute. That was our biggest downfall this season — we got in a couple situations where we didn’t execute as well we should have. Hopefully, we can build into the offseason with some good workouts and get better.”
Watkins earned honors in all three phases — at running back, linebacker and punter. The junior finished with 1,471 yards, which led the county during the regular season. He added 14 catches for 111 yards and added 13 touchdowns.
“He is a tremendous athlete with a tremendous work ethic. He’d do anything we’d ask and he gives us 100 percent effort all the time,” Graham said. “He’s a real team player and we’re excited we have him for one more year. He is a leader on and off the field and a good role model for these underclassman. Any accolades he gets, he earns.”
Kraner, a senior, earned honors at wide receiver and defensive back. He led the county in receiving with 43 catches for 782 yards. He ran the ball 14 times for 46 yards and scored eight touchdowns.
“He has a high motor and is a great athlete. Part of our scheme this year was to try to get him the ball as much as we could and capitalize on any mismatches at the wide receiver position,” Graham said. “We’ll miss him. He stretched the field and has great hands and speed. All around, he’s a good team player as well.”
Stephenson and Campoli, both seniors, earned honors on both the offensive and defensive lines. Campoli will play college football at Saint Vincent next fall.
“I think Jake was a four-year starter for us. He was the anchor of our offensive line,” Graham said.
“We really changed our line blocking and Anthony was the one in charge of making all the calls to get us in position. He stayed healthy for all 10 games and that was big. He is a very smart football player.
“With those two seniors up front, with their leadership and drive, we ran behind those guys as much as we could. That’s what enabled us to throw the ball as well as we did. We’ll miss those guys, that’s for sure.”
Graham was thrilled to see his team turn things around this season.
“It’s pretty humbling to be recognized and definitely unexpected. There are some great coaches in the conference that did a lot of good things,” he said. “This award goes to our coaching staff. I feel like we have a great staff that works well together and gets our players in the best positions to win.
“The players played well, too. There were maybe five or six plays here or there that, had they gone differently, maybe we’re in the playoffs. Our conference is a very tough conference. We were fortunate to win the games we did. We hope to build on this for next year.”
A year after winning the MAC title and winning a playoff game, Mohawk was left with a young and inexperienced roster. The Warriors went through some growing pains and dipped to 1-6 in the MAC and 2-8 overall.
“We graduated 11 seniors last year and most of these guys didn’t see any time or little time. A majority of them were first-time Friday night players, but there was a lot of growth there,” Mohawk coach Tim McCutcheon said. “We’re thinking that a year of experience and playing time will be big for us this coming year.”
Two of the team’s veterans earned honors in Beam and Faulk, both repeat selections.
Beam earned honors at offensive and defensive line.
“We had big expectations for him this year. He fulfilled them, to say the least,” McCutcheon said. “He was huge on both sides of the ball.”
Faulk earned first-team honors at linebacker.
“Last year, he led the entire conference in tackles. He led the team in tackles this year,” McCutcheon said.
“He was an anchor inside for us. He is just a really good linebacker and a good football player.”
Ellwood City Lincoln, which finished 0-7 in the conference and 0-10 overall, did not have any players in the top 22.