Back for a third season is the popular Intelligencer/Courier Times ‘Let’s Talk Football,’ featuring high school football beat writers Kevin Cooney and Dan Dunkin. Cooney, the Phillies beat writer, covers schools in the Intelligencer area while Dan Dunkin – who has been covering sports at the high school and professional level for 25 years - will cover teams in the Courier Times area. Both share their perspective on the teams in their coverage area. To stay on top of the high school football news in the area, visit the web site http://www.phillyburbs.com/sports/high_school/.
SuburbanOneSports.com: Who are the top teams in the Continental Conference heading into the 2012 season?
Kevin Cooney: “Any question about the Continental Conference has to begin and end with North Penn. Here’s a team that went to the state final, here’s a team that hasn’t lost an SOL game since they rejoined the conference. They’re a premiere team, and nobody else has shown yet that they could be in that same grouping. North Penn has some players back that they particularly like – players like Steve Gozur who’s going to be moving from safety to linebacker. They have a couple of good linemen. Actually, Dick Beck thinks the line is going to be their strength this year, but you’re going to have the question of how you replace (quarterback) Corey Ernst. If they’re going to make a run at Hershey – and I think that’s a strong possibility with this group again, they have to get their quarterback situation under control early.
“This three-game stretch to start the season is critical for North Penn. You start with La Salle, then you go to Archbishop Wood, against the defending (Class) AAA state champs, and then you go against St. Joe’s Prep, which may – out of all of them - be the best Class AAAA team in the area. You’re talking a stretch where they’re more likely to go 0-3 than 3-0. I think everyone would say that. I think how they learn and mature through this early process will help them as they get towards late October within the Continental.
“At Pennridge, Mike Class is the marquee attraction there. I think a lot of people feel that they’re the one team that could step up and make a challenge this year. The problem, from what I’m hearing, is that Pennridge only has about 38-39 kids, so it’s a question of attrition. How can they withstand injuries and getting beat up? From what I understand, numbers have been a problem for them. If that’s the case, how do you beat North Penn if you don’t have the numbers? It’s an age-old question. Class is good, but if they suffer hits along the line – boy, that’s going to be tough for them to overcome.
“Souderton is the third team everyone going into the year kind of looks at as a potential playoff team. Ed Gallagher has a real established program there now – a team that expects to be in the hunt every year, a team that expects to get to November. The problem for them is they eventually have to step up and beat North Penn. If they want to be in that next level, they’re going to have to beat North Penn at some point, and they haven’t been able to do that yet. Of course, nobody else in the conference has either. The strange thing that happened for Souderton – their game against North Penn was moved to the final game of the regular season. Boy, if they need a win to get in the playoffs and you have to play North Penn, that’s a tough chore. It may help them because in theory they should have things settled by the time they get to Nov. 2, but that’s a tough go. You hate looking that far down the road, but I could see three playoff teams coming out of the Continental.
“I don’t thing the Suburban One League in general is all that strong. I don’t think, quite frankly, District One is all that strong. I think District One has some holes at the Quad A level. Downingtown East is the kind of team everyone was talking up before the season, but they’re another team that hasn’t proven they’re ready to take that leap. I think we could be looking at another carbon copy of what happened last year when North Penn was an 11 seed and towards the bottom of the bracket and ended up winning the district.”
SuburbanOneSports.com: What are your thoughts about the next level of teams in the Continental Conference?
Kevin Cooney: “I haven’t really had a chance to dissect some of the other teams. Central Bucks West has had a couple of good years. Brian Hensel does a good job of getting them ready. I wonder if the lack of numbers hurts them at times. They need to be more consistent. I think that’s a major factor for them. They were a little inconsistent last year, and that ended up really hurting them.
“Central Bucks South obviously has a lot of holes to fill after the graduation of the quarterback, the running back and the wide receiver with Matt Johns, Dan Brown and Chris Veal. I think what helps them is that Dave Rackovan seems to have established a system now. The question is whether it can run with another quarterback or did you need a guy who was going to a D-1 school to run it. That’s something we’ll see by week three and get to the league portion of the schedule. By that time, you usually have a better feel of what will happen after that point.
“The toughest thing about this time of year is fighting through all the BS – teams downplaying how good they’re going to be, teams kind of puffing themselves up to be a little more than they actually are. All of us who think we have this grand poobah knowledge of what’s going to take place – I think in some ways high school football has become a little predictable. You can generally guess what teams will be there at the end, but one of the fun things about it is you don’t know what the surprises will be, and I’m looking forward to what the surprise is this year because we always find one.
“You look at the other three teams in the conference – Central Bucks East, Quakertown and Hatboro-Horsham, and they’re kind of pinned into a spot where it’s tough for them to make that big move because you have two or three heavyweights in this conference. Look how tough it’s been for Pennridge even to make that leap back into the top echelon. Last year they started slow and then rallied. Now everybody thinks they’re a team that could make a run, but it’s tough to project whether they’re ready. Look, if there’s going to be a surprise – and there always is one, I’m not sure it’s coming from the Continental Conference.”
SuburbanOneSports.com: Who do you think that surprise team will be?
Kevin Cooney: “If you look at it, maybe CR North bouncing back – that could be a surprise. I think everybody feels Abington will take a step back next year, but I think they could be a playoff team. There are a lot of different areas that seem a little unstable at this point. Could someone in the American Conference surprise and break through? Yes, but I don’t know how likely that is because of some of the cupcakes they beat up on, but still, you never know.”
SuburbanOneSports.com: The marquee game of the weekend is the rematch of last year’s district title game between North Penn and La Salle. What are your thoughts about that game?
Kevin Cooney: “You’re talking about two teams that have played four really good games over the past two years. There’s a familiarity, and there’s a little bit of crossover because La Salle can go up into the Lansdale area and get some kids. There is knowledge of one another. The players see each other over the summer, and you have two very good coaches in (Drew) Gordon and (Dick) Beck. It’s a fun first week game. Again, the danger for North Penn with a game like this – if you win, you still have Wood and St. Joe’s Prep the next two weeks, and if you lose, you still have Wood and St. Joe’s Prep the next two weeks, and everyone panics. You hate to make it a be-all, end-all game, and I think that’s a big, big concern for Dick Beck. If you’re La Salle, quite frankly, you’re going to make the Catholic League playoffs, no matter what, so it doesn’t carry nearly as much weight as it does for a team like North Penn that is in a district with a playoff point structure. I think it’s obviously a much bigger game for North Penn.
“You hate discounting everybody else, but until somebody steps up and beats North Penn – I think people who believe it can happen are kind of fooling themselves. One day it is going to happen, and one day we’re going to have the team that does it – it could be Pennridge, it could be Souderton, but you kind of look stupid picking the team before it happens.”
SuburbanOneSports.com: Do you see any other interesting games the first week?
Kevin Cooney: “The Central Bucks South/Council Rock South game will give kind of a baseline of where these teams are at. You look at CR South and they were so explosive at times the last couple of years. Vince Bedesem has established a program there. That is a case where CR South has done it for two years. CB South has only done it one, and a lot of it was because of the quarterback, the running back and the wide out. Can they replace all those guys? How do they replace Dan Brown? How do they replace Matt Johns? I think those are the questions you’re going to have. You may get some answers on Friday night, but I’m always cautious about the Labor Day weekend games. I’m always very careful about trying not to put too much stake in them because week one feels like it’s the end of the world if you lose, and people start booking for Hershey if you win.
“The way these teams now practice – you have passing camps, and you have these year-round things, and the air of mystery is removed a little bit, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a more polished product week one. It’s still at times pretty ugly. Games don’t have nearly the flow they will have in two weeks when everyone is through the hot weather and back in school and back in a routine.”
SuburbanOneSports.com: What are your overall thoughts about the National Conference as we head into the 2012 season?
Dan Dunkin: “I think last year, the Suburban One National was as balanced and competitive as it’s been with four teams going to the district playoffs. This year, there’s not going to be a dominant team like Council Rock South and Abington was for a while, but I think it’s going to be wide open with five teams in the mix when you throw in Council Rock North, and I think it can be as much fun.
“You have new starting quarterbacks at all five of those schools. Off the top, I think the strongest teams will be Pennsbury, Neshaminy and Council Rock South and not necessarily in that order.”
SuburbanOneSports.com: Talk about Council Rock, Neshaminy and Pennsbury.
Dan Dunkin: “I will start with Council Rock South because they shared the league title with Abington last year. They lost basically their whole starting backfield except for PJ Steinmetz, who shared time at fullback with Ryan Whiteley. They lost nearly their entire starting offensive line except for Eric Gallo, but Vince Bedesem has done such a wonderful job building that program.
“They are in a position now where they can sort of reload rather than rebuild. The kids that have been waiting in the wings are very good players. Some played a good bit last year even if they didn’t start. The tone was set by a tremendous senior class last year, and I think they are ready to roll. It may take them three or four games to find their stride offensively and defensively but I guarantee they will be very physical and very tough. That program has arrived. I think they will be a player for years. I just think even though they took heavy losses to graduation, they’re going to be a contender.
“Neshaminy is a team with a chip on its shoulder. They have a lot to prove. They’re unhappy with how last year went. They had a big dip in the middle of the season and finished 8-4. They finished strong and upset Pennsbury to get into the playoffs. They have a really nice junior class and some good sophomores. They’re smaller than usual, but don’t let that fool you. They have good team speed and they’re feisty, and I expect them to bounce back this year and not have a big dip like they did last year. I think they’re a contender for the conference title.
“The question is at quarterback. They have tried two or three players in the preseason. Tom Kreiling has been getting a good amount of snaps. When you look at running back and wide out, they have some interesting talents in Devon Brown, Justin Andrews and Hamiid Pack, and they’re trying to get the ball in their hands as much as possible. They have a lot of speed. Too much is made of bulk and brute strength. Neshaminy works really hard in the weight room. It doesn’t matter how tall they are or if they have someone over 250, they’re going to smack you, and with that speed, they will be dangerous.
“Pennsbury has a real good defense coming back. Tom Hose is one of the best linebackers in the state. With Shawn Pepper and Charlie Fisher, their linebackers are outstanding. Shawn Pepper is going to be the ‘X’ factor because he hurt his foot last year and wasn’t able to play quarterback much or run the ball. He will be running the ball and sharing carries with Tom Hose. Their running game should really be good, but they lost Jake Andrassy, Dylan Pepper and, most importantly, J.J. Denman. It will take them a little bit of time to get their legs under them, but if their offensive line can be cohesive, look out because they have a heck of a running game. Daquan Mack is being recruited by UMass and is a big power back who can motor. Chuck Snorweah, only a sophomore, is a speed guy with potential. I think their defense will carry them like they did early in the season last year. The thing with Pennsbury is they have a brutal schedule in the preseason. They have Easton, Frankford and Downingtown East – boom, boom, boom, and that’s going to be tough, but I think it will make them even better for the conference.
“All three of those teams - Pennsbury, Neshaminy and CR South - could get in the playoffs just and any of the three can win the league.”
SuburbanOneSports.com: What are your thoughts about Abington and Council Rock North this season?
Dan Dunkin: “Abington lost some really good skill kids, but their strength is their lines. Tim Sorber has really created a winning mentality, and they have good athletes every year. I don’t think they will be as good early on as last year when they won eight in a row. Their big losses are Ray Schreiner at running back and quarterback Ken Cropper, who had over 2,000 yards in total offense. You’re not going to replace that early in the season, but in any of those games against the best National Conference teams, they will be in the games because of their line strength and defense.
“I don’t think Council Rock North has the depth yet to be right at the top of the league, but they really took a big step last year to go from 1-9 to 5-5. A lot of the credit goes to that 2011 senior class. Curtis Cothran, a defensive end, is a Penn State recruit. He’s 6-5, athletic, and he and Bobby Bartlett will be two-way linemen. They will anchor what should be a good line. They’re going to be physical, which they established last year. I think they will be better offensively, and their defense was terrific the last half of the season. They’re starting a freshman quarterback, Brandon McIlwain, who really has tools. They will have some speed on the edges, and AJ Nielson is a good running back. The issue is depth. They don’t have the depth of Council Rock South. They’re still in bounce-back mode. To take that next step and be a 7-3 team, they’re going to have to be better offensively. I think their defense will be rock solid. Overall, they've restored pride in the program, starting with a serious off-season commitment in the weight room.
SuburbanOneSports.com: Your comments about the remaining three National Conference teams?
Dan Dunkin: Bensalem had a tough year last year. They lost a ton of seniors. They got off to a good start but then struggled. Their issue is going to be replacing both lines. Kevin Hopkins, their quarterback, is back. He’s a good athlete, and he will be improved. They have to replace a lot of line people, but they do have size. They will be physical and tough, but it will take a while for them to be cohesive.
“Truman is going to compete, and they’re not going to quit under coach Ed Cubbage. Their numbers are up to about 65 players.
“William Tennent is going to be interesting. They have switched their offense to a little more option attack. They’re going to try and stretch out the other team’s defense. Their quarterback, Joe Lutz, was getting a good handle on running the show as the season progressed last year, and he’s back. Jeff Ledford is a versatile player, and they have some good linemen back. Andrew Van Buskirk, a lineman, is a real good player, so kids like that could help. They can be interesting, especially with that new twist in their offense.”
SuburbanOneSports.com: Any games that jump out at you in week one of the season?
Dan Dunkin: “The Easton-Pennsbury game is my game of the week. Easton has beaten them the last two years and is traditionally a tough program. They beat Pennsbury 24-0 last year, and I think this will be a knock-down, drag-out defensive battle. It will be a great early test for Pennsbury. Both teams have a really good linebacking corps. I think this will be a very close game.”