Back for its 10th season, the popular Intelligencer/Bucks County Courier Times ‘Let’s Talk Football’ features football beat writers Drew Markol and Todd Thorpe. To stay on top of the high school football news in the area, visit the Intelligencer (http://www.theintell.com/sports/high-school/) and Courier Times (http://www.buckscountycouriertimes.com/sports/high-school/) web sites.
SuburbanOneSports.com: Looking ahead to the 2019 season what teams do you like in the SOL American Conference?
Drew Markol: “The American Conference has become the domain of Upper Dublin the past couple of seasons. Coach (Bret) Stover always does a great job. Cheltenham made the playoffs last year, and now you throw Mark Schmidt -who won a state title at Neshaminy and went to another state final at Neshaminy and then he was at Imhotep as an assistant and won a state title – he obviously has quite the pedigree as far as head coaching is concerned. He takes over a Hatboro-Horsham team that was 6-4 last year under Mike Kapusta, the former coach who stepped away. It will be interesting to see – he’ll have lower numbers than he obviously did at Neshaminy. Can he get those lower numbers and put Hatboro-Horsham back in the playoffs and in the thick of the American Conference? It’s hard to do that in your first season. In Schmidt’s first season at Neshaminy, the team won one game, and then the next season they were 7-3. He’s good at what he does, and he won’t stop until he makes Hatboro-Horsham better.
“I think for now you take a look at Upper Dublin – the Cardinals won the District 1 5A title last year. A couple of years ago when they beat North Penn for the district title – we looked at them as having a good season. That’s no longer the case. Now they’re just a program that continually turns out good players, and they’re a flat out strong program. Come playoff time, they’re a 5A team, not a 6A team, so they get into the 5A playoffs and they do very well. They do play 6A teams and that helps them. In that conference, they’re the team to watch. And you have to look at Cheltenham – a playoff team from last year. Can they keep it going for another season?
“When you take a look at Quakertown, you see a Panther team that went to the district playoffs last year, won a playoff game against Perk Valley in the first round and had a really good season, but they lost a large chunk of that team to graduation, so they’re doing some shuffling. They’re moving their very good receiver Tyler Merwarth to quarterback, so they’ll have a good athlete there. It’s a bit of a rebuilding process for Quakertown, but they should be in the mix for the playoffs again. Coach George Banas knows what he’s doing, so don’t be surprised if Quakertown is right in the thick of things again, but it should be a rebuilding process for the Panthers.
“I think with the addition of Schmidt at Hatboro-Horsham – that’s going to make them pretty good pretty fast. I’m not sure they’ll get there this year, but it definitely adds some spice to the American Conference.”
Todd Thorpe: “In the American Conference, Upper Dublin has a great coach and is always going to be up there. They won the District 1 5A title, they’re always going to be competitive, so I expect they’ll be good. That’s a program that has won consistently. You look the way the season ended last year, and Cheltenham really was the surprise team by the end of the year in that conference. Hatboro-Horsham is a new dynamic with Mark Schmidt taking over the program. I’ve heard they have numbers problems with kids out for the team, but this is a guy that won state championships. You’ve got to like Quakertown too. That’s a program – they just seem to have numbers every year, they have consistency with their coaching staff, and it still is a community thing at Quakertown. People up there care about football games on Friday night, and playing for the Panthers is a big deal for them. Upper Moreland has a little bit of a winning tradition and they usually do pretty well. We’re going to have to see the way things shake out the first couple of weeks to get an idea where these teams stand, especially since a lot of them play up out of the conference. Council Rock South is playing Cheltenham, and Quakertown is playing CB East. By the third week, you’ll have a pretty good idea of how this league is going to look once they start playing real games. I think the American is wide open. I’d say Upper Dublin, Quakertown and Cheltenham would be the teams to beat. I’m not really sure what PW or Wissahickon are bringing back, but those are the teams I probably would point to first. I don’t think you’ll have a good idea until they start playing a little bit.”
SuburbanOneSports.com: Who are the teams to beat in the SOL National Conference?
Drew Markol: “In the National Conference, you had Neshaminy and Truman co-champions last year. You never ever imagined yourself uttering that sentence. Truman has a new coach this year, but they have a lot of skill players back. I look at Truman – you look at Upper Dublin four or five years ago just on the come, and Truman is definitely on the come. It just shows what good coaching can do on the high school level.
“Neshaminy has quarterback Brody McAndrew, who is going to New Hampshire and has been a starter forever there. They have the running back – Chris James – who is very good, but their problem is on defense where Neshaminy has to replace all 11 starters. That’s very hard to do on any level, let alone the high school level, so we’ll see what happens there.
“It’s an old theme, but as a favorite in the National, I go back to Pennsbury. We look at schools like Neshaminy and Pennsbury which have such deep traditions. When they have an off season, the next season they’re going to be really good again, and that’s what I see at Pennsbury. There’s not a ‘star player’ like they’ve had in the past but just a lot of really solid players. If you’re solid in enough areas, you’re going to be pretty good.
“For decades, it was Neshaminy/Pennsbury playing ping pong with the titles. Now Truman is in that mix, and that’s not a bad thing. We’ll see how they do. I’m curious to see how Abington does. Abington every couple of years rises up. It’s been a little bit of time for them, but Kevin Conlin is a very good coach over there, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see them get into that mix too. Council Rock South was 4-2 in the conference last year, and they have the be considered part of that mix too. The deeper the conference the better. Now you’re looking at Pennsbury, Truman, Council Rock South, Abington, and we haven’t even mentioned Neshaminy yet. They’re co-champs from last year, and they’re Neshaminy. Would it really surprise anybody if Neshaminy found a way to replace its entire defense and be right up there? I look forward to seeing the new faces and what can happen.
“I think the National Conference like the American Conference – you have a little more intrigue than we’ve had in the past, and that’s never a bad thing if you’re just a fan of high school football.”
Todd Thorpe: “It’s Pennsbury’s conference this year. They return so many guys on both sides of the ball. Last year they were in Neshaminy’s situation where they lost 10 starters on defense, and you could tell – they lost so many close games early, but by the time they hit their league schedule, they were fine. I think they lost four games under a touchdown. They ended their season on a bad note – they were kind of handled by both Neshaminy and Garnet Valley. This is a team that has a lot of people back. Quarterback Drew Hensor is back, a lot of their offensive line is back and they have depth on their line. Their defensive line is back. Sam Burke, a middle linebacker, is a real good player from last year. I think this is Pennsbury’s year. Is this a year Pennsbury will be 10-0 and play for a district title? I don’t know that yet. Going from 5-6 to 10-0 would be a big challenge, but I certainly think they’re the preseason favorite in the National Conference. I think they’re definitely a district playoff team with a chance to win a couple of games because they’re not down for very long. They were down last year, but they really weren’t that far down. Dan McShane said, ‘We were 5-5 in the regular season, but if we take care of business in a couple of those games, we could have been 8-2.’ The only two games they were convincingly pulled away from in the second half were North Penn and Neshaminy. The other three losses – they were either leading in the fourth quarter or tied in the fourth quarter.
“When you look at Neshaminy, you’re looking at a big Class 6A school, so you have to assume the next man up wasn’t that far below the man they lost. Yes, Neshaminy lost some significant players when you’re talking Cory Joyce, Oleh Manzyk, and those are just two of the guys they lost. They lost a boatload of players, including all their defensive starters. It’s almost hard to believe a team could regroup that quickly after losing that many players, but they’re a big 6A school with a great tradition. They have some guys back. It’s just going to be how quickly the new guys adapt to the varsity. On defense, you’re maybe talking eight guys that didn’t play varsity football last year. They have Brody McAndrew at quarter and Chris James at running back, and they are probably going to play both sides of the ball a lot this year as opposed to last year when they didn’t, but you also have a lot of guys new to the varsity level.
“Watch out for Harry S Truman because I really think they have a lot of talent. One thing the last couple of years with Truman in the LaPalombara regime is that the talent is going to be there year in and year out for them. It’s a matter of getting good quality coaching and having a plan and going out believing you can win. They’ve done that. The coaching staff is gone now. They brought in Ben Johnson. I don’t know what his team is going to look like on the field, but the off the field – he’s got it down because that guy is so positive and so with it, and he so knows how to relate to his players. He gets it too – he talks about academics, he talks about doing the right thing and being young men off the field. They got the right guy. You don’t know what his teams will look like on the field. That’s the only question mark. He’s been in that program since February, and the way he talks to you – they’ve got a fine-tuned machine. If that’s the way they are on the field, you’re not going to see a drop off at all for them. They have TJ Rogers back, they have Zayyan Saunders on the defensive line back. They’ve got some really good players. They could be a playoff team again this year. Again, you don’t know how they’ll look on the field because it’s easy to look good in practice, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re right there with Pennsbury at the top of the division.
“Council Rock South has some guys back, and they had a good year last year. I expect them to be playing for a playoff spot. The other teams – Bensalem, CR North and William Tennent – we’ll see. We’ll see their level of improvement. I know Bensalem lost some guys to transfers. Tennent got a transfer back. Council Rock North has a new coach in John Greiner from Bristol. I dealt with him a lot when he was coaching Bristol, and I like him a lot. It’s just a matter of what kind of numbers they have. For those three teams, it’s just about what kind of progress they can make this year. It’s a real tough league. I don’t think they’ll get too many nights off from teams above them.”
SuburbanOneSports.com: What are your thoughts about the SOL Continental?
Drew Markol: “When you look at the Continental Conference, you always begin and end with North Penn. They were 13-0 last year before they get to the district final where they lose to Coatesville. They’re loaded again. RJ Macnamara is a tremendous hybrid defensive end/linebacker who’s going to Delaware. He’s also a running back. Evan Spann is a really good two-way player. They have to replace their offensive line, but they had to do that a couple of years ago, and everybody was like, ‘Well, North Penn has to replace its entire offensive line.’ Well, they did, and they won the conference. Until somebody beats them, which doesn’t happen in that conference, they will remain the team to beat. I look at them again as being in the district semifinal/district final conversation. That’s how good I think they’re going to be.
“Behind them, Central Bucks South has the same problem Neshaminy has in the National Conference. They’re trying to replace their entire defense. That’s a huge task to try and do. Of course, there were kids that played here and there, but none of them were starting. I was over at a couple of their practices, and their offensive line is huge again. They have a giant offensive line, but can they run the ball? We’ll see. These are all things we’ll find out.
“You look at Pennridge on the flip side. They had the huge offensive line, and that group was enormous, but most of them are gone. They’re going to rely on their skill players. They have – if not the best – one of the best players in the conference in Shane Hartzell, the junior linebacker and running back. He is a tackling machine. He averaged 15 or 16 tackles a game last year as a sophomore. He’s all over the place. He’s getting looks from some big, big programs. It never hurts when you have the best player, and they have it in him, but is it enough. They have to replace quarterback Zak Kantor, who graduated and is at Widener now. Every coach will tell you the importance of having that experienced senior quarterback is huge, and they don’t. We’ll see about Pennridge.
“CB East has senior running back Jake Ventresca. He’s a fabulous back, he had a thousand yards last year, and he can catch the ball out of the backfield. Will Silverman their receiver is very good. East could make a little bit of noise. CB West is in the low 40s with their numbers. Jack Neri, their quarterback, is a big kid with a good arm, but if they get any kind of injuries, that’s really going to hamstring them.
“Perhaps the sleeper might be Souderton. It was an off season last year for them, but they have a good quarterback in senior Andrew Vince returning. He’s good, he’s savvy and he knows how to run a team. Their running back, DeAndre Wakefield, might be the best back in the conference. I can’t think of anyone better than him. He’s explosive and he can score from anywhere. If you have that home run hitter in your backfield, that is an enormous benefit. Maybe they won’t be a sleeper for long. I do like what Souderton has.”
Todd Thorpe: “In the Continental, you hate to say it, but it’s the same old same old. Who’s the team that’s going to beat North Penn? You’re talking about a team with a much bigger school size, a tradition of winning, a talent pool and coaching. They’ve got it all. People don’t have to know what they have coming back for them to know – you just know it’s North Penn, and they’re going to have good personnel. They’re still the team to beat. RJ Macnamara is a Division 1AA player. They’re always going to have good players, and they’ve got the best coach around in Dick Beck. It’s just a tradition there. They have the numbers and keep finding good players. There’s a reason why North Penn has won that conference every year except one or maybe two. It would be interesting to see if anyone could challenge them this year, but on paper, I don’t see that happening.
“When you go just by size, you have Pennridge, Souderton and CB South. I guess Souderton was the best of those three last year. They have a great coach in Ed Gallagher, but none of these teams has consistently been competitive with North Penn let alone beat them. It could happen – it’s happened before, but it’s one of those things. It’s North Penn and let’s see who else emerges.
“The Central Bucks schools – you don’t really know too much. I know CB South has really good numbers, but they’re coming off a bad year. It’s interesting. CB East and West occasionally are borderline playoff teams. You have to wait and see how it’s going to shake out, but to think anybody is on par with North Penn heading into the year – I think that’s not accurate. I would love to see what happens with Pennridge in year two under Cody Muller. Last year Muller was a young first-year head coach. He got his feet wet. It’s different being a head coach than an assistant. It doesn’t matter what your pedigree is. When you’re the head coach, you’re the guy with all the paperwork on your desk after practice that you’ve got to go through. You’re the guy that has to make tough decisions about starters and who comes off the bench. It should be interesting. He showed signs of having really good potential as a young coach. We’ll see if that team makes some progress. No one ever said that Pennridge doesn’t have players. It’s just going to be a matter of – are they a playoff team this year? We don’t know. Is Souderton a playoff team this year? I think they could be. Souderton looks like it could be the second best team in the league, but it’s North Penn and let’s see how they shake out after North Penn.”
SuburbanOneSports.com: One of the marquee games in week one is Neshaminy at North Penn. Your thoughts?
Todd Thorpe: “They played twice last year, and both of them were close games. Neshaminy’s defense was so good at the end of last year, and they lost 13-6. The talent level wasn’t that much different a year ago. North Penn had losses to graduation too.
“It’s going to be interesting. I don’t ever count Neshaminy out. When you’re talking SOL football, you talk North Penn, Neshaminy, Pennsbury. That’s where you start and I don’t think it’s really that much different this year. That being said, week one might be a tough week for Neshaminy. If North Penn is ready to go, I think Neshaminy could have trouble. Starting the year on August 23, it’s hard to imagine they’ll be completely in sync and read to rock and roll right off the bat where North Penn has a few known guys back, and you would think they’d be a little more ready. I’d say north Penn in that game, but I’m really curious what Neshaminy has. I could tell you - Neshaminy is probably one of those teams come late October that is fighting for a playoff spot. Even though they might be young in August, by October, you know they’re going to be contenders. This isn’t a team that’s going to slip all the way back. It just may take a while to get them going.”