Back for its ninth season, the popular Intelligencer/Bucks County Courier Times ‘Let’s Talk Football’ features the Game On crew: Drew Markol, Todd Thorpe and Jen Wielgus. To view this week’s show, click on the following link: http://www.theintell.com/videos/hsgameon/ 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.
Check out this week’s picks by our panel of experts: http://www.suburbanonesports.com/football-forecaster
SuburbanOneSports.com: Looking at the SOL American Conference, give your overview for the upcoming season.
Drew Markol: “With the American Conference, Upper Moreland wins it last year, they’re undefeated in the conference with an obviously really good team, but they lost a ton to graduation. For a “smaller” program, it’s hard to bounce back from that. Upper Moreland historically every couple of years has a very strong class come through and they do very well. They do have running back Caleb Mead back who’s one of the area’s top runners. A lot is going to fall on his shoulders, and they need a lot to fall in the right direction to repeat what they did last year.
“The team I really like in the conference is Quakertown. They have a lot back on offense and a very good defense. I believe they have eight starters back who were all-conference selections at various levels last year, first team or second team, and for a program like that - it is a 6A program, but it’s not behemoth enrollment-wise, they’re going to be very good and very tough to beat. Last year their only loss in the conference was to Upper Moreland, so I think they’re the team to beat. With their quarterback back in Brad Bryan – it’s always great to have a starter coming back at quarterback. Nick Levinski at linebacker leads a really good defense. George Banas has it going on at Quakertown. They’re bringing up younger kids every year that are filling in the holes, so they have it moving.
“Never discount Upper Dublin. Their two losses last year in the conference were, not surprisingly, to Quakertown and Upper Moreland. Those three are the teams that I think it’s going to come down to.
“Hatboro-Horsham is an interesting team. You look at their scores last year, and they played tight games against Quakertown, against Upper Moreland. Then on Thanksgiving when I guess it didn’t matter too much to Upper Moreland, Hatboro-Horsham blows them out. They were in a lot of games, they just didn’t pull them out, so if there is a dark horse, it will be Hatboro-Horsham.”
Todd Thorpe: “Obviously, there’s a lot of moving parts to anything this early in the season. You’re never quite sure what any team has, but I really like Quakertown. I thought they were real close last year once they got going, once they got into the league schedule a little bit. They have a returning quarterback, a returning running back and a real good defensive linebacker. To me, Quakertown wasn’t that far off last year, and I think with what they’ve got back, they’re probably the favorite. Just the stability that George Banas has been able to build has really gotten them to the point where in the American Conference they’re going to be there. They’re going to be one of those teams that’s always in the upper half.
“Upper Moreland is the defending champion, but they lost a ton. They lost most of the team in terms of guys who really contributed at the skill positions and they lost their coach. Caleb Mead, who will be their lead running back, got a lot of work last year, and he had a lot of success. Now it’s pretty much pointing towards him. He’s a guy that everybody is going to be looking for, and then you bring in a new coach. One thing Adam Beach did was – when he had a good senior class, even if he built towards it, they were usually very good. Upper Moreland is not a big school, so you’re not always going to have big senior classes. Sometimes you have to rebuild and reload. I’m not quite sure that is this year. Until I see what they have on the field a few weeks into the season, I’m not sure. CJ Szydlik, who they hired as their coach, has a lot of coaching experience. He coached at Jenkintown, he coached at Neumann Goretti as head coach, and he was an assistant last year at Council Rock North. I think they got a guy who knows how to coach and has proven that he can. It just remains to be seen: how good are the guys who didn’t get a chance to play last year or who are coming up as freshmen or sophomores? This is their chance, but we don’t know yet.
“A lot of people think Upper Dublin could be a real factor this year based on how they finished last year, which was kind of a transition year for them. Their program is pretty good, and by the end of the year, they were a team that was a factor. I’m curious to see what they have. I’m not familiar with their personnel returning, but we’ll have to see.
“Hatboro-Horsham is a team – if you look at their final scores last year, they probably think they’re a team that’s three plays away from being 8-2 or 7-3 last year. That’s how close they were. They lost a game to Upper Moreland 41-40, and they lost a close game to Quakertown, 26-20. This is a team that was right there every time. They have pretty good numbers for that conference. School size-wise, Hatboro-Horsham does pretty well comparatively to the other schools in that league. There’s no reason why they won’t be right there.
“That’s the group I’m looking at right now. Obviously, Wissahickon is coming off a down year, and Cheltenham didn’t have a very good year. PW – we’ll see about them, and Springfield Township doesn’t play football in that conference. I would look at those four teams – Quakertown, Upper Moreland, Upper Dublin and Hatboro-Horsham – as my favorites in that conference.”
Jen Wielgus: “There are several good programs in this league, but this feels like it could be Quakertown's year, with so many returning starters back from a successful 2017, including several veteran linemen. Maybe not a lot of marquee names there, but a really strong, well-prepared unit, as always, under George Banas and his staff. Upper Moreland has Caleb Mead back, and he's probably one of the standout players in the entire league. Should be interesting to see how UM defends its title under new coach CJ Szydlik. Upper Dublin is always a program to be reckoned with under Bret Stover. How/if Quakertown lives up to expectations and handles a pretty challenging schedule is the chief storyline for me going in.”
SuburbanOneSports.com: Your thoughts about the Continental Conference this season.
Drew Markol: “With the Continental Conference, I’ve had several coaches within the conference and outside the conference say to me that it’s a one-game season – the team that wins the North Penn/Pennridge game will win the conference. I think that might be a little harsh because CB South can always rise up. CB West with their tight end Luke Benson who’s going to Syracuse and a new coach in Rob Rowan – that can sometimes take a little bit of adjusting, and CB East – we’ll find out a lot about them this Saturday when they play Quakertown.
“Every year with North Penn you look at them and think, ‘Boy, they’ve lost a lot.’ This year they lost Justis Henley who’s playing at Delaware, and you’re thinking – this will be a down year, and all of a sudden, you go watch them play, and they’re North Penn again. Julian White is back to anchor the defense. They have a transfer from New Jersey at quarterback, Solomon Robinson, whose family moved to Lansdale. He’s a senior, but I know coach Dick Beck is pretty high on him. North Penn plays that brutal non-league schedule – they’re playing Neshaminy, La Salle and Pennsbury. That’s what Beck does, and it gets teams ready for districts because if you play better teams, you’re ready for it when it comes.
“It’s North Penn’s conference again to lose with Pennridge being again the number one challenger. Pennridge has Zak Kantor back at quarterback and Ryan Garner at running back – he’s going to get a ton of work. I really like Brian Lafty, their two-way lineman, and Zack Tarburton, Nick Tarburton’s younger brother, so Pennridge has some pieces too. That will be interesting, but for right now as we talk before the season starts, North Penn is the team to beat, and the other teams are just trying to knock them off as always.”
Todd Thorpe: “In the Continental, let’s pick two through seven and not worry about one. We don’t even know what North Penn has. They have some guys that played last year that will be back. They lost almost all their significant players, but it doesn’t matter. They just have players. There are guys waiting in the wings. Jon Haynes had a real good year last year. He’s a guy people know about, and he’ll be back. He really excels at defensive back, and he’s probably going to be very good at wide receiver. Like I said, when I think of North Penn from last year, there’s a few names that come up, and they all graduated. I know they do have more returners than you think, and it’s always exciting with North Penn because you’re always wondering who that next guy will be. I heard they have a very good quarterback, Solomon Robinson, who’s coming in this year. Their quarterback from last year had a very good year, and he transferred to Imhotep Charter. The most impressive thing North Penn does is their adaptability through the times. They’re not the ground and pound team they used to be and excelled at with that execution on the line. The last couple of years with throwing quarterbacks they’ve really spread it out a little bit. They’ve done a lot of things. They’re very diverse, and they do what it takes to win. It’s an impressive program. They have good athletes, great numbers, and there’s no reason they won’t be number one again this year.
“Some people think Pennridge is in a position that they’ll be the biggest threat to them, but that’s another team you have to wonder how they’ll re-tool because Nick Tarburton was so much a part of what they did for the last three years, two years especially. He was so much a part of their defense. Whatever success they had on defense was based on how dominant he was at linebacker. Offensively, he contributed as well. Their quarterback, Zak Kantor, is back. Ryan Garner, the running back, is back. Nick Tarburton’s brother, Zack Tarburton, a Bucknell recruit, is back on the line, so there are some players that are back. The best thing about Pennridge is I’m curious to see what they look like because Pennridge has looked like Jeff Hollenbach-type teams for a while now. Even the previous staff in between when he was there before, it always had that same look to it, and it was a good look. I’m curious to see what different wrinkles Cody Muller brings because when you talk to the guy – it’s infectious how enthusiastic he is. He played with a high motor as a player, he’s a coach’s son. He just has a high motor, and he’s really into it. He’s really into having success. He doesn’t have a ton of coaching experience, and he’s never been a head coach, but that’s the most exciting thing about what their prospects bring.
“The rest of the conference – the three Central Bucks schools all have some pretty good players back, but you never know how it will come together. South had a pretty good year last year. Matt Norris is a very good linebacker, a very good player. They have some skill guys back, and they’ll be right there. West was a playoff team last year. They get a new coaching staff. You talk about Pennridge without Nick Tarburton – CB West, even to a bigger degree, Jake Reichwein was CB West’s best player on the field for four years. It’s almost hard to imagine them without him. Obviously, Luke Benson, their tight end/defensive end – he committed to Syracuse in the offseason, and they’re hoping for big things from him. I really like their coach – another first-time head coach. Rob Rowan is a young guy who’s really enthusiastic about the challenges ahead, so we’ll see what they’ve got. East did not have a good year last year. They lost more than they won, but John Donnelly is very excited about what this team brings, and they’ve got some skill guys back at running back, quarterback and wide receiver, and that’s a big thing. They’ve got a linebacker, Drew Bethke, who is a Division IAA recruit as well, and he’ll play some offense at tight end. What do they have on their lines? We’ll find out. I think those three Central Bucks teams – most every year when you look at them, you look at teams that are pretty much in the same boat, and you just wait to see which team might have a little bit extra this particular year. Until they got on the field, it’s tough to really gauge those three teams this year. I think one of them will emerge.
“Then you get into Souderton – I like Souderton’s program. They haven’t been in a position where they’re competing for a league title in a while, but Ed Gallagher is as good a coach as there is out there. He’s been around for a while, he knows his system, his kids play his system. If they have the personnel, I have no doubt they could be an upper half team in that conference and a playoff contender. Based on what we saw last year, obviously, they weren’t, but you never discount them because they’re right there usually.
“William Tennent has a 27-game losing streak, and just getting that first win is going to be huge. They have a new coaching staff, and if they can get that first win early, it will mean so much to that program. It’s so tough for them to compete on a weekly basis with the teams they play against. Snapping that losing streak is your first goal and then move forward. Hopefully, the numbers are there and they can have an improved year. There’s nowhere to go but up, and that’s the way you have to look at a program like that. Because they haven’t won in so long, you look at them as almost incapable of winning, but I’ve been around long enough – Tennent has won in pockets before. In the late 90s with Dave Sanderson, they were 8-4 and 7-5 in back-to-back years. In the mid 2000s with Biz Keeny, they won a league title. It certainly looked like Bob Rosenberger had them pointed in the right direction a couple of years ago when he was there, so Tennent has had pockets when they’ve been more successful than they’ve been the last few years. Rich Clemens, their new coach, has to find it. It’s about numbers, and the weekly challenge they face is substantial. I think the most important thing for that program is – let’s get a win early, lose this streak, get people to stop talking about it and move forward. That’s an awfully tough challenge, but there’s no other way to go for them.”
Jen Wielgus: “North Penn is always the favorite in this league, but this year is exciting with what's going on at Pennridge. The Rams obviously had a great season last year, and with the enthusiasm and energy of new coach Cody Muller, along with the return of Zak Kantor at quarterback, Ryan Garner at running back and Zack Tarbuton on the line, all eyes will be on that North Penn-Pennridge game on Sept. 14. Both teams have tough nonleague schedules and will definitely be battle tested by that point. CB East is an intriguing team because so many key skill guys are back, and the Patriots lost a lot of close games last year, including the season opener against Quakertown, so this week's matchup will show a lot. New CB West coach Rob Rowan has the challenge of trying to get back to the playoffs for the second straight year and making up for the many contributions of Jake Reichwein. CB South has one of the top defensive players in the state in Matt Norris. This league is just so tough, top to bottom, but North Penn and Pennridge look like they're a cut above going into 2018.”
SuburbanOneSports.com: Your comments about the National Conference this season.
Drew Markol: “It’s Pennsbury and Neshaminy every year, and I look at Pennsbury and I think about them, and I can’t really come up with that many names of players who are back because they lost so much to graduation. Again, they’re another program that is so big and has such tradition that they can fill in the blanks. You look at Neshaminy with junior quarterback Brody McAndrew back, and you have Oleh Manzyk, the tight end/linebacker who seemingly has been playing there forever, and Cory Joyce at wide receiver and defensive back. It seems like they have a stalwart player at every level, so I have to lean towards Neshaminy as the team to beat with Pennsbury right there.
“I know Truman has that great coaching staff with a lot of guys who know what they’re doing – Dave Sanderson and Galen Snyder helping out with Mike LaPalombara. The Bensalems and the Council Rocks - until they do it, until they knock off the big boys, which are Neshaminy and Pennsbury, then you’re in that conversation. Right now it’s those two, and unlike the other conferences where it wouldn’t be a shock if Pennridge were to beat North Penn this year in the Continental or the American where you’re having different teams winning titles, it’s always Neshaminy/Pennsbury until somebody rises up and beats them.”
Todd Thorpe: “Really, this is Neshaminy’s show this year. Their skill position players look really, really good. Their quarterback Brody McAndrew as a sophomore really, really played well most of the season last year, and he had a big end of the season when they beat Pennsbury on the road to win a league title. He’s a guy with a lot of potential, and you just like what he brings to the table. Oleh Manzyk, as a sophomore tight end, he caught so many balls. You looked at that and said, ‘Wow, this kid is a great pass catcher.’ Last year, as a junior, he goes into defense, and he’s one of the best defensive players around at linebacker. He’s mostly a blocking tight end and sees a little time at fullback. He doesn’t catch as many balls, but he’s just as dominant in the game. The other kid is Cory Joyce, who’s a two-year starter in the secondary and is a Division I baseball recruit. He’s got a lot talent too. He’ll play a lot of wide receiver. Those are three names that really come off the board at you. With them, it remains to be seen how well they round out because the skill guys – you look at them and say, ‘Oh, they’re going to be okay’ because there’s more than those three. Based on what we know, I like Neshaminy as your favorite.
“That conference for years has run through Neshaminy and Pennsbury, and it will this year too. Pennsbury loses almost everybody from last year. They had a great year last year getting to the district semifinals before they lose to Coatesville, so it remains to be seen, but they have a great program. If there’s anybody that’s going to compete with Neshaminy, I think it would be them. Truman is a team that lost a bit from last year, which was a resurgence with them, bringing in a new coaching staff and getting guys out, and all of a sudden, Truman is competing. They do lose a couple of real key guys from that team, but Javeer Peterson is back, and he’s poised for a big year. They’re going to have skill guys. I’m curious to see how much as a whole their program has developed because last year when you bring Galen Snyder and Dave Sanderson as assistant coaches and Mike LaPalombara – that’s one of the things he did with the coaching staff. He got experience in there, and they believed. All of a sudden, Truman was a factor because they have skill guys, they have good coaches and they believe. How much has the program progressed from last year because that’s what it’s going to take to beat good teams. What Truman did last year was beat the teams they should. When they took steps up, they didn’t win those games. Is Truman closer to knocking on the door of Pennsbury and Neshaminy? I’m curious. I suspect they’re going to be better. I just think those coaches know what they’re doing over there.
“Another team that I think has the potential to be a top half of the division team is Council Rock South. Nick Gallo gets a lot of attention for signing with Virginia Tech, and he deserves it. He’s a really good pass-catching tight end. He’s very, very good on both sides of the ball. I don’t know who their quarterback is going to be opening night, but they not only have Nick Gallo, they have Andrew Verra, who was their leading receiver last year. They have a couple of guys that ran the football last year. They’re a team that at times last year looked like they were in the mix for a playoff spot. I think they go into this year thinking they’re a contender for that.
“When you look at the National Conference, I go with those four. Bensalem last year had a really good year. They started the year 4-0 and they finished 5-5, so they were a .500 team. They lose a lot. We’ll see. Abington – Darryl Davis-McNeil was such a big part of what they did for so long. I’m anxious to see what they have. Rock North is a program with a good coaching staff and has been building, so we’ll see. There’s clearly an upper echelon and then there’s a middle ground where you’re kind of waiting to see who can compete and who can play for a playoff spot. I think everyone is fighting to get into that middle ground right now.”
Jen Wielgus: “It's hard not to focus on Neshaminy with so many big names back on the roster. Brody McAndrew has a valuable year under his belt at quarterback, to go with his considerable talent, as does Oleh Manzyk, a really great overall athlete who might be the team MVP for all he does on both sides of the ball. Cory Joyce, Marcus Griffin, Zack Canimore...the Redskins are not hurting for skill guys. Their line play is going to be the question mark, but we'll find out a lot in the ‘murderer’s row’ of a first three games of the season (North Penn, Pennridge, Downingtown West). Pennsbury is coming off a great year but doesn't have all-everything quarterback Zach DeMarchis running the show, so they are an intriguing team. They always are. Another interesting storyline in this league is how Truman continues to improve as a program after making its first playoff appearance last year. The Truman-Council Rock South game is one to circle on the calendar (Sept. 14), because the Golden Hawks, behind veteran coach Vince Bedesem and Virginia Tech-bound tight end Nick Gallo, are definitely looking for revenge from last year's 42-0 loss.”
SuburbanOneSports.com: North Penn travels to Neshaminy for a battle of two perennial powers. Your thoughts about that game.
Drew Markol: “Believe it or not, they haven’t played since 2015, which seems hard to believe. When they played in 2015, North Penn beat them twice – during the regular season and in the district tournament, but what a great first week matchup. Coatesville is far and away the district title favorite and maybe a state title favorite, but you have Neshaminy and North Penn, two teams that habitually are making district playoff runs, and now you have them going at it the first week down at Neshaminy. It’s a testament to both teams – they probably could have found other games, and they didn’t. They’re playing each other. I give an edge, a slight one to Neshaminy, but Dick Beck will have North Penn ready to go. That is a late November game being played in late August.”
Todd Thorpe: “You love to see good non-league games. I think Neshaminy and North Penn should be in the same league. I think football should go strictly by enrollment and not by geography. These are two teams that are good rivals. I’m just happy that they’re playing. I’d like to see them playing in week seven or eight. Week one is early, but we’re going to get a good idea. North Penn plays a great schedule – they do every year and sometimes they take their lumps early. I think because of the familiarity of the programs, North Penn has to go on the road, but they’re going to be right there. I think North Penn is going to find a way to win this game. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad loss for Neshaminy because any time you lose to North Penn, especially if you play them tough – which I suspect this game will be, I think they could build off this. I think North Penn – despite all the new faces – they’re a tough team to play, especially this early. I commend both teams for playing this game. I love when you schedule difficult, this is a great rivalry – don’t be surprised if we see the two teams playing in November.”