Intelligencer/Courier Times: "Let's Talk Football" (8-25-16)

Back for its seventh season, the popular Intelligencer/Courier Times ‘Let’s Talk Football’ features Kevin Cooney, Drew Markol and Jen Wielgus.  Cooney, the Phillies beat writer, will handle the Bucks County Courier Times coverage area and also is part of a panel each Friday night on the WNPV/Intelligencer Scoreboard Show. Markol is the football beat writer for the Intelligencer area. Wielgus is a video sports reporter for the Intelligencer and Courier. All three are regular contributors on the weekly Game On show. To view this week’s show, click on the following link:  To stay on top of the high school football news in the area, visit the Intelligencer/Courier Times web site

Check out the picks by our panel of experts:  Who are some of the teams to watch in the three conferences this season?

Drew Markol:  “You have the defending district champ in Upper Dublin sitting in the American Conference. You throw in Quakertown, which has become a perennial district playoff team. You still have PW in there and Upper Moreland, which reached the Class AAA final last year before losing to Academy Park. Upper Moreland beat PW last year – that’s a good program. They’re playing bigger schools, which I think helps them in the end, and they can’t be overlooked. I’ve spoken to several people who say – ‘Look out for Hatboro in the American Conference.’ They have some talent coming back, and head coach Mike Kapusta has them moving in the right direction. Some have called Hatboro the favorite in that conference. Of the three conferences, that probably will be the most interesting because you have a couple of different teams that could win it.

“In the Continental Conference, I don’t think North Penn is losing. The season hasn’t even started yet, but my district champion pick is North Penn. They have a very good senior quarterback in Reece Udinski, which gives North Penn an element they really haven’t had too often – a kid who can stand back there and will take a hit if need be, and he can throw the ball. You have a receiver like Ricky Johns who’s going to West Virginia and is one of the best players in the state. Junior Justis Henley gets overshadowed by Johns. Henley on another team is the star receiver, but he gets overshadowed on North Penn, and you still have to cover them both. Dick Beck knows he’s got a quarterback who can throw, and they’ll always be able to run the ball. He always has his running backs, and he can always put Johns back there later in games if they have a lead, and they’re trying to run out the clock. North Penn proved again last year – they were the number nine seed in the district, and they get to the district final before they lose. With what they have coming back – their offensive line is pretty much all new, but they always seem to find a way.

“In that conference, I think you have Pennridge as the main competition. I believe Pennridge will be very good too. I think they’re a notch below North Penn, but with 16 out of 33 teams getting in the district tournament, it’s ridiculous. It’s really not a challenge, and you’re going to have 5-5 teams probably getting in, but Pennridge is going to be a tough out. They could be a top eight district seed, which obviously you get the home games. I think they’re just blocked a bit by North Penn.

“The rest of the Continental Conference – I think CB West is getting better. Chas Cathers is in his second year as a coach, and that guy knows what he’s doing, but I think they’re a year away. CB East lost a ton of very talented players off a very good district playoff team. I’m wondering how they’ll do. They have a lot of new faces. CB South has big numbers, but you have to turn that into wins, and that’s easier said than done. The three Central Bucks schools – I’m not sure what to totally expect from them.  Souderton is a bit of a wild card too because you never know – they played some tight games last year. I think they’re blocked from the top by North Penn and Pennridge, but Ed Gallagher knows what he’s doing.

“I’m a fan of (dividing the conferences) by geography. You need to play your neighbor. Neshaminy versus Souderton – in the old days, you might as well have been Souderton playing Washington State. There’s no connection at all. When I was in high school at Neshaminy, I didn’t know where Souderton was. I knew where Pennsbury was, I knew where Council Rock was, I knew where William Tennent was because those are your rivals.

“It’s normally a two-team race in the National Conference with Neshaminy and Pennsbury, but Pennsbury lost 14-16 starters from last year and has a new coach in Dan McShane, who was on the staff there with Galen Snyder. Pennsbury never really threw the ball very much. They wanted to pound it at you, and now you’re trying to put in a new offense. For years in the feeder system for the Pennsbury program, they all were taught that the ground game was the thing because that’s what you got at the high school program, and now you have to switch that whole mindset – that’s hard to do in one season. Pennsbury might be one of those teams that later in the year is dangerous.

“The consensus in the National is that Neshaminy is the favorite with most of its offensive line returning, and they’ve got a four-year quarterback in Mason Jones – how many quarterbacks play four years? They also have Zach Tredway at receiver, and Will Dogba is a 1,000-yard plus running back returning. There are a lot of pieces there. Neshaminy could be a really good team, but they’re going to have a big test in week two when they play Pennridge. Pennridge beat them last year at Neshaminy, so that will be a really big game next week.

“A sleeper in that conference, which may sound funny, but don’t sell Abington short. I think that new coach Kevin Conlin is a sharp guy, and he’s got some talent. Last year was a big struggle for Abington. They lost on Thanksgiving to Cheltenham, their big rival. I think Abington will be improved. I don’t know if they’re ready yet to step up and go toe to toe with a Pennsbury or Neshaminy yet, but in that conference, I think they’ll be pretty good.”  What are your thoughts about the new SOL alignment?

Kevin Cooney:  “I think the National Conference is kind of back to what it used to be in the sense that it’s Neshaminy, Pennsbury and Abington. Do Rock North or Rock South sneak in there and get in contention? It’s all well and good, but I think we’re again making it a two or three-horse race in the National.

“The Continental is a division where it’s going to be one team. Let’s be honest, it’s North Penn and everybody else. I don’t know how competitive that’s going to be. If you look at the American, you have PW, Upper Dublin and maybe Quakertown.

“I don’t think the new setup lends itself to good football. I know people still believe in the neighborhood rivalries, and I get it, but I preferred having the power conferences where basically it was enrollment based. I think we’re at a point where we’ve gone back to a lot of drab football weeks. Football is not basketball. It’s not the same structure, it’s not the same sport, there’s not the same responsibilities, there’s not the same format, so to me, doing it this way is kind of asinine because it doesn’t acknowledge the difference in school sizes and the general economic backgrounds and the ability of fielding rosters because of those backgrounds. When it boils right down to it, it is a constant struggle that this league continues to have with what it wants to be. I kind of just wish it would settle on something. I don’t think this is the format they should settle on, but if you’re going to go with it, then go with it for more than two years and don’t switch it back. If you’re going geographic, then go true geographic. Don’t put Quakertown out on their own little island in the American Conference because they want to stay away from North Penn. This is silly.

“I think if you look at the structure all around – and this is not just the Suburban One League. The PIAA has expanded to six classifications in the hopes of ‘shortening the length of the season,’ so what have you done? You’ve basically extended the length of the season. You’ve extended it almost the wrong way. You’re going now into the deep heat of August as opposed to the cold of December. Should the state title games have been played the week before Christmas? No, nobody in their right mind would say that, but by the same token, you shouldn’t be playing two weeks before Labor Day either.

“By going to six classifications, did they really shorten the playoffs? No, the Class 6A playoffs are still going to be 16 teams like it was in Class 4A, so you’re going to have a watered down field. The major issue of public-private – they did nothing to really alleviate that. You’re still going to have your favorite in 6A, 5A, 4A and 3A, and Class AA is probably going to be private schools or charter schools. Where are we going here? We talk about world in chaos – this is a football world in chaos. It’s ridiculous. You are almost at a point where you’re making the regular season – for lack of a better word – meaningless.

“Would anybody have shed a tear if the 1-16 and 2-15 games were eliminated? Under the new structure, if we had really had just shortened the District One playoffs to top eight make it and chopped that week off – would anybody have cared? I know the argument is – you’ve had 16’s beat one, but that was in a different world. There you’re dealing with legitimate teams who had scheduling issues and were really good at 6-4. A couple of years North Penn got in. There’s no reward for this now. You’re dealing with a smaller pool. A six-foot diving well is not the same as a five-foot diving well.”

Jen Wielgus:  “Every single person I’ve talked to loves the new alignment, even the people at Quakertown, and I was surprised because obviously there are no natural rivalries there. It’s geographically kind of crazy in many cases. George Banas told me when he played at Quakertown it was pretty much the same league. Superintendent Bill Harner went to Cheltenham, so there’s that excitement – ‘We’re full of question marks, but in this new league, there are a lot of teams that are full of question marks too so who knows what can happen.’ That’s kind of exciting for Quakertown, and they’re embracing it.

“The Council Rocks love playing against the Neshaminys and Pennsburys. Like Council Rock North and Council Rock South play each other at the end of the season, now Truman and Bensalem are playing at the end of the season, trying to drum up that neighborhood rivalry.

“The Continental Conference with North Penn, Pennridge, Souderton and the CBs – Jeff Hollenbach was telling me he’s an old Bux-Mont guy, and he’s always been a proponent of those geographic rivalries. The last two years the Continental Conference was the smaller schools, and you thought, ‘Maybe Truman can do something. Quakertown has a chance to be a champion.’ The size was intriguing because those teams could compete against each other, but if you asked any players or coaches, they’d much rather play their local neighborhood teams because it’s easier to get up for the Neshaminy game than it was for Council Rock North to play Quakertown. Those rivalries are really important. They’re what make high school sports. I can tell you the quote that came out so many times – ‘This is what makes high school sports great - it’s those rivalries.’”  Talk about some of the players that stand out heading into the season.

Jen Wielgus:  “The easy route to take is quarterback. I know it happens every year where teams lose people, but it seems that this year is the worst for how many teams have lost really, really good players, so the guys that are back at the skill positions really stand out. Like North Penn’s Reece Udinski and Neshaminy’s Mason Jones.

“Neshaminy is really in a good spot because they have this kid Mason who has been in the program forever, and so few teams can say that. North Penn hasn’t had that quarterback that they were in love with, but Dick Beck really likes Reece Udinski.

“Pennridge lost its starting quarterback, but they have this Jagger Hartshorn kid who transferred in from Georgia – they’re really high on him, so I’m really excited to see what happens there.

“I can only speak to the teams I visited, and although they don’t necessarily play the money positions, there’s Ryan Magrann and Alex Benner back on the defense at Council Rock South. Magrann, a linebacker, is really a team leader, a vocal leader. People don’t really pay that much attention to a defensive end like Alex Benner, but he’s huge and will be a force for a Council Rock South team that is going to rely on their defense this year. They’re going to have to find their way on offense because they lost a lot of guys.

“At Quakertown, Noah Wood is pretty much going to have to do everything . He was a first team all-league linebacker last year, and this year, he’ll also be playing running back.”  Are there any week one games that are intriguing?

Drew Markol:  “I believe this is the seventh straight year they will be playing the La Salle-North Penn game on opening night, and La Salle has won all six. They’ve met in the playoffs two other times in that stretch, and North Penn did beat them one time. It’s been seven out of eight – La Salle has pretty much owned them. I think that’s a very good game. This is what Dick Beck does. He doesn’t care about being the number one seed in the district, and he instills that in his players – ‘We just need to get better, and if we can get in, we can beat anybody.’ North Penn is playing La Salle, then Pennsbury and Downingtown East. It’s a very good non-league schedule that will help them down the road. La Salle is as good as it gets – they’re a state title contender, and they have a psychological edge over North Penn, but that’s the game that jumps out on the schedule. It’s also worth noting that North Penn games are now at seven o’clock, no longer at 7:30 at home.”

Kevin Cooney:  “I find North Penn – La Salle really interesting, but the most interesting – and maybe it’s because it’s my alma mater – is Judge at CR South in my mind. You have a Catholic League team that – if they were away from Prep and La Salle and that group – could be pretty good. They’ve really done a good job of overhauling the program the last couple of years and getting a little more of a traditional feel to it. Judge is going to face a team they don’t see that often. South’s system for a team coming out of the gate – that must be a nightmare trying to prepare for whatever (coach) Vince Bedesem is going to have up his sleeve. I find that game interesting.

“CR North has a new coach, and you have Dan McShane at Pennsbury and how much they’ve said they’re going to try and change their system. In that sense, you have some interesting storylines, but it’s all kind of lost in my mind behind the bureaucracy storyline, which it normally is in week one. You can almost guess what’s going to happen Friday night – there are going to be heat issues, there could be storms, and we’re all going to sit there and wonder, ‘Hey, why did we start this early?’”

Jen Wielgus:  “The easy answer is the North Penn-La Salle game. North Penn has made a trademark of scuffling in the early season because they always play such tough teams in their non-league games but then shocking the world at the end of the season – making the playoffs and last year, as a nine seed, getting all the way to the district championship game. Dick Beck has proven that he’s probably the best coach in the (coverage) area, and here they are again playing La Salle, a private school, always a strong team. I pick La Salle to win because every year North Penn goes through this, and they’re going to be just fine. Kudos to them for continuing to play La Salle. If North Penn can win that game - they’re one of the teams that has a lot of guys back. That game definitely stands out.”

*The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of