HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL PREVIEW

Mars breaking out a new look

Planets switch to spread in opener vs. North Hills

August 27, 2021 Cranberry Local Sports


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ADAMS TWP — A new season has not meant a new scheme for the Mars football team. At least that was the case for 28 straight years.

But the Planets are now feeling the winds of change.

Mars will unveil a spread offense in its season opener at home Friday against North Hills.

Planets' head coach Scott Heinauer, who has been a staunch proponent of the Wing-T across parts of four decades, said the change in philosophy was brought on in large part to a very talented junior quarterback.

Rafael Bartley (6-foot-3, 215 pounds), a backup last season, looked very good during the offseason and followed that up with a strong summer camp.

Mars scrimmaged Elizabeth Forward last weekend.

“We'll mix in a little of the Wing-T at times, but it's mostly going to be the spread,” said Heinauer. “Our kids have been practicing in it and know it well.”

One of the players hoping to reap the benefits of more passes is senior Chris Dvorak (6-6, 215), a tight end last year who is now going to split out as a wide receiver.

“He's going to provide Rafael with a big target,” said Heinauer. “Chris is one of the leaders on the team and we're looking to him to make some plays.”

Luca Moran and Evan Wright are two players Heinauer mentioned who should see time at halfback.

Hoping to throw a monkey wrench into Mars' transition plans, North Hills fields a defense with eight returning starters.

Senior linebackers Alec Apodaca and Tanner Ilnicki will lead the unit, according to veteran Indians' coach Pat Carey.

“We're counting on both of them to do some good things for us and a lot of it will come from blitzing,” said Carey.

“We heard rumors over the summer that Mars was moving to a spread look and now we've seen it on tape,” Carey added. “More than a scheme, though, we look at the athletes that a team has. Mars looks to be a big and athletic team.”

The Indians, who missed the WPIAL playoffs last year with a 3-4 record, also have valuable experience in their defensive backfield, where cornerbacks Robert Dickerson and Chase Foskey and safety Liam Tracey are all returning starters.

On offense, North Hills will start John Green at quarterback. He was a backup last year as a sophomore.

“He's capable of running and throwing the ball. He brings a lot of excitement to the team,” Carey said.

Central Valley at Knoch

7 p.m., Friday

Knoch went winless (0-7) last fall while failing to put up more than 13 points in any game. Central Valley finished 12-0 and won both a WPIAL Class 3A and state championship a year ago.

Under third-year head coach Brandon Mowry, the Knights have scrapped their triple-option attack in favor of a form of the Wing-T. The team looks to trust the football in the hands of QB JJ Szebalskie, RBs Keagan Fraser and Exzavier Johnson and TE Jake Murphy, among others.

At QB, Central Valley senior Matt Merritt will likely replace Ameer Dudley, now playing at Harvard. Up until this point, Merritt has seen game action primarily at WR and LB. RB Landon Alexander, another senior, returns to the Warriors' backfield after finding the endzone 20 times last year.

Armstrong at Freeport

7 p.m., Friday

Freeport carved out a 3-3 record last year, bowing out of the WPIAL playoffs in the first round. Armstrong went 4-4 in 2020, finishing 5th in Class 4A's Greater Allegheny Conference.

Freeport is a veteran bunch, bringing back 14 players with significant playing experience. Senior Garrett King takes the reins at QB having only thrown three passes. He was set to be the starter last year, but missed the season due to a cancer diagnosis. Used as a utility player a year ago, junior Ben Lane led the team with 76 carries for 348 yards and 6 TDs.

Armstrong went 4-4 in 2020, finishing 5th in 4A Greater Allegheny Conference. Coach Frank Fabian's River Hawks are opening the offense for junior QB Cadin Olsen and counting on him to help out an unproven set of wideouts. Olsen paced the WPIAL with 1,773 regular-season passing yards last year. Center Ethan Crissman and guards Cherokee Schrecengost and Jewlius Barnes dig back in on the offensive line.

Neighboring school districts, Armstrong and Freeport will be matching up for the first time.

North Catholic at Hopewell

7 p.m., Friday

North went 8-1 last season, including a WPIAL Class 3A semifinal loss to Elizabeth Forward. Hopewell finished 2-5 and missed postseason play for the eighth consecutive season.

The Trojans will be without senior WR/DB Carson Laconi, who has suffered a broken collarbone. Laconi has started in the team's secondary since his freshman year. North's eight wins last year came by an average score of 44-9.

Hopewell's power running game will rely heavily on senior RB Connor Antoszeski, who carried the ball 32 times last year for 166 yards. Anchoring both the offensive and defensive line for the Vikings is senior Caleb McCoy (6-6, 305).

Karns City at Girard

7 p.m., Friday

This is the first football meeting between the two schools.

Girard is coming off a 2-6 season and has a new head coach in Michael Zona. The Yellowjackets are a Class 3A program in District 10, Region 6.

The Gremlins were 6-4 last season, including a pair of District 9 playoff wins. QB Eric Booher returns after throwing for 849 yards and seven touchdowns as a sophomore. WR Michael Rupp returns for his junior year, catching 19 passes for 316 yards a year ago.

FB-MLB Luke Garing rushed for 375 yards in 2020 and is the most productive running back returning. Garing also produced 72 tackles and was in on five fumble recoveries in 2020. Rupp had three interceptions.

Moniteau at Kane

7 p.m., Friday

The teams have met three times in the past five years. Kane defeated the Warriors, 55-7, in the 2016 playoffs. The Wolves and Warriors have split two regular season games since, Moniteau winning 14-13 in 2018, Kane by a 46-19 count in 2019.

Todd Silfies returns as Kane head coach, the Wolves coming off a 2-4 season. Harley Morris, who rushed for 260 yards and caught 11 passes in 2020, is shifting over to quarterback. Ricky Zampogna, a junior, caught 16 passes last season.

Moniteau is relatively inexperienced coming into this season, with no more than three returning starters on either side of the ball. Quickness up front and a potentially strong passing game may lead the Warriors this season.

Fort LeBoeuf at Slippery Rock

7 p.m., Friday

Fort LeBoeuf was 6-1 last year, not losing until the District 10 playoffs. Slippery Rock went 2-6 last year. Both the Bison and Rockets are Class 3A teams.

The Bison feature senior RB Tristin Harris (6-0, 185), who rushed for 834 yards and 15 TDs in 2020.

The Rockets have a trio of RBs — Ryan Montgomery, Brett Galcik and Shane Thompson — who combined last season for 502 rushing yards and 524 receiving yards with 6 offensive TDs. Junior William Mokel returns to start at QB for the second straight season.

Union/A-C Valley at Brockway

7:30 p.m., Friday

The Falcon Knights are coming off a 5-2 season, which included a loss to Smethport in the District 9 Class A playoffs. Brockway was 2-5 last year.

Union/ACV returns Caden Rainey, who accounted for 753 all-purpose yards and 7 total TDs last year.

The Falcon Knights defeated Brockway twice in the regular season last year by scores of 37-7 and 40-7.

This game matches two teams from District 9's Small School South Division. The league no longer includes Curwensville, which has moved to a District 6 schedule. Taking Curwensville's place is Bucktail, a school located in Clinton County, near Lock Haven.

Summit Academy at Avonworth

7 p.m., Friday

Summit will be taking the field for the first time since 2019, when it finished with a 1-9 record. The Knights' 2020 season was canceled due to COVID-19. Avonworth, which won the WPIAL Class 2A title and reached the state final in 2019, finished with a 4-2 record last year while missing the 3A playoffs.

Summit, which has just 21 players, is coached by John McCloud, who previously served as athletic director at the school.

The Antelopes feature a pair of receivers — senior Neo Miller and junior Peyton Faulkner — who combined for 28 receptions worth 474 yards and five total TDs last year.

Previews on the Butler-Kiski Area and Moon-Seneca Valley games appeared in Eagle editions earlier this week.

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Derek Pyda

Derek Pyda

- Graduated from Connellsville High School in 1996
- Graduated from Clarion University in 2000 with a Bachelors in Communications
- Have also written for Clarion News (Clarion, PA) and the Herald-Standard (Uniontown, PA)
- Started at the Butler Eagle on April 2, 2002
- Interests include sports, history and geography