(Statistical Information Courtesy of Professor Briggs' archives, The Herald and Erie Times-News)
WEEK ONE FOOTBALL PREVIEWS
The 2017 high school football season opens this weekend with all 12 local teams in action. Four league games highlight the weekend, along with an all-Mercer County non-conference clash. Six of the seven games will be played on Friday night. Lakeview will host Mercer at 7 p.m. Saturday night in Stoneboro.
Hickory at Greenville, 7:00 p.m.
Six-time defending District 10 champion Hickory begins defense of the district and Region 2 titles Friday night at Stewart Field against Greenville. The Hornets have won seven straight season openers while Greenville is 3-1 in its last four season openers.
Hickory opened 2016 with a 48-14 win over Greenville in Hermitage. The Hornets charged out to a 45-0 halftime lead and finished the game with a 478-184 edge in total offense. The graduated Chuck Carr racked up 227 yards and four touchdowns in 19 carries to help spur the Hickory offense.
Both teams feature returning senior starters at quarterback. For Hickory, Luke Brennan returns to the lineup after missing the Hornets' final five games last season due to injury. A starter since late in his rookie season, Brennan threw for 784 yards and seven touchdowns in eight games last year. He completed 5 of 11 passes for 93 yards against Greenville last season. He earned First Team All-Region honors following the season.
Brennan threw for 200 yards two seasons ago in Hickory's 28-9 win at Greenville October 9, 2015.
Senior Will Gruber, Hickory's leading receiver in 2016, also returns. Eight of Gruber's 28 catches went for touchdowns last year. The Colgate-bound Gruber averaged 21.0 yards per reception last season and also returned two punts for touchdowns, ran for a score and had a kickoff return for touchdown. Gruber earned All-Region Second Team at both wide receiver and defensive back.
On the Greenville side, senior Nate Bell did not start last year's opener but came on in relief against Hickory. Bell finished with 1,165 passing yards and nine touchdown passes in 10 games. He ranked fourth in Mercer County last year in passing yards and third in yards per game.
While Hickory must replace Carr, the county's all-time leading rusher and scorer, Greenville returns a decorated performer at running back in senior Canyon Eells. Eells amassed 1,140 rushing yards in 2016 while also leading Greenville with 14 touchdowns and 119 total points. Eells kicked three field goals and went 26 for 29 on extra points as a junior.
Greenville also welcomes back a pair of senior wide receivers in Connor Gilfoyle (12 receptions) and Michael Blaney (9 receptions, 3 TD). Blaney will also be the Trojans' punter again after earning First Team All-Region last year.
Both teams return First Team All-Region performers at inside linebacker. Nate Marchand, who is also the Hornets' returning leading rusher (145 yards, 5 touchdowns), returns for Hickory. Greenville has leading tackler Adonis Scriven (123 stops) back in the middle of the linebacking corps.
This is the first time that Greenville has opened the season at home against a local foe since 1999, when the Trojans rolled past Reynolds, 42-7.
The game will be heard on Sports Radio 96.7. Live stats available here.
Wilmington at Sharon, 7:00 p.m.
Friday night, Sharon hosts Class 2A state semifinalist Wilmington at Sharon Tiger Stadium as the homestanding Tigers look for their first Week One victory since 2008. Meanwhile, Wilmington looks for its 10th consecutive Week One victory.
Last season, Wilmington pulled away for a season-opening 30-13 home win over Sharon in New Wilmington. Wilmington, which led Mercer County in rushing defense and scoring defense in 2016, held Sharon to 1.6 yards per carry and a season-low 13 points.
Both of Sharon's touchdowns came on receptions by now-senior wide receiver Ziyon Strickland. Strickland opened his junior campaign by catching 10 passes for 176 yards against Wilmington. He led District 10 in receptions (67) and receiving yards (1,214). Strickland is D-10's all-time leader with 37 touchdown catches and he ranks second in district history with 156 career receptions. He needs 20 catches to surpass Franklin's Kahlil West as D-10's all-time leader in receptions.
Strickland also returned three interceptions for touchdowns and added touchdowns via kickoff return, punt return and fumble return in 2016. His 23 total touchdowns ranked third in Mercer County while his six return scores led the area. He earned First Team All-Region at wide receiver last season.
Tight end Warren Nixon and Youngstown Ursuline transfer Tristan Ballard are also expected to be featured targets for new starting quarterback Lane Voytik. A junior, Voytik completed 5 of 6 passes in limited varsity action last year behind graduated starter J.P. McComb. McComb led Mercer County with 265 pass attempts and ranked second in the county in yards (2,225), touchdowns (29) and completions (150).
Junior tailback Jordan Wilson ranked second in Mercer County with 1,318 rushing yards and returns for his third year as the Tigers' feature back. He rushed for 515 yards in 2015 as a freshman.
Defensively, Sharon led the area with 25 interceptions and 37 total takeaways last season.
Like Sharon, Wilmington will have a first-time starter at quarterback as junior Robert Pontius is expected to take over for Reese Bender. Pontius started at cornerback on defense in 2016 and threw one touchdown pass as a freshman in 2015 when pressed into emergency duty at West Middlesex.
Senior wide receiver Bryson Verrelli has led Wilmington in receptions in each of the last two seasons. After pulling in 34 passes two years ago, Verrelli had 38 catches for 707 yards and five touchdowns in 2016.
In the backfield, junior Cameron Marett led the area in yards per carry (10.1) last season. The speedy Marett ran for 935 yards and 14 touchdowns from his halfback position. Senior Jack Patton, the Week One starter at fullback last year, is also back after missing much of 2016 due to injury.
Up front, senior center Matt Jamison -- an All-Region selection last season -- anchors a veteran offensive line.
Of Wilmington's nine straight Week One wins, the last seven came against area opponents (two each over West Middlesex, Slippery Rock and Grove City, plus last year's win over Sharon). In 2007, Wilmington lost its opener at Ford City, 24-0. Ford City is now part of Armstrong High School. The previous Wilmington opening night loss also came against a school that is no more -- a 33-0 loss at Monaca in 2002. Monaca is now part of Central Valley High School.
Sharon vacated its 34-27 win over Struthers in the 2015 opener due to using an ineligible player in the game. Excluding the forfeit, Sharon has won nine straight games at Sharon Tiger Stadium.
The two head coaches in the game, Wilmington's Terry Verrelli and Sharon's Jim Wildman, have combined for 539 wins, four state championship game appearances and 22 district titles. Verrelli took over as head coach at Wilmington in 1978 while Wildman's first stint started in 1977.
The game will be heard on 790 WPIC.
Slippery Rock at Reynolds, 7:00 p.m.
Two teams that will spend much of the first half of the season on the road will meet Friday night in Transfer as Reynolds hosts Region 2 foe Slippery Rock. It is the first of three road games that Slippery Rock will play in the first four weeks of the season while Reynolds embarks on a three-game road swing after Friday night's opener.
Winners of five straight season openers, the bulk of Reynolds' returnees can be found on the offensive and defensive line. Seniors Jarod Miller and Riley Miller are joined by junior Derek Skeehan in forming a veteran nucleus in the trenches. Graduation claimed Reynolds' top four rushers from 2016, as well as 2015 leading rusher Dylan McDanel. Quarterback Garrett Daniello also graduated after accounting for 963 offensive yards and 13 total touchdowns.
Senior Tylir Shannon is expected to take over as Reynolds' starting signal-caller after seeing action in six games last year. He went 5 for 11 with a touchdown pass in the District 10 Class 2A quarterfinals against undefeated Iroquois after Daniello left due to injury.
Leading receiver Tyler Gill (13 catches) is also back for the Raiders, under fifth-year coach Josh Mull.
For Slippery Rock, second-year head coach Larry Wendereusz will rely on senior running backs Seth Slater and Hunter Prementine, along with a veteran and sizeable offensive line. Slater led the Rockets with 544 rushing yards and also caught 20 passes for 224 yards. Prementine added 171 rushing yards and caught a dozen passes. Prementine is also one of the area's most explosive kick returners.
Junior Kaleb Kamerer led the Rockets in yards per carry (5.7) and added 11 receptions. At receiver, junior Patrick Shea is the top returning pass-catcher, having caught 20 balls in 2016.
Up front, seniors Cole Bell and Wayne Bird will anchor the offensive and defensive lines. Senior tight end Luke Brandon will look to fill the role previously held by the graduated Calvin Rossi (29 catches in 2016).
Slippery Rock is 4-1 in its last five season openers, falling at home to Reynolds, 13-7, in last year's lidlifter. Reynolds held Slippery Rock to 60 rushing yards and 158 offensive yards on 51 total plays. Prior to last year, the teams had not met since 2009.
West Middlesex at Sharpsville, 7:00 p.m.
Two defending District 10 runners-up will square off Friday night at McCracken Field as Class 2A Sharpsville hosts longtime archrival West Middlesex, a Class 1A school. It's the 30th straight season that the two programs will have met on the gridiron.
In addition to reaching their respective D-10 titles games in 2016, Sharpsville and West Middlesex both feature several other similarities. Each squad returns a 1,000-yard rusher in its offensive backfield. Sharpsville returns senior halfback Bobby Besser (1,290 yards, 12 rushing TDs in 2016) while West Middlesex junior fullback Clayton Parrish (1,117 yards, 10 TDs) is back as the featured man in the Big Reds' rushing attack.
Both teams will have first-time starters at quarterback as well Friday night. Junior Nick Alexander, who went 10 of 18 for 90 yards and two touchdowns last year as a reserve at Sharon, is expected to engineer Sharpsville's intricate Wing-T offense. Senior Marshall Murray, one of the top three-point shooters in area boys basketball, is expected to start at quarterback for West Middlesex.
Besser, who led Sharpsville with 16 total touchdowns in 2016, is joined in the three-man backfield by senior halfback Cameron Prebble (793 yards) and junior fullback Kobe Joseph (517 yards). That trio will benefit from one of the Commonwealth's heaviest offensive lines, which is anchored by junior tackle Ja'Quay Hubbard. The 6-foot-6, 330-pound Hubbard, a First Team All-Region honoree last year, has received numerous inquiries from Division I programs.
West Middlesex also returns a First Team All-Region lineman in junior guard Zach Long. Also back up front are senior center Colton McElrath, senior tackle Anthony Trippy and senior guard Cade Franks. Junior Logan Hurley earned Second Team All-Region at both kicker and punter last season for West Middlesex. Versatile senior Chase Staunch, the kicker in 2015, is back after missing last season due to injury.
Sharpsville has won eight straight openers. Last year, Sharpsville earned a season-opening 48-14 win at West Middlesex. The Blue Devils, who led 14-0 at halftime, scored touchdowns in five different ways. Prebble ran for a touchdown, returned a kickoff for a score and also hauled in a touchdown pass from now-graduated quarterback Luke Henwood. Besser returned an interception for a score and Hunter Kos converted a fumble recovery into a touchdown. Besser led Sharpsville with 75 rushing yards and Prebble picked up 73 yards.
Sharpsville last lost a season opener at home in 2007, when visiting South Side Beaver escaped with a 14-6 win over the Blue Devils. Each of Sharpsville's final eight games will be league games in Region 2. West Middlesex starts conference play in Week Four against Farrell.
Grove City at General McLane, 7:00 p.m.
Two teams that are expected to contend for the District 10 Class 5A crown in November will meet Friday night in Edinboro at Linden Field as Grove City visits General McLane.
Grove City rallied for a 34-28 win over McLane in the 2016 opener by scoring 20 unanswered points in the fourth quarter. A potential rematch in the playoffs seemed likely as Grove City opened 8-0 while General McLane won five of its next six games. However, the Lancers dropped their final three games by a total of 14 points, including a 27-26 loss to Conneaut in the D-10 quarterfinals.
With Erie Central, Erie East and Erie Strong Vincent all out of the Class 5A picture due to those schools merging into Class 6A Erie High School, it is again plausible that Friday's game could be the first of two Grove City-General McLane meetings.
Graduation claimed several of Grove City's starters on the offensive line, three-year starting quarterback Kameron Patterson and prolific tight end/linebacker A.J. Turner. Still, the Eagles return a number of key contributors from last year's 10-win team. Senior fullback Trey Adams charged through opposing defenses for 922 yards and 16 touchdowns while junior wide receiver Logan Lutz grabbed 40 passes for 691 yards and 10 scores.
Also back as top targets in the passing game for Grove City are senior Qadir Muhammad (27 receptions in 2016) and classmate Brayden Martin (13 catches). Seniors Joe Kosick and Logan Minch will help set the foundation for the rebuilt offensive and defensive lines.
Junior Brady Callahan, the backup to Patterson last season, has the inside track to take over as the starting quarterback. Junior quarterback A.J. Miller has pushed Callahan in preseason camp.
General McLane must also replace its starting quarterback as Ethan Laird graduated after racking up 1,351 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns last year. Laird also threw for 467 yards out of McLane's option-heavy flexbone offense. Senior Nasir Singleton is the top returning offensive threat for the Lancers after posting 19 receptions, 386 rushing yards and eight total touchdowns.
Junior Jack Parker is expected to start at quarterback for General McLane.
McLane head coach Jim Wells (168-58) enters his 21st season and is third all-time in Erie County history in coaching victories. Later this season, the Lancers will also face two of Grove City's Region 5 cohorts in Meadville and Conneaut later in the season.
After going winless on the road in 2014 and 2015, Grove City went 4-0 away from Forker Field during the 2016 regular season. Three of the Eagles' first four games are on the road. Grove City opens Region 5 play in Week Two at Warren. After hosting Conneaut in the third week, Grove City heads to Franklin. Grove City's five road games will be played in five different counties: General McLane (Erie County), Warren (Warren), Franklin (Venango), Slippery Rock (Butler) and Meadville (Crawford).
Neshannock at Farrell, 7:00 p.m.
For the first time since October 20, 2000, Neshannock will visit Anthony Paulekas Stadium as Farrell and Neshannock open 2017 Friday night. Unlike the winless team that absorbed a 46-0 loss to Farrell 17 years ago, Neshannock has emerged as one of District 7's top small-school programs over the past several years. The Lancers went 12-2 last season and reached the District 7 Class 2A title game before falling to eventual state champion Steel Valley.
Farrell is the defending District 10 champion in Class 1A and advanced to the state semifinals last season. After starting 3-3, the Steelers rattled off seven straight wins before falling to Clairton.
Throughout much of the 1980s and 1990s, Farrell and Neshannock competed against each other in District 7's Tri-County North A, and later, the Big 7. Last season, the teams met for the first time in 15 years, as Neshannock earned a 42-14 win over Farrell at New Castle's Taggart Stadium. That marked Neshannock's 10th straight Week One win.
Graduation claimed several standouts from both programs. Farrell graduated its all-time leading rusher, Braxton Chapman (3,066), who is now at Youngstown State. Neshannock lost quarterback/linebacker Frank Antuono, Jr. (Robert Morris), tight end Tyler Sear (Pitt), and linebackers Sean Doran and Danny Welker (both Slippery Rock).
Farrell does return junior quarterback/linebacker Kyi Wright, who threw for 1,224 yards and 17 touchdowns last year. He also added eight rushing touchdowns. The arrival of senior quarterback Isaac Clarke from Baltimore's Archbishop Curley High School will allow 10th-year head coach Jarrett Samuels to use Wright in a variety of offensive roles.
Steeler passers will also benefit from the return of senior Brandon Chambers and junior Jourdan Townsend, each of whom earned First Team All-Region in 2016. Chambers led Farrell with 27 catches for 499 yards and six touchdowns. He also ran for 447 yards, third-best on the team. Townsend grabbed 24 balls for 415 yards and a team-leading seven touchdowns.
Junior halfback Christian Lewis (480 yards) also returns and will compete for a full-time starting spot after averaging 6.5 yards per carry in 2016. Junior guard Kobe Hilton and junior center Vincent Purdie are both back up front to anchor a rebuilt offensive line. Hilton earned Second Team All-Region honors on the defensive line last year and will again help lead the front seven.
Junior defensive back Elijah Harper, a Second Team All-Region selection, joins Lewis, Townsend and Chambers in one of District 10's most experienced defensive backfields.
According to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Neshannock features three All-Midwestern Conference defensive backs in Seth Fehrs, Joey Nerti and Chris Scott. The Lancers will be without two players who transferred into the district following the 2016 season. District 7 ruled both running back Noah Karpiak and tight end Jacob McCormick ineligible, deeming that the pair transferred for athletic reasons.
Karpiak ran for nearly 700 yards at Class 5A Connellsville as a sophomore in 2016. The 6-5, 230-pound McCormick transferred from Brownsville.
Neshannock will open its Midwestern Conference schedule in Week Two at Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic. Farrell opens Region 1 play September 15 at home against West Middlesex in a rematch of last year's D-10 title game. Between then, Farrell will visit North East (Week Two) and Carrick (Week Three) in non-league play.
West Middlesex is the last team to defeat Neshannock in a season opener. The Big Reds earned a 34-0 win over Neshannock on September 1, 2006.
Mercer at Lakeview, 7:00 p.m., Saturday
Week One will conclude Saturday night in Stoneboro as Lakeview hosts neighboring Mercer in a Region 2 battle. According to second-year Lakeview head coach John Falconi, this is the first time that Lakeview has opened a season with a Saturday night home game. Throughout the first 20-plus years of its program, Lakeview played all of its home games on Saturdays until installing lights in the late 1980s.
Last year, Mercer hosted Lakeview in the season opener on a Saturday afternoon and the visiting Sailors pulled out a 24-22 victory in the county seat. Both squads then dropped the next eight games to close the season. However, optimism fills both programs as 2017 begins. Each team welcomes back an experienced nucleus in its respective quest to move up in Region 2 and return to the District 10 playoffs.
Senior fullback Jimmy Amon returns for his fourth year in the Mercer lineup after leading the Mustangs in rushing yardage (222), receptions (20), receiving yards (244) and touchdowns (3). Mercer also welcomes back its second-leading receiver in junior wide receiver Brian Shevitz, who had 16 receptions. Junior quarterback Dylan Hetrick started all nine games in Mercer's multiple-formation offense last year and threw for 812 yards and four touchdowns.
Amon, wide receiver/linebacker Austin Hesselgesser, fullback/defensive end Adam Walker and tackle Garrett Shiemke are Mercer's four senior lettermen. Head coach Pat McClearn, a Lakeview graduate, is in his 13th season at Mercer.
While Mercer has just four senior lettermen and five total seniors, Lakeview's 18-man senior class is one of the largest in District 10. Several seniors will comprise the Sailors' offensive and defensive lines, including Andy Hailey, Pierce Bowser, Aaron Moore, Wyatt Slater and Donnie Mouck, among others.
New Lakeview offensive coordinator Chad Edwards has implemented a power spread attack that will utilize several players as ball carriers and receivers. Senior Garrett Gadsby is the most experienced of the players competing for the starting quarterback position. Gadsby threw for 122 yards and also led the Sailors with eight receptions. He ran for 286 yards and led the team with six total touchdowns scored.
Both teams are looking for a fast start, not only to the season, but in the game itself. In 2016, Lakeview (6) and Mercer (2) combined to score a mere eight points in the first quarter all season.
The game will be heard on SportsRadio 96.7. Live stats available here.