Few starters return after Derry's historic run to conference title
It was an historic season for the Derry football program in 2016.
The Trojans won the WPIAL Class 3A Interstate Conference and finished the regular season undefeated (7-0) for the first time.
Then, the Trojans defeated Central Valley in the first round of the playoffs 33-20, for their first playoff victory since 1995, when they defeated Thomas Jefferson, 25-21.
What made the season so magical was how far that group of seniors came in four years. Derry hit rock bottom in 2013, going 0-10 and allowing more than 56.3 points per game.
But after Tim Sweeney was hired in 2014, things began to turn around as he changed the attitude of the program.
“The 12 seniors that stayed with the program since their freshman season get a lot of credit for the turnaround,” Sweeney said. “But it started with the two groups before them. They were also a big part of our success; last year's group just reaped the benefits.”
Starting with its comeback win against Latrobe in Week 1 of the 2016 season, the Trojans built momentum and confidence in their abilities.
They played as a team and found different ways to win games, whether it was creating a turnover, getting a big offensive play to score points or just managing to continue drives.
Senior running back Tyler Balega, now playing at Seton Hill, was a big part of the offense after rushing for 1,726 yards and 27 touchdowns.
Josh Bauer, Noah Wiencek, Owen Whitacre and Collin Holden also were key offensive contributors who graduated.
But the Trojans had other offensive weapons.
Returning senior quarterback Ryan Polinsky threw for 802 yards and seven touchdowns by completing 58 of 130 passes.
While running backs Shawn Broadway and Justin Flack will have larger roles on offense — Broadway rushed for 453 yards and five touchdowns in 2016 — Polinsky must find some new targets to replace Bauer, who caught 15 passes for 186 yards.
“Little Po is a leader and field general,” Sweeney said. “Shawn was a very capable backup when Tyler missed time with an injury. We know what he can do, and Justin has speed. We have other guys who will play key roles.”
Derry returns two starting offensive linemen — guard Tyre Hairston and center Cullen Shawley.
“We're still searching for at least three linemen,” Sweeney said. “It's hard to evaluate them in (only) helmets.
“At seven-on-seven events, we just worry about our alignment and how we react to things. We can't compete against the Hempfields, the Norwins and Penn-Traffords in these events. Put shoulder pads on and put in a game plan we'll see what happens.”
Derry expects to have more experience in the starting lineup on defense.
Onreey Stewart and Broadway return in the secondary. Gannon Lenhart, Dom Deluca and Colin Nemcheck are back at linebacker, and Jeff Perratone will again suit up at defensive end.
“I expect us to do better,” Hairston said. “I feel we have a bright future because the coaches are pointing us in the right directions.”
While it would be hard to expect Derry to repeat what it did in 2016, Sweeney isn't about to count out his group, even though South Park, Elizabeth Forward, McGuffey and Yough are expected to be better.
“People still look down on us, and that's OK,” Sweeney said. “(The players will) just do what we taught them. We'll just play with a chip on our shoulder.”