Starting young players may pay dividends for northern football teams
High school football coaches aren't always eager play a freshman — or even a sophomore — under the glare of the Friday night lights. Sometimes, a coach has a hard worker or a playmaker who's inexperienced, but the coach is curious to see just what the player has to offer. Other times, injuries or a lack of turnout dictate younger players get to play early.
No matter the reason, young players seem to be more prevalent this season at Pine-Richland and Vincentian Academy, and for some local teams like Hampton and Seneca Valley, they are reaping the rewards for an extra year of experience three years ago.
Pine-Richland coach Clair Altemus is a fan of legendary college football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, and as Altemus listened to the legend speak years ago, Bryant said something he never forgot.
“He said that for every sophomore you start, you lose one game,” Altemus recalled. “Bryant liked to start seniors.
“In my first season at Pine-Richland, I started eight sophomores; I lost eight games. At any given time this season, I start six sophomores. We are one loss away from that being true again.”
Sure the inexperience is a drawback, but Vincentian, a first-ever program, and coach Tim Storino is starting underclassmen out of necessity. That's a good thing in Storino's case because he's growing a program, and with the emergence of players like freshmen Anthony Della Valle at fullback and tight end Paul Adams, the coach hopes to encourage incoming freshmen to come out for the team.
“It is a challenge to play right away, especially against some of the seniors,” Della Valle said. “They have been working out and lifting longer, but I will only get bigger and stronger. I don't get frustrated, but it can be hard to open a hole.”
Adams said going against physically bigger competition motivates him.
“Next year, we will take the anger from this season and use that to our advantage.”
In a similar situation at Pine-Richland, quarterback Ben DiNucci earned the starting job in camp, but he has the difficult task of facing defenses with Division I talent like North Allegheny, Central Catholic and North Hills.
“It's hard with all the film study and learning how to pick up blitzes and making reads,” DiNucci said. “My timing and ability to read defenses is getting better because of talking with my coaches and watching the film.”
A savvy defense like NA or North Hills will throw a lot of different looks at a young quarterback to confuse them and their pre-snap read.
DiNucci came into the season knowing he had earned the job, whereas teammate Connor Slomka was primed to be a complement to star back Brock Baranowski, who was unable to go when the season opened. But Slomka took the ball and ran with it — literally.
“I was really nervous, but Brock was really helpful,” Slomka said.
Slomka rushed for 740 yards through seven weeks, averaging 5 yards per carry.
“I was a little surprised at the success at first,” Slomka said. “I hope it continues.”
In the case of Pine-Richland and Vincentian this season, the coaches are pleased with what their young players have produced.
The hope is that one day these freshmen and sophomores progress and end up like the groups from Seneca Valley and Hampton, teams that suffered through growing pains and now are playoff contenders.
Three seasons ago, Seneca Valley coach Don Holl had a solid starting lineup before injuries decimated what looked to be a promising season. The rash of injuries forced Holl's hand.
“It's a good news, bad news situation,” Holl said. “The good news is they get battle tested early so they can see the speed of the game. The bad news — sometimes, they have to play earlier than expected.”
When the injuries occurred, Holl had two sophomores he knew had upside — quarterback Jordan Brown and running back Forrest Barnes.
“We would never put a player out there who was not ready or capable,” Holl said. “I knew they would help us; I just was not sure when.”
The plan that year was to work Barnes into the rotation that season, but with Brown, Holl had no other option.
The Raiders failed to make the playoffs that season, but the trade off is that the team made it to the second round last year and qualified again this season.
Hampton is in a similar situation. In 2010, the Raiders and Talbots were 3-6 and 2-7, respectively, and were going with the youth that this season had both teams at 6-1 through seven weeks.
Current Hampton quarterback Jon Nigro was a sophomore on that 2-7 team, and he said the confidence he got during that season was the catalyst for his success.
“I missed a lot of that season with a broken elbow, but I learned to believe in myself,” Nigro said. “The game has slowed down, and I was able to adjust. The thing is to keep working hard in the offseason, then let the cards fall where they may.”
The age of a player doesn't improve nor hinder the way Shaler coach Chris Siegle views his talent. The former Shaler quarterback is now in charge of the program, and it doesn't matter if you are a senior or a freshman, “I evaluate and base everything off of fundamentals and if that player can help us gain an advantage to win.”
“It's easy to put the best players on the field and bypass fundamental skills,” he added. “We are teaching the fundamentals for the next level (of football) and life.”
Jerry Clark is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-779-6979 or firstname.lastname@example.org.