West Shamokin sets goal of 1st WPIAL playoff appearance
With the WPIAL's longest losing streak in its rearview mirror, could the playoffs be the next destination for West Shamokin?
The Wolves enter this season with nine starters returning — many of them two-way players — and the combination of experience and growing confidence could lead to the school's first postseason berth in 10 years as a WPIAL member.
West Shamokin has a new leader in first-year coach Jon McCullough, but as the team's defensive coordinator under previous coach Josh Gilliland, McCullough also provides continuity from a successful 2012 season.
“It helps having a lot of kids coming back who are familiar with what we do,” McCullough said. “Some things will change, and there will be some new wrinkles to how we approach things, but from a schematic standpoint, a lot of what we're doing is going to be the same.”
One holdover will be the Wolves' run-first offense led by a pair of juniors, fullback Zac Horner and running back Andrew Wingard.
Horner led the Wolves with 785 yards last season, and Wingard was just behind him with 776 yards and a team-best eight rushing touchdowns.
Those backs will run behind an experienced line that has senior Austin Bussard and junior Austin Reesman flanking senior center Brock Kennedy, and much of the Wolves' success will rely on how they fare up front.
“Those guys have really been working hard in practice and studying their playbooks so we know what we're doing when the season rolls around,” Horner said. “They always tell me I'm the one that gets my name in the paper, but they're the ones doing the work blocking for me.”
The Wolves also hope to continue to expand their passing game with junior quarterback Alex Lasslo and senior receiver Brady Cornman, but even as they try to diversify their attack, the running game will remain the biggest weapon.
“Horner's a good back for us, but we've got other guys with Brady Cornman and (sophomore back) Brandon Stover,” McCullough said. “We're not just limited to Zac or Andrew, which makes it better for them if other teams can't concentrate only on them.”
Where McCullough hopes to see the most improvement is on defense. The Wolves gave up 33 points per game last season. Much of the personnel is the same from last year, and the group is familiar with McCullough's defense, so the focus this year is of a physical nature — improving tackling and getting hands on the football.
“Tackling and turnovers have been a great emphasis for us over the summer,” McCullough said. “We've been working on taking better angles to the football and making better tackles.”
Horner added: “Turnovers have been a big reason we've lost football games in the past, so if we can not turn the ball over and force our opponents to turn it over more, we're going to come out on the winning side.”
Horner and Wingard return as linebackers for the Wolves, and Reesman is the team's top defensive lineman after earning honorable mention all-conference last year. Cornman, Lasslo and Stover will lead the secondary, and the team also gets a boost with the return of junior linebacker Adam Crise, who missed the second half of last season with an injury.
If the Wolves can make the defensive improvements they're trying for, they'll likely add to last year's win total.
If that happens, West Shamokin might see its name on the WPIAL playoff bracket for the first time in school history.
“After the first win last year, it was so great, but it made us so much more hungry,” Horner said. “Three wins is not enough for us. We're all ready for this to be our year.”