New linemen stepping up for Mars
Mars believes it can make it as far as its legs can take it.
Last year, the Planets used a strong running game to reach the WPIAL Class AAA football quarterfinals. The squad racked up 3,210 yards (291.8 per game) in 11 contests.
Through its first five games this fall, Mars was slightly ahead of that pace with 1,463 yards (292.6 per game). That may not seem like a big deal since the Planets have been a run-based team for years. However, the team's success on the ground has been a positive sign since it graduated all but one starter on the offensive line.
“We're moving the football. That's something that's capable of our football team. Our kids understand that,” Mars coach Scott Heinauer said. “We have a whole new offensive line, and I think that the kids are jelling. The kids have done a great job up front.”
Senior right guard John King was the lone returning lineman for the Planets. Senior tight end Nolan Skirtich, senior right tackle Joel Glomb, senior center Robb Miller, left guards Trevor Heyl (junior) and Hunter Cooper (freshman) and junior left tackle Gabe Spurlock have been called upon to pave the way for the Planets.
Junior Josh Schultheis rushed for 1,687 yards a year ago. He collected 746 through the team's first five games. Quarterback Owen Nearhoof and running back Jason Lozzi also returned to the Planets' backfield.
“Those kids up front are talented and have done a great job so far this season, but I think it helps to have veteran guys running the ball, too,” Heinauer said. “Before the season, we talked to Jason, Josh and Owen and told them they'd have to be patient. The holes weren't going to be there like last year. Those kids knew what to do on every blocking scheme we had. We told them just to be positive and stay positive and things will work out. That's literally what happened.
“Having some good running backs and a quarterback who can do different things makes the (linemen) believe. They may not throw the best block every time, but when you have running backs and a good quarterback, they can make you look better than you are and they can make you believe.”
That certainly helped ease some of the line's pressure while it had time to get acclimated. But the Planets struggled in a 20-13 loss to Franklin Regional to open the year. After that defeat, Mars won its next four games.
“Hat's off to Franklin Regional, but our kids regrouped and fought back and have gotten better each week that we play,” Heinauer said. “That's only the way we'll be able to move the ball and throw the ball.”
The Planets experienced similar changes on the defensive side of the ball, where they had to fill some holes. John Castello, Nate Sablowski, Marshall Robinson, Gabe Spurlock, Matt Parrish, Lozzi, King and Schultheis have solidified the team's defensive front. Mars allowed 11 points per game to its first five opponents.
“Our defense has played pretty well. I think it's getting comfortable with what's going on,” Heinauer said. “We always put some wrinkles in there, but it's pretty much the same thing. You can only call so many plays. The more people throw at us, the better the kids are able to adapt.”
Joe Sager is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.