Line play helping Quaker Valley to special season
The Quaker Valley football team's skill position players get a lot of attention, and rightfully so.
Wether it is quarterback Dane Jackson, wide receiver Chris Conlan or the three-headed monster at running back with Trewon Marshall, Aaron Cunningham and Jake Trovato, the athletes have the ability to turn a simple play into a score.
But the part of the Quakers equation for success that doesn't get mentioned nearly enough is the high level of play from the team's linemen.
“They don't get the credit they deserve,” Quaker Valley coach John Tortorea said. “As an offensive line guy myself, I tell these guys you won't get your name in the paper as much as the other guys. They never complain.
“But if it wasn't for those guys, I don't care how good our skill guys are, we wouldn't be operating at the level we are.”
The Quakers entered the year with a surplus of experience on the line. Seniors Matt O'Neill, Marcus Coury, Sebastian Gordon, Eric Kley and Tyler Krizan came into the season being challenged by the coaching staff.
Tortorea laid the challenge out to the group — succeed or Quaker Valley will likely have another three-win season.
“We do feel we let the backs down last season,” O'Neill said. “But we made huge strides. We dedicated ourselves in the offseason. The confidence is up with the line from years past. We have been doing great with creating holes for the backs.”
The offense — which has recorded more than 2,000 rushing yards and is averaging 35 points a game — has benefited from the line's experience. And while previous years haven't always been good, their experience is paying off this season.
“Some of these guys have been starting since they were sophomores,” Tortorea said. “A lot of these guys were getting thrown around as juniors. And that is how it goes sometimes until you develop a body. They dedicated themselves in the weight room. We now have bodies and it is showing.”
As high as his praise is for the line on offense, Tortorea may be even happier on defense.
The experienced line has transitioned over to defense as the Quakers broke in the 3-5-3 defensive scheme. Used last year at times and referred to as the T-N-T look — the formation allows Quaker Valley to use its depth up front, a luxury that hasn't been available in the past.
“We can get a rotation going if we need it,” Coury said. “I like it better. The four-man front is harder to get guys to fill the spots.”
The team goes with O'Neill as the nose guard and Coury and senior John Bernard — who plays tight end on offense — at the ends to start games. The switch and depth has helped Quaker Valley drop from averaging 30 points allowed per game down to 21 this season.
“Our nose guard, Matt O'Neill, is getting double- and tripled-teamed,” Tortorea said. “Never in the past could we have dreamt of this depth. When we get down to the juniors and sophomores, it is almost like hockey with a three-line rotation.”
The line's success hasn't come without loss as senior Garrett Zeigler — a starting guard and captain — tore his ACL just two practices into the season.
“I will never forget it,” Tortorea said. “It was heartbreaking. We had adults crying and trying to keep composure so young kids wouldn't feel something tragic was going on. But it was as a young man lost his senior season.”
But while he can't be on the field, Zeigler has been a leader from the sidelines for every game.
“I will use him as an example as long as I coach,” Tortorea said. “He is a strong-willed young man. He showed the reasons why he was selected to be a captain.”
But from the tragedy came one of the biggest surprises of the season.
Junior James Burnette — listed as 5-foot-9, 170 pounds on the roster and being used as an outside linebacker and defensive back — offered to fill the void and began hitting the weight room. He is now benching more than 250 pounds.
“He stepped in and plugged the hole,” Tortorea said. “We joke about it a lot that if someone told us before the season James Burnette would be playing offensive guard and we would be 6-1, no one would believe it.”
Tortorea said having strong line play is a must heading into the playoffs and the experienced bunch knows it. The group likes to keep a one-game-at-a-time mentality but can't help but be proud of what occurred this season and what is yet to come.
“This has been a special season,” O'Neill said. “It is one of the best in school history. To be leaders and say we helped turn around and change what people think about the Quakers is a special thing.”
And while many of the talented linemen will graduate in the spring, their legacy will be felt in future seasons.
“It has taken us three years to get that,” Tortorea said. “We have never had guys to point to as upperclassmen to show what is expected from a quality football team and what you have to do to get there. These guys are true leaders.”
Next week: Ellwood City
After the Quakers clinched their first playoff game at Chuck Knox Stadium with a 41-13 win at Burgettstown on Friday, they go on the road for a nonsection battle to take on Ellwood City.
The Wolverines (3-5, 2-5) are coming off a 41-40 loss to Beaver. Ellwood City took a 40-34 lead with just over seven minutes to play before Jared Yates scored on a 5-yard run late in the game to clinch the win.
The Wolverines' offense is carried by Jared Meyers, who has rushed for more than 1,123 yards and 12 touchdowns. The defense has struggled to find consistency, giving up an average of 30 points per game, including four games it has allowed more than 40.