Connellsville hopes to build on 1st playoff appearance since 2005

| Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2012, 8:55 p.m.

In 2011, the Connellsville football team faced plenty of uncertainty as new coach Dave McDonald promised changes, beginning with new schemes on offense and defense. The result was a 5-5 campaign and a trip to the playoffs.

It was a strong performance for a team coming off a 1-8 season in 2010. This season, the Falcons are hoping for more than just a .500 record.

Like any team, Connellsville has question marks, but there are plenty of positive factors.

“From an offensive standpoint, we have some very good skill players,” McDonald said.

Leading the offense is junior quarterback Jade Maher.

“I've had Jade now for a year,” McDonald said. “He is very coachable, but at the same time he is very critical of himself. He wants to do so well and that's a bit of the mental part of playing quarterback. He has a lot of God-given ability. He's got a strong arm and a good head on his shoulders. We'll open it up and throw the football more this year and give him more responsibility.”

Split ends Nate Norton and Caleb Stevenson figure to be primary targets for Maher. Running backs Jordan McCrae (transfer from Greensburg Central Catholic) and James Stevenson should provide the Falcons with an explosive backfield. Fullbacks Dylan Miller and Chris Russell will be getting carries and clearing lanes.

The biggest question mark on offense may be the line. Several players graduated, leaving holes in key spots.

“Our biggest concern is piecing together the line because we need two tackles,” McDonald said.

Austin Brooks, Austin Heinbaugh and Robert Groff are expected to be mainstays along the line.

“We need a good offensive line,” McDonald said. “We'll only go as far as our line will take us.”

The defense should be solid with the return of all-conference players Nathan Earnesty (free safety) and Jimmy DeMarco (inside linebacker). Brooks will anchor the defensive line, while Grant Witt and James Stevenson patrol the secondary at cornerback.

The special teams should get a boost with the addition of kicker Benjamin Kisiel, a senior transfer from Greensburg Central Catholic.

The Falcons lost 21 players to graduation but McDonald is confident in this team, which is dominated by underclassmen.

“We lost a nice group of seniors who will be hard to replace,” McDonald said. “But the kids stepping in have all the ability in the world.”

Connellsville is hoping to be a more complete team in 2012, which means being more physical.

“One of our first goals is to get stronger,” McDonald said. “We weren't physically able to play with the top-tier teams. Physically, we want to impose our will, and that's something we can control.”

Connellsville is also hoping to expand the playbook on both sides of the ball, and will try to do so against some tough teams in the Quad East Conference, including Gateway, McKeesport and Penn-Trafford.

“Our conference is tough,” McDonald said. “We'll be in a dogfight.”

The players seem to understand that building on last season won't be easy, but they're looking forward to the opportunity.

“We do like to have the pressure,” said Brooks, one of the players who will be counted on in the trenches. “We want to do better than last year. We want to win a playoff game and go deep in the playoffs. We always want to achieve higher goals.”

For McDonald, the chance to improve is a challenge worth tackling, and he can't wait to see how the 2012 season unfolds.

“I really like our kids,” McDonald said. “They understand the expectations on them, and we've got solid young men trying to do the right things. I flat out enjoy working with them, and I can't wait to see if we can take the next steps.”

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