Carlynton Cougars football ready to continue progression under coach Terry George
The 2011 football season could be seen as a moral victory for the Carlynton Cougars.
The team finished the season 5-5 amd 3-4 in the Black Hills Conference after winning four games in the previous two seasons combined. It was also the first non-losing season for Carlynton since 2001.
But coach Terry George wasn't satisfied with the end result. Sure, he was happy with the team not finishing with a losing record in his first season as the coach at Carlynton. But it wasn't what he set out to do when he took over the position.
“Our goal as a coaching staff coming in was to beat everyone on the schedule,” George said. “Is 5-5 what we wanted? Absolutely not. We didn't reach the ultimate goal of getting to the playoffs. I think it was a learning experience for the returning players to see the seniors come close and not make it.”
George said the Cougars will be boosted by a better understanding of the systems used and by the coaching staff becoming more familiar with one another and the players.
“The players know now the system better,” George said. “When they first learned the system, they were limited in what they could do. Now it has been a full year. We have been in the weight program. We have been in conditioning. We have gone to seven-on-sevens. I think we will see the benefits of those things this year.”
The Cougars will use two quarterbacks in 2012 as juniors Freddie McKissick and Kevin Schuster share the responsibilities. McKissick was the likely starter at the end of the 2011 season after playing backup as a sophomore but tore his labrum in the offseason. Schuster was put into the quarterback role during the offseason and his development is noticeable according to George. When McKissick came back to the team able to play, the coaching staff decided to give both players time under center.
“My shoulder is feeling alright,” McKissick said. “I have been working hard to get it back to 100 percent.”
Instead of pushing McKissick into a full-time role, George said the coaching staff decided to use both gunslingers. In case McKissick needs to rest his arm, Schuster will be able to come in and not miss a beat.
“It can be frustrating as a quarterback to not be able to throw as much as you would like,” George said. “The last thing I would want to see is (McKissick) damage his shoulder trying to do too much too soon.
No matter who will be taking the snaps, they will have several talented receivers to throw to. Senior Ryan Williams recorded 290 yards and two touchdowns last season. Senior Seve Rodriguez returns after getting some experience last year. Senior Mike Latimore will be a new face in the receiving corps but George said he has had a great offseason and has a great vertical leap.
“We also have two tight ends who are an option with (junior) Devin Miller and (junior) Mike Brunner,” George said. “We didn't use tight ends last season but this year we have a formation for out tight ends where they become receiving targets.”
The biggest returning player on offense may be senior running back Nick Lang. Lang was a workhorse for Carlynton in 2011 rushing for 1,005 yards and adding 208 more receiving.
Lang led the Cougars in touchdowns with 12.
“(Lang) is the kind of player who makes you feel secure in calling the run,” George said. “He will get the yards you need and a little more. I see him having a great year. The ultimate goal is to see him go on and play college ball.”
Lang's season was put into question when he tore his ACL in the offseason. But the senior rebounded and is ready to pick up where he left off last season.
“It is a nice stat to have,” Lang said on hitting 1,000 yards. “But the personal stats don't really matter to me. I just want to help the team get the win.”
Lang will have several talented backups in 2012. Junior Evan Ban is similiar to Lang in running styles and is able to find yards on the ground if Lang needs a rest. Sophomore Dale Rybacki has been filling in the fullback spot. And freshman Isiah Canton has had impressive showings in the Cougars' scrimmages.
The running attack will go as far as the offensive line allows it. The line returns three starters from last season with sophomore Mike Griffin returning at center after gaining 30 pounds in the offseason. Juniors Michael Walkowiak and Joey Martin return to tackle and guard, respictevely. The team will break in first-year starters junior tackle Jesse Pigoni and junior guard Christian Franchick. While the line was young in 2011, their teammates have noticed the improvement from a season ago.
“The line is the most improved area of the team,” McKissick said. “They really stepped up during the offseason.”
George said he has been happy with how the line has progressed over the offseason but says they still need to get better. As they get experience, the second-year coach sees big things for the young group of lineman.
“We are doing pretty well as a group,” Walkowiak said. “We have gotten to know each other a little better. We are still missing assignments so we need to learn to communicate a little better.”
The defense will be looking to limit big plays in 2012. George said he was overall pleased with how the defense performed last season — until a big run or pass play swung the momentum into the opposing team's favor.
“We would look good and then one big play would cost us,” George said. “That is where the focus has been. We have looked good in stopping the run on defense and we have a lot of kids back from last season.”
To help limit big plays, Lang was moved from linebacker into the defensive secondary.
He will join returning starters Ban, Williams and Rodriguez in what is the most experienced unit on the defense.
With Lang moving to the secondary, the linebacker corps took a hit.
The team does return starter Rybacki. George said that Griffin and Brunner have both looked impressive during the offseason and are likely to handle linebacker duties.
The defensive line will be boosted by the return of defensive ends Walkowiak and Franchick.
The Black Hills Conference was by the WPIAL's realignment and has easily become the SEC of Class A. The conference saw Avella and Bentworth leave the conference and replaced by Bishop Canevin, California and Monesssen — who all reached the Class A playoffs last season. Imani Christian also joins the conference for its first season in the WPIAL.
Other teams in the conference include Brentwood, Chartiers-Houston, Clairton, Fort Cherry andSerra Catholic.
The addition of the three playoffs teams gives the conference seven teams out of 10 that were in the 2011 WPIAL Class A playoffs.
“You would have to be blind to not see this is the best conference in Class A,” George said. “The experience of the conference will help the teams that make the playoffs. They won't go into the postseason and get smacked one of the giants.
“A lot of the giants are right here in the conference.”
The 10-team conference will give the Cougars a unique WPIAL season.
The Black Hills Conference is the only division in the WPIAL to have a nine-game conference slate. Every game will effect a team's playoff hopes.
The Carlynton players said they are up for the task on conquering the conference.
Instead of looking at it as a daunting task, they are looking at the season week-by-week.
“It doesn't matter to us,” Walkowiak said. “A game is a game.”
“We always come out and play hard no matter who we are playing,” Lang said. “You never want the L next to your name.”
It is this attitude that will help the team as they progress through the season. Instead of looking at the past or at the future, the Cougars are looking ahead to their opponent each week as they look to reach the postseason for the first time since 2001.
“We want to get to the playoffs,” Lang said. “We want to win the WPIAL. We want to shock the world.”
The Cougars start the season on the road Friday as they travel to Fort Cherry. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m.
Nathan Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-388-5813.