Plum's returning lettermen eye bounce-back season
Plum head coach Frank Sacco took his team into the offseason last November hoping to see hard work from his returning players, as the Mustangs began the task of turning around a tough 2011 campaign.
A 1-8 overall record and an 0-6 mark in the Quad East conference marked a season of struggles and frustration that was compounded by injuries to several key players.
Through the tough three months of the season - from early August to the end of October - a number of young players, including freshmen and sophomores, stepped into starting roles. Those players, Sacco said, have the right attitude to starting turning things around.
"I was pleased with our offseason work," Sacco said. "You sometimes don't know how the kids are going to respond after a season like we had. But they are really dedicated to this season. Their attitude has been great. I can't ask for anything more."
The team still is young, as there are only 10 seniors on the 48-player roster.
"We're probably going to have seven or eight underclassmen on both sides of the ball," Sacco said. "Some got a lot of varsity experience, and some got less. It will be a test for them early, because we open right away with conference play. Some of these kids are going to grow up in a hurry."
Plum kicks off its season Aug. 31 at home against new conference foe Bethel Park.
Twenty-five returning players earned a varsity letter last season on offense, defense or special teams.
"They key for us again this year is staying healthy," Sacco said. "That is something we weren't able to do last year."
Senior Jake DiGuilio is Plum's lone returning all-conference player from a year ago. He earned second-team honors at linebacker.
DiGuilio, who enters his third season as a starter on both sides of the ball, led the team in tackles in 2011 with 53, and he made seven of those stops behind the line of scrimmage.
Offensively, he scored four of Plum's five rushing touchdowns and added one of the three receiving scores for the Mustangs.
"Jake's probably more in the role of a leader this year than ever," Sacco said.
"He's a little quicker this year, but he's not lost any strength. He's one of the strongest kids on the team. We're looking for him to play some tight end, because he has great hands."
A pair of quarterbacks have been in the running throughout preseason camp to replace the loss to graduation of three-year starter and 1,000-yard thrower Chris- topher Zdinak.
Senior Corey DeLoach, who played tight end last year and also got a little bit of varsity time at quarterback, started Saturday's scrimmage against Penn-Trafford.
Sophomore Will Fuhrer also has been in the mix.
"There are different positive attributes for both of them," Sacco said. "Corey has a little bit more experience in the offense. Will will be a really good one down the line."
Sacco said running back - with DiGuilio and senior Jeff Ruffing and sophomore Kyle Smecker returning - can be a team strength.
Sophomore tailback Joe DeFelice, Sacco said, has to potential to be a good player.
Senior Tevin Odom is hoping to increase his productivity at receiver after catching nine passes for 71 yards in 2011.
Sacco said another strength can be experienced offensive and defensive lines. The most letter earners among the returning players came from the groups that battle in the trenches.
Senior Matt Dombrowski; juniors Antonio Marasco, Steve Turchick, Kyle Tomasits, Chip Kress, Joe Rossi and Zach Freese; and sophomores Nate Turchick, Nate Kunkel and Nick Poprocky all earned varsity letter along the offensive or defensive lines.
Nate Turchick and Dombrow- ski recorded 21 and 18 tackles, respectively, last year.
Senior Sergio Rometo, a defensive end, is back after missing all of last season with a knee injury.
Ruffing, a returning starter at outside linebacker, finished third on the team in tackles last year with 22.
The secondary will be anchored by senior Nick DeLuca, who finished second in tackles last season with 28.
He will be joined in the defensive backfield by the likes of Smecker; junior returnee Zach Kuhn; and returning letter earners in sophomores Anthony Rende, Zach Martin and Phil Mahr.
"We'll be young in the secondary, but there is a lot of promise," Sacco said.
Also hoping to make an impact on offense, defense or special teams are letter earners in seniors Scott Heinz (running back/defensive line) and Brandon McCallum, junior Hunter Fenk (tight end/linebacker) and sophomore Nick Robb (running back/defensive back).
Senior letterman Dylan Kondis will handle the kicking and punting duties, while sophomore Max Barone, also a letter earner, is in the mix.
Sacco said senior wide receiver and defensive back Jai Major has the potential to make some big plays for the Mustangs.
"The young kids got a lot of experience, and you hope that translates over to less nervousness than they had last year," Sacco said.
"Some of them got thrown in there, and they may not have been ready (for varsity action), but they didn't back down. They fought hard, but sometimes, they were simply overmatched."
Conference realignment shook things up in Quad-A, and Plum will face new conference foes Bethel Park, Baldwin, Mt. Lebanon, Upper St. Clair, Canon-McMillan and Peters Township while again matching up with Woodland Hills and Penn Hills.
This year's schedule includes trips through potentially heavy Friday-evening traffic and construction areas on 376 to Baldwin, Mt. Lebanon, Canon-McMillan and Upper St. Clair.
"There's not a lot we can do about it," Sacco said.
"Traveling will be difficult, not only for us, but for the band, the cheerleaders and the fans. But all the teams in the conference are in the same situation, so we have to make the best of it."
Sacco knows what his team is up against this season.
"There are no slouches in this conference," Sacco said.
"It's going to be a grinder. You have Upper St. Clair who went to the WPIAL finals in Quad-A last year. Mt. Lebanon and Bethel Park are always quality teams. We know what Woodland Hills and Penn Hills produce each year."