Kittanning has many holes to fill
Things aren't getting any easier for Kittanning's second-year coach Sam Panchik.
A season after inheriting a team depleted by graduation losses, Panchik finds himself in much the same boat this year.
The Wildcats return two offensive starters and four defensive starters from last year's squad that shocked the Greater Allegheny Conference by sneaking into the playoffs with 2-4 conference and 3-6 overall records.
"It's almost the same exact situation," Panchik said. "We have to replace a lot of people, especially on the offensive line."
Kittanning returns one starter on its offensive line, guard Arley Cone. And when you run a wing-T offense like the Wildcats do ...
"Inexperience up front is real big, especially for our offense. It's going to take some time for our offensive line to gel," Panchik said.
That isn't the only problem the Wildcats have with their front five.
"We have no depth," Panchik said. "We have to stay healthy up front. If we have any injuries, we're in trouble."
Look for Arley's twin brother Abe to play the other guard position, while Adam Riggle or Brandon Davis will take over for departed all-conference center Travis Crawford.
A host of players will battle for the two tackle spots.
But there is good news for Kittanning's offense. Despite its inexperience and lack of depth up front, the Wildcats' backfield is loaded with talent.
"We have some good backs and we have a lot of depth," Panchik said. "Our backs will be our strength."
Kittanning welcomes back fullback Scott Shepard, who was third on the team in rushing last season.
"He's faster and stronger than he was last year," Panchik said.
Halfbacks Brad Bothell and Joe Acerni both saw action last season and should see plenty more this year.
According to Panchik, Kittanning has six or seven other players that could carry the ball this season.
"Our offense is going to be the same as last year," Panchik said. "We'll try to be balanced, but we believe in the running game."
Kittanning will also have a new man under center this season, as junior Jeremy DeLuca takes over for the departed Zach Cogley.
DeLuca has never thrown a varsity pass, but has been a quarterback in Kittanning's system since junior high and is prepared for the challenge.
"He knows the offense, he's athletic and he has a great attitude," Panchik said. "Once he gets some actual game experience, he'll be fine. He can do it."
DeLuca, who will be handing the ball off and running more than anything, will have several new targets to throw to. Kittanning graduated its top three receivers and has only two returning players that caught a pass last season.
The Wildcats up-and-down season a year ago could have been a lot worse if it wasn't for their defense. Kittanning took eventual WPIAL and PIAA champion Hopewell to overtime in the first round of the playoffs a year ago.
But, more importantly, the team's defense kept it in games longer than it probably should have been.
"Our strength last year was our defense, and it will be our strength this year until the offense catches up," Panchik said.
Kittanning returns a host of players that saw action on the defensive line last year, including Abe Cone and Tanner Adams.
But the glue that holds Kittanning's defense together is middle linebacker Joe Acerni, an all-conference performer last year. The 5-11, 220-pound junior led the team in tackles last season, and Panchik expects much of the same this year.
"He's our unquestioned leader," Panchik said. "We expect a lot of good things out of him."
Sean Crissman returns to the defensive backfield, the only experienced player in the secondary.
Special teams is another question mark, although kicker Brad Bothell and punter Scott Haslett have experience.
"Last year raised the bar a little bit," Panchik said. "We want to get back to the playoffs. The kids know they can do it."