For most coaches, having only 32 players on the roster, including five seniors, only one who had any significant playing time the year before, might be a cause for concern.
Not for Brian Cooper.
“We have about the same number as last year, but this year we are healthy,” Laurel’s fifth-year coach said. “They have made a big commitment through the summer, with at least 20 to 25 guys coming to every workout.”
What the team lacks in numbers, the Spartans sure make up in size. The top six linemen for Laurel, who all figure to see time on one or both sides of the ball, average 6-foot, 260 pounds. Those numbers figure to give the Spartans, who move from Class 2A down to the Big 7 Conference in Class A, one of the biggest offensive lines in the WPIAL’s smallest classification.
The coaching staff expects senior two-year starter Jack Rogan (6-0, 270) to have an big season anchoring the offensive and defensive lines. Sophomore Mitch Miles (6-4, 277) had a promising freshman campaign and has gotten stronger. Clay Miller, Alex Stanton, Rylan Collier and Shane Cross round out the group in the trenches.
Junior running back Danny Blank figures to be the top beneficiary of Laurel’s advantage in the trenches. The two-year starter is expected to share the backfield with sophomore Hayden Hamilton and freshman Luke McCoy.
Will Shaffer split time at quarterback last season with graduate Lance Hill. The 6-3 junior threw for more than 1,000 yards as a freshman, and then led the team in receiving last season. Shaffer is expected to spend the 2018 campaign solely at the wide receiver position. Dom Wade, who saw limited time under center a year ago, enters camp as the team’s starting quarterback.
With a team heavy in underclassmen, it’s a bit of “baptism by fire,” according to Cooper. A talented freshman class will be called upon early and often, some even going both ways. McCoy will see time in the backfield, as well as at linebacker, and fellow freshman Cam Caldararo is expected to see the field at both tight end and linebacker.
One of the seniors Cooper expects to make an impact after missing last season is Jesse Wright. The wide receiver/defensive back, who played his first year of football as a sophomore, was to have a significant role as a junior before suffering a season-ending injury in the preseason.
“It’s great to have him back,” Cooper said. “He is going to be good again, maybe even better.”
After sneaking into the playoffs a year ago with a 3-7 record, Laurel will look to rely on its youth and senior leadership to make a return to the postseason in Class A.
“Our underclassmen got experience due to injuries last year, and it is good to have those who were injured back and healthy,” Cooper said. “But that means they also lost experience from not playing last year.”
If those Spartans stay healthy throughout the season, that group of 32 might feel more like a group of 300 to the rest of the Big 7 Conference.
Coach: Brian Cooper
2017 record: 3-8, 2-5
All-time record: 323-248-10
Date, Opponent, Time
8.24, at Mohawk, 7 p.m.
8.31, Rochester*, 7:30 p.m.
9.7, Bishop Canevin*, 7 p.m.
9.14, at California, 7 p.m.
9.21, Clairton, 7 p.m.
9.29, at OLSH*, 3 p.m.
10.5, at Union*, 7 p.m.
10.12, Cornell*, 7 p.m.
10.19, at Sto-Rox*, 7 p.m.
10.27, at Northgate*, noon
*Class A Big 7 Conference game
Passing: Lance Hill*
62-139, 772 yards, 7 TDs
122-729 yards, 11 TDs
Receiving: Will Shaffer
32-294 yards, 4 TDs