Heritage Conference breakdown: Northern Cambria looks to challenge Ligonier Valley
Ligonier Valley coach Roger Beitel said he doesn’t know what two Heritage Conference coaches didn’t pick his team to finish first in a preseason poll.
He just told his players to assume all the coaches picked against them.
The two-time reigning Heritage Conference, Appalachian Bowl and District 6 Class 2A champion Rams are ready to go for a three-peat in 2018.
They did receive eight of the 10 first-place votes and two second-place votes in the preseason coaches’ poll. Northern Cambria received the other two votes.
“We’ll just use it as motivation,” Beitel said. “It is nice that the majority of the coaches did recognize what we’ve done the past few seasons.”
While the Rams graduated a lot of talent and experience from the 2017 team that outscored opponents 453-26 in the conference, the well isn’t dry. In fact, the Rams could match those numbers.
“We’ve played 29 games the past two seasons, and a lot of players got extra work,” Beitel said. “That’s going to benefit us.”
Offensively, the Rams will be led by senior wide receiver Aaron Tutino and senior quarterback John Caldwell.
Tutino caught 55 passes for 1,030 yards, rushed for 317 yards and scored 24 touchdowns. Caldwell became the fulltime starter in Week 5 after sophomore Sam Sheeder was lost for the season with a knee injury.
Sheeder is back, but he’ll be used in a similar fashion as Jackson Daugherty was a year ago. He’ll line up in the Wildcat, at running back and will split out wide at receiver.
Beitel said he expects the defense to be strong again and his secondary will be strong.
Northern Cambria returns a backfield that rushed for more than 2,000 yards in 2017. The Colts return eight starters on both sides of the ball.
Quarterback Mark Marino, who rushed for 719 yards, will have a choice to give the ball to Ben Vasil (830 yards) or Logan Onskt (537). Marino also threw for 479 yards and seven touchdowns.
Northern Cambria coach Sam Shutty said he expects to challenge Ligonier Valley for the conference title.
“I think we’ll be a contender,” Shutty said at Heritage/WestPAC Media Day.
West Shamokin, which like Ligonier Valley is in Class 2A, was picked third and will rely on quarterback Ty Lightner and running back Dan Goldstrohm to lead the way.
Homer-Center finished second to the Rams in 2017, but it was hit hard by graduation. Veteran coach Greg Page lost his top two running backs in Jesse Lee and Mike McCracken, who combined to rush for more than 2,500 yards.
Sophomore quarterback Ben Schmidt, who helped lead the Wildcats to the District 6 Class A title and a trip to the state championship game, will lead the squad.
United returns six offensive starters and five defensive starters. The Lions will count heavily on junior quarterback Kyle Silk, who passed for 492 yards and five touchdowns and rushed for 914 yards and 12 scores.
If teams key on Silk, sophomore running back Hunter Cameron, who rushed for 772 yards and 10 scores, can carry the load.
Blairsville ended the season with a win in the WestPAC crossover game. The Bobcats return senior quarterback Devin Burkhart and two receivers -- junior Garrett Henigin and Adam Ratkus.
Burkhart completed 95 of 214 passes for 1,569 yards and 15 touchdowns. He also had 12 interceptions.
Henigin caught 23 passes for 241 yards, Ratkus had 14 catches for 313 yards.
Penns Manor, Marion Center, Saltsburg and Purchase Line also are looking to improve on last season.
1. Ligonier Valley (14-1)
The Rams have won consecutive Heritage Conference and District 6 Class 2A titles. While the Rams have lost some great offensive talent over the past two seasons, the team is bigger and faster.
2. Northern Cambria (7-4)
3. West Shamokin (5-6)
4. Homer-Center (13-2)
5. United (4-7)
* RECORDS FROM 2017
Northern Cambria, sr., QB
This dual-threat quarterback passed for 479 yards and seven touchdowns and rushed for 719 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2017.
Ligonier Valley, jr., OL/DL
This two-way tackle is getting interest from colleges at every level. He’s a two-year starter and worked during the offseason to improve his strength.
Homer-Center, so., QB
The Wildcats had two 1,000-plus-yard rushers, but Schmidt still put up solid numbers. He completed 74 of 133 passes for 1,099 yards and eight touchdowns.
United, jr., QB
This junior dual-threat quarterback rushed for 914 yards and 12 touchdowns and completed 40 of 114 passes for 492 yards and five scores.
Ligonier Valley, sr., WR/DB
He caught 55 passes for 1,030 yards and 16 touchdowns. He also rushed for 317 yards and five touchdowns and intercepted six passes.
8.24 Ligonier Valley at Homer-Center
The top teams from the conference in 2017 square off in the opener. Both were District 6 champions: Ligonier Valley in Class 2A and Homer-Center in Class A.
9.7 Blairsville at Saltsburg
These rivals are in the same school district and are coming off one-win seasons in the conference.
10.12 Northern Cambria at Ligonier Valley
These teams were picked 1-2 in the preseason coaches’ poll, and this game could decide the conference title.