He hadn’t even touched a football, and Josh Gontarek already had his doubts.
Then 8 years old, Gontarek had just joined the Winfield Cavaliers’ higher-level 8-and-under youth football team. But he didn’t get to enjoy the new experience with many of his good friends, who were placed on the instructional-level team for the Carroll County-based program at that age group.
“I was about to quit, honestly,” Gontarek said in a phone interview Wednesday.
While a long touchdown run on Gontarek’s first-ever play from scrimmage started a growing love affair with the sport, the 2014 Linganore grad found himself in another world of doubt more than a decade later.
Because of an arrest stemming from marijuana possession, Gontarek was dismissed from the University of Albany football team in the fall of 2015. He tried for more than two years to latch on with another college team.
“I didn’t want to give up, and I’m not the type to ever give up, but sometimes it’s time to move on — not necessarily give up but move on, and that’s what I was about to do,” Gontarek said.
Out of the blue, his long-awaited second chance materialized when he fielded a call in July from newly appointed Shippensburg University offensive coordinator Jesse Correll, who knew all about Gontarek’s reputation for being a high-level athlete at Linganore and Albany.
Having not caught a pass since Sept. 26, 2015, Gontarek improbably went from someone who was oh-so-close to putting football in his rearview mirror to the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year.
While catching 74 passes for 1,097 yards, Gontarek showed some of the eye-popping athleticism that made him one of Maryland’s best high school receivers. In the process, Gontarek has revived thoughts of achieving his ultimate goal: playing in the NFL.
Gontarek earned Colonial Athletic Association Freshman of the Year honors at Albany in 2014, but his collegiate career took an abrupt turn with his arrest the following season. He retreated to Frederick County, opting to enroll at Frederick Community College for the Spring 2016 semester. Early that year, Correll, then the passing game coordinator at Shepherd, reached out to Gontarek and expressed an interest in adding Gontarek to the team.
Gontarek, who had visited Shepherd and attended games there in the past, was on board. However, in both 2016 and 2017, Correll said, Gontarek encountered some issues by not having accumulated enough college credits to enroll.
During the first year of Correll’s pursuit, Gontarek thought that attending Shepherd at some point was almost a foregone conclusion. But as the 2018 calendar year rolled along, his enthusiasm started to wane. He leaned on a support group that included his mother, Helen; his longtime youth coach, John Weaver; and his aunt, Brandy Moran.
Helen Gontarek consistently checked up on Josh’s academic performance at FCC, where he worked toward obtaining an associate’s degree.
“I made sure, no matter what, if he couldn’t play football anymore, he was still going to school to get his degree,” Helen said.
Helen also recalled Correll making numerous phone calls to Josh and imploring him to not “give up because you’ll regret it if you just quit.”
“He’s been playing ball since he was 8,” Helen said. “I didn’t want that to happen.”
Gontarek was in the process of completing his associate’s degree when Correll tracked him down and looked into the possibility of Gontarek joining Shippensburg.
Everyone involved was racing against the clock.
Correll recalled Gontarek’s final class at FCC taking place in mid-August, and training camp for the Raiders began on Aug. 10. Correll also remembered Gontarek having to occasionally grind through a practice and then drive back to Frederick to attend class.
“It came down to the last week before the [first] game, really, before they finalized that he was going to be eligible to play,” Correll said.
When Gontarek started practicing, he soon realized there’s a difference between being in shape and being in football shape.
“After my first practice, after getting hit a couple times, I wasn’t getting blown up or anything, but my body was sore because I hadn’t taken hits in a while,” Gontarek said. “It was a little rough the next day.”
It would have been worse if he hadn’t diligently trained on his own. He didn’t spend too much time in the weight room, citing a need to avoid adding bulk so he could remain “quick and agile.” But as he waited for his second chance at college football, he regularly used the stadium at Linganore High, running about a mile before slipping on his cleats and running some wide receiver routes on the turf.
“It’s hard to simulate live football by running on a track or running routes and being in the weight room,” Correll said. “It’s not really simulating exactly what’s happening on the field, where you have to break tackles and be hit and things like that.”
Back to his old self
Gontarek set a goal of reaching 1,000 receiving yards for the season, but the performance he turned in during his first game initially gave him some doubt. He caught a touchdown pass in a win over Clarion, but for Gontarek, four receptions for 30 yards seemed pedestrian.
“I was like, ‘Dang, is this still for me?’” he said.
His outlook changed after spending more time with his coaches and teammates over the next two weeks. By the third game of the season, a loss to California, Pennsylvania, Gontarek put up the kind of numbers he’d become accustomed to at Linganore and Albany: eight receptions for 109 yards and a touchdown. It marked the first of five 100-yard receiving games.
“I started getting used to the game again, and it was like I never left,” Gontarek said.
He started performing like his old self. For Correll, that means showing a unique ability to track the football in the air and then outjumping a defender or twisting his body in such a way that gives him an advantage while fighting for the ball. Correll routinely saw the highlight-reel catches last season, and he said Gontarek played about half the season with a fractured wrist.
“The thing that was crazy about him is he would do things where everybody on the sideline would just turn and just look at each other and couldn’t understand how that just happened, how he caught that ball as opposed to celebrating that he caught it,” Correll said. “We just looked at each other like, ‘Did you see what just happened?’”
Looking to the future
Gontarek has long dreamed of playing in the NFL, and Correll believes that drive to compete for balls in the air may just be his ticket. Correll expects NFL scouts on hand at Shippensburg games to evaluate Gontarek during his senior season.
“There’s going to be things that will hold him back a little bit, and there are going to be things he will excel at,” Correll said. “The NFL is looking for that full-package guy.”
Regardless of what happens in the future, Gontarek can also accomplish another goal through his education at Shippensburg, where he is majoring in business administration. Earning his bachelor’s degree will make him just the second member of his family to do so at a four-year college.
“Obviously, I regret some of the things I did [in the past], and I wished I made other decisions,” Gontarek said. “But it has changed me as a man and made me a better person.”
—Sophomore running back Percy Agyei-Obese (Oakdale) played in every game for James Madison, receiving most of his playing time on special teams. He did rush for 168 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries, and he caught three passes for 47 yards.
—Sophomore linebacker Tyler Clemmer (Middletown) amassed 19 total tackles, including 4.5 for loss, two sacks, one pass breakup and one forced fumble for the Coast Guard Academy (7-3), which enjoyed its winningest season since going 8-2 in 2007.
—Junior running back James Early (Middletown) ran for 210 yards and three touchdowns on 61 carries, for USMMA (8-2), which tied a single-season record for victories. The Mariners ended the season with a 38-22 win over Endicott in the New England Bowl. Another former Middletown player, sophomore linebacker Garrett Johnson, played in every game, collecting six tackles.
—Sophomore defensive lineman Austin Farinholt (Walkersville) played in 10 games for Salisbury (8-3), totaling 23 tackles, including three for loss, 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble. Another former Lion, sophomore Chad Gleason, rushed for 118 yards on 11 carries.
—Junior quarterback Sean McGaughey (Oakdale) played in eight games for Widener (4-6), completing 94 of 168 passes for 1,179 yards and 13 touchdowns with nine interceptions. Another former Bear, freshman defensive back Ben Simonica, played in every game, finishing with 22 totals tackles, including 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack.
—Junior linebacker Gary Ramey Jr. (Linganore) was the second-leading tackler for Bridgewater College (6-4), finishing with 51 total tackles — 9.5 for loss. He collected four sacks, forced two fumbles and broke up two passes. Like Ramey, junior linebacker Braden Thomson (Catoctin) played in all of the Eagles’ 10 games, amassing 21 total tackles, including half a sack, an interception and two pass breakups.
BOYS SOCCER NOTES
—Junior forward Abel Ameyaw (Frederick) was the fourth-leading scorer for Davis & Elkins (5-9-2), with two goals and two assists.
—Junior Colin Anderson (Urbana) made 15 starts for George Washington (5-9-3), while spending time at midfielder and on the back line. One of his two assists led to the game-winning goal in a 1-0 win over New Jersey Institute of Technology.
—Freshman defender Kyle Bankey (Tuscarora) started 16 games for Shepherd (1-17), playing a team-high 1,455 minutes.
—Junior defender Alex Eiben (Brunswick) earned third-team United Soccer Coaches All-South Atlantic Region honors for Salisbury (11-4-3). Eiben anchored a defense that posted a 0.75 goals-against average. His teammate, sophomore forward Josh Woozley (Middletown), collected two goals and an assist over 16 games.
—Junior midfielder Brian Flatter (Oakdale) scored a goal in the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) Division II championship game, helping Lock Haven beat Salem 3-0 to claim the title. Flatter started every game for the Bald Eagles (8-7-3), tying for the team lead in both goals (eight) and assists (six). Three of his goals came in one match — a 5-5 tie with Seton Hill during which Flatter converted on three penalty kicks over a 10-minute span to erase a three-goal deficit.
—Junior Joe Gula (Oakdale) started every game for State University of New York-Plattsburgh (6-9-3), logging the second-most minutes (1,672) on the team.
—Junior defender Will Miller (Middletown) made 19 starts for St. Mary’s College of Maryland, helping anchor a defense that allowed just 16 goals all season. The Seahawks (12-4-4) advanced to the Capital Athletic Conference championship match before dropping a 1-0 contest to top-seeded Mary Washington.
—Freshman forward Spencer Shortt (Walkersville) collected a team-high seven assists for Millersville (10-4-6), which earned an NCAA Division II tournament berth by beating West Chester in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference championship match. Shortt also scored twice for the Marauders, which had won just one other PSAC title in school history. Millersville fell to the University of Charleston (West Virginia) 1-0 in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
—Junior forward Clay Smith (Middletown) ranked second in the MAC Commonwealth in goals (11) and points (27) for Hood (8-8-1), which lost to Rutgers-Camden 2-0 in the first round of the ECAC tournament. Smith landed on the All-MAC Commonwealth first team. Senior midfielder Matt Viti (Catoctin) started every game for the Blazers. Junior midfielder Brandon Feuerherd (Brunswick) made 14 starts, scoring one goal.
GIRLS SOCCER NOTES
—Senior forward Juliana Evans-Anfom (Thomas Johnson) was the leading scorer for Guilford College (6-10), collecting three goals and four assists. On Sept. 22, her penalty kick in the 85th minute gave Guilford a 2-1 win over Eastern Mennonite.
—Freshman forward Haley Barge (Linganore) scored two goals over 13 games for Franklin & Marshall (3-12-1).
—Sophomore midfielder Emma Bernardoni (Walkersville) started every game and piled up a team-high five assists at Shepherd (5-8-5). She and freshman defender Madison Michael (Middletown) each scored two goals.
—Freshman forward/defender Abbey Burdette notched an assist over 16 games for Tennessee (16-3-3), which advanced to the NCAA tournament quarterfinals before suffering a 2-0 loss to top-seeded Stanford.
—Freshman goalkeeper Maddie Cunningham (Linganore) allowed just three goals over 10 games for Gettysburg College (8-5-4), recording a .923 save percentage, five shutouts and a 3-2-3 record.
—Senior forward Danielle Ferris (Linganore) scored two goals over 13 games for Frostburg State (5-11-1), while sophomore forward Emily Lehman scored once over 17 games. Senior goalkeeper Rhianna Lapen (Linganore) made 14 starts for Frostburg State (5-11-1), compiling a 3-7 record with a 1.49 goals-against average and a .761 save percentage.
—Sophomore defender Ines Garofolo (Linganore) started 17 games while freshman midfielder Ashley Yurich (Linganore) made 15 starts for St. Mary’s College of Maryland (8-11-1), with Yurich scoring one goal. Also, freshman midfielder Katelyn Hart, a home-schooled student who hails from Monrovia, played in all 18 games, registering a goal and an assist.
—Junior forward Montanna Hill (Linganore), who played for two seasons at Coastal Carolina, was the fourth-leading scorer at the University of South Carolina-Upstate (11-9), amassing four goals and four assists.
—Junior midfielder Hannah Hoefs (Linganore) led Loyola-Maryland (6-10-1) in scoring, collecting six goals and four assists to earn third-team All-Patriot League honors. Hoefs’ 16 points tied for third in the Patriot League, and one of her best moments included a 71st-minute goal that carried the Greyhounds to a 1-0 win over Army.
—Junior midfielder Madison Karch (Oakdale) started every game for Greensboro College (17-1), amassing four goals and four assists.
—Sophomore forward Meredith Lapen (Linganore) played in 16 games, scoring one goal for Philadelphia University (7-10-1).
—Sophomore forward Amirah Louketis (St. John’s) played in every game for LaSalle (8-8-1), scoring twice and adding an assist.
—Senior forward McKenzie McCaull (Linganore) made 16 starts for Towson (4-12-3), finishing with a goal and two assists. Junior midfielder Liz Coletti (Linganore) played in every game and had three assists.
—Sophomore defender Susie Midla (Urbana) played in 20 games for Swarthmore (17-3-2), which advanced to the NCAA Division III tournament round of 16 before suffering a 2-0 loss to Middlebury.
—Junior forward Erin Scarborough (Middletown) was the leading scorer for Hood (5-11), tallying six goals and adding an assist. Sophomore midfielder Grace Weaver (Linganore) scored a goal over 15 games.
—Freshman forward/midfielder Caitlin Shepherd (Urbana) played in 19 games, scoring four goals for High Point University (5-10-4).
—Sophomore goalkeeper Delaney Shifflett (Frederick) started 16 games for Shippensburg (7-10-1), going 7-8-1 with a 1.22 goals-against average and an .863 save percentage. She posted four shutouts.
—Senior midfielder Annie Marshall (Oakdale) and freshman defender Jessie Titus (Thomas Johnson) each scored a goal for McDaniel (14-5-1), which claimed the ECAC Division III tournament title by winning four matches over a nine-day period. Junior forward/midfielder Allie Titus (Thomas Johnson) saw action in 19 games.
—Freshman midfielder Maddie Tchou (Urbana) tied for the team lead in scoring with nine points at Mount St. Mary’s (5-9-3).
FIELD HOCKEY NOTES
— Sophomore midfielder/forward Sam Coffey (Urbana) led Frostburg State (2-17) in scoring with six goals and two assists. Her teammate, freshman forward/midfielder Rylee Johnson (Tuscarora) added a goal and an assist.
—Freshman forward Marietta Cordero (Brunswick) started every game for Hood (1-17), while senior forward ALonna Soward (Frederick) made 14 starts.
— Sophomore midfielder/defender Michaela Nelson (Urbana) scored one goal over 14 games for Goucher (8-7).
— Junior midfielder Kristen Perret (Tuscarora) scored two goals over nine games for Belmont Abbey (6-10).
—Junior goalkeeper Emma Provost (Middletown) made 13 starts for LaSalle (8-10), going 5-5 with a 2.14 goals-against average and a .694 save percentage while notching two shutouts.
— Redshirt freshman forward Marina Rupinski (Linganore) scored a goal over 16 games for James Madison (6-12).
—Junior midfielder/defender Ali Williams (Middletown) was the third-leading scorer for Appalachian State (7-14), ranking second on the team in goals (eight) while tacking on two assists. Her teammate, freshman midfielder Anna Smarrelli (Linganore), played in every game for the Mountaineers.
—Forward /midfielder Tess Queen (Middletown) started every game for Syracuse as a freshman, scoring a goal and ranking second on the team in assists (five).