For Rick Conner, the “math” didn’t look good.
Before practice began in August, the Linganore football coach looked at the roster of the previous season, and after making a quick tally, he found out exactly how many impact players he’d lost. Sixteen of 22 starters from a team that played in its second straight Class 3A state final had graduated, so his outlook for the future was fuzzy at best.
But as he evaluated his team during the first week of practice, Conner discovered his cupboard was far from bare.
“When you’re actually out there, the math is better than you thought,” Conner said.
That’s because several seniors who didn’t receive extensive playing time last season improved much more than Conner expected.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a coach [on my staff] tell me, ‘Hey, this kid’s 180 [degrees] from where he was last year,’” Conner said.
Harry Heitzig, Ryan Barthlow, Graeson Ruch, Max Ross, John Pfaff, Jose Amaya and Tim Hopkins are some of Conner’s “180 guys.” While Conner will have significantly more players receiving playing time on both sides of the ball than he did last year, the 180 guys are plugging holes he initially thought would be difficult to fill.
Heitzig was a backup quarterback last season but has made big strides as a linebacker. The Lancers particularly need impact players at that position considering they graduated Jackson Ambush, Michael Bromley and Joey Bromley, who formed one of the program’s best linebacking corps. Joey Bruscia, a hard-nosed fullback in the Lancers’ stable of running backs last year, Billy Higgins and Adam Everett are among the linebackers who will try to fill what Conner calls “big shoes” in the defensive unit.
Heitzig and sophomore Timmy Conner, the coach’s youngest son, are sharing repetitions in practice at quarterback as the Lancers try to replace a three-year starter in Ryan Leyh, who now plays for Shippensburg.
“Both have live arms and make things happen,” Conner said.
They’ll throw passes to two players who started on last year’s defense in safety Will Coletti and defensive end Cole Mitchell, who will line up at wide receiver and tight end, respectively. Meanwhile, 6-foot-4 Matt Schiller, who suffered a knee injury in Week 8 last season, has returned to full health.
At running back, Linganore may have lost a four-year varsity player in Davon Butler, but the Lancers’ offense hummed along just fine when Butler missed the first six games of last season. Johan Samayoa, a senior this season, received most of the carries in Butler’s absence, and junior Xander McClure also received significant playing time in the backfield.
The Lancers seem to be formidable on the offensive line, returning two starters in junior Scott Hummel and senior Dustin Keith, who has attracted attention from various college football programs for his play as a defensive lineman. But Conner raves just as much about Ruch, Hopkins, Jeremy Hilton, Kai Hardisty and Cameron Jenkins.
“[Ruch has] been as good as anybody in camp so far,” Conner said.
Ruch is also part of a defensive line that may be the strongest unit on the team with the likes of interior linemen Keith and Nick Vance, and defensive end Mitchell also returning. Conner says Barthlow, another defensive end, “may be as athletic as anybody we have on our team,” while Amaya, Chase Shultz and Frank Dickenson give the Lancers quality depth in the middle of the line.
Meanwhile, safety Ben Musselman and cornerback Brady Domroe return alongiwith Coletti, and Conner said Ross, Samayoa and Zach Keisling have “really created some positive competition in the secondary.”
Coletti was on the field last November in Annapolis, when Franklin’s Simon Spath kicked a 29-yard field goal as time expired to deal Linganore a 17-14 loss. He called it “the worst feeling I’ve had in both my sports.”
“We definitely have a chip on our shoulder,” Coletti said. “It’s the same goal every year. We go in, and hopefully we come out state champions.”
Last spring, Coletti was part of a Lancer boys lacrosse team that, like the 2019 football team, lost a strong collection of talented players. Regardless, the boys lacrosse team advanced to the Class 3A West region title game. He sees similarities in the two teams.
“Everybody’s probably going to think we’ll be average,” Coletti said. “I think we can take on everyone in the county, in my opinion.”