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2001 season preview:
Farrell looks for junior class to guide '01 Steelers
By Ed Farrell
Herald Assistant Sports Editor
Typically, scholastic football teams' senior nucleus is the foundation upon which preseason aspirations become postseason ambitions. That's not necessarily the case at Farrell High, where a 13-member junior class is expected to steer the Steelers' successful season.
"We're looking for our junior class to carry the team,'' summarized 22-year mentor Lou Falconi (177-63-5), third all-time in Herald coverage-area annals among county coaches in terms of wins.
Running back-linebackers Allan Claiborne, Jason Marshall and Justin Odem, 2-way tackle Frank Holloway and lineman Justin Nicastro will lead the Steelers, augmented by Sharon transfer Dan Wiley, who could see action at tight end, tackle and defensive end.
"It's early yet,'' Falconi cautioned. "But this group of kids reminds me a little bit of the group in '95, the first year we won the state title. The junior group that year included kids like (Dante) 'Bucky' Newell, Sim Harrison, Carlos Daniels, Chico Pinkins. ... Player for player, I don't think these kids are quite as talented, but we've been saying right along, we think we might have enough talent to possibly win a state championship. It won't be easy, that's for sure. But if we get the pieces together ... ''
Last season, Claiborne rushed for 744 on 124 totes (6 yards/carry), an average of 67.6 yards/game for a Steelers' squad that amassed 2,510 yards rushing while finishing 7-4.
The smaller senior corps will be led by 2-way tackle Brian Sanders, " ... who's really improved from last year,'' according to Falconi, defensive backs Ken Avery and O'Bryan Lampkins, guard/defensive end Steve Williams, and wideouts Brandon Chambers and Torlando "Petey" Craig.
The lone starting representative of the 14-member sophomore class will play a pivotal part, as Brian Dungee assumes the quarterback position filled last year by Craig.
"(Dungee) might be the only one that's started as a sophomore from the very get-go, from the beginning of the season. This could be the first one,'' Falconi said of his sophomore signal-caller. "Brian Michael's a real athlete, we have a lot of confidence in him,'' Falconi gushed. "He's still a little immature -- he's only a sophomore, so he has to grow up quick -- and although 'Petey' Craig is a good athlete and he played quarterback the whole year last year, I just think we're better off with Brian. Even though he's inexperienced at quarterback, I just think he can do things a lot better, especially throwing the ball. We've gotta have a pass threat -- we can't run the ball every play (Farrell amassed only 424 passing yards last year) -- and I think Brian gives us that.''
Dungee has become the protege of second-year assistant coach Louie Falconi and new assistant Frank Antuono. The younger Falconi will handle play-calling responsibilities for his father in an unprecedented decision during the elder Falconi's tenure. Antuono played under legendary Joe Fusco at Westminster College and served as Neshannock's head coach for seven seasons.
"Right now, we're a little bit stymied on a couple positions,'' Falconi, Sr. admitted. "We don't have that many kids and we're trying to get the 11 best people on the field and sometimes that's hard to do because you don't know what position to put them at. ... Defensive and offensive lines we're really trying to piece together with the right kids. That's the biggest responsibility during your preseason: To find out who goes where. That's the most challenging thing, and as a coach that's the part I enjoy a lot; trying to figure out who fits in where, fits in at the best position.''
Farrell forged back-to-back ('95-96) PIAA Class A crowns, and Falconi acknowledged, "Tradition is here, it's always been here,'' but admitted, "I'll tell you the truth, overall, athletic ability has decreased over the last four or five years and that kind of reflects the number of students that we're losing from year to year.
"Obviously, if your enrollment's going down, the number of athletes is going to decrease, also. Over the last two or three years we've really almost hit rock bottom with talent, especially if you compare the past years to the '96 and '95 teams. But now it looks like we're getting a little closer to that talent level, even though there's fewer of them.
"So we're very optimistic because of that. We kind of foresee a good football team here. The last three years I didn't see it and I didn't really expect it to be realistic, and we always try to be realistic here; we don't try to kid around or fool around. But we think we could be a good team this year, good enough to win a state title. But there's a lot of things that go along with that: No injuries, the number of people we have, the maturing process, the kids got to get better and mature and we've got to stay positive about a lot of things.
"I've always kind of known ahead of time that the last couple years, we weren't going to advance too far; I just knew that we didn't have enough. This year I think we've got enough, I think we can make this 'run.' ... I think playing those (Big 8 Conference) teams over the years that we can play with those people and win the games. Then you get into the (WPIAL) playoffs), I don't know how strong the other teams are, but I think we've got the proper ingredients on this team to overcome anybody from outside our conference. That's the biggest part of the challenge. And then you get into that western final ...
"I always think back to '95 and '96, you've gotta get a lot of breaks to make the run,'' Falconi forecasted " ... You've got to stay injury-free, and it's a once-in-a-lifetime thing -- we happened to do it two years in a row and that's something I'll never figure out. That's a hard thing to do.
"But I told the kids, five years has passed and it's our turn again. We've kind of been down-and-out here, but maybe this could be the last hurrah for my career. I haven't said for the last three years that we could win a state title 'cause I knew we didn't have it. But I am thinking we can and that's our goal and that's what we're talking about once again.''
Assistant coaches, in addition to Falconi, Jr. and Antuono, include Tony Retone, Tony Molinari, Frank Tamber, Brent Shrawder, Frank Galati, Ron Cromartie, Ed Turosky, Brian Sanders, Al Szakach and Stan Kennedy.
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