The name of the school isn't the only thing that changed this year at Kennedy Catholic High School. Most of the names in the football team's starting lineup are new, as well.
As Kennedy Christian last season, the team rolled to a 9-2 record and won the Mercer County Athletic Conference Class A championship. The Eagles, however, lost a heart-breaking 14-7 decision in the PIAA District 10 championship game to arch-rival Sharpsville. Making the loss even worse, coach John Turco had to say good-bye to 15 seniors.
Key losses included running back Justin George, former track 200-meter state champ who despite battling injuries rushed for 1,551 yards, and Nick George, the team's top receiver and No. 1 interceptor at safety. Justin received a football scholarship at Southern Illinois University, while Nick signed with Clarion University. Unfortunately, Nick George was killed in an auto accident only days before graduation.
Other senior losses included almost the entire line of Galen Hurl, Joe Canciello, Greg Shaffer, B.J. Jarrett, Eric Eshenbaugh, Angelo Hall and Josh Cotelesse; quarterback Ryan Squatrito; fullback Brian French; linebackers Nick Artis and Tony Rossi; defensive back Aaron Friday and placekicker Cameron Vernon.
Despite the inexperience of some of the players, Turco feels this team has a chance to make an impact both in the league and during a toughened-up non-league schedule.
"We didn't block very well in our first scrimmage (against Hickory), but we have a lot of new kids who have to get used to playing together," said Turco. "They have to have faith in each other to do that. But that's a matter of chemistry. Hopefully by the first game, that chemistry will be there. This is a hard-working group of kids, one of the hardest we've ever had in our eight years here."
While the line may be green, it doesn't lack in size, averaging about 250 pounds. And some of the backs aren't much smaller. Senior running back Phil Doyle, who missed much of last season with a knee injury, is 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds.
"He's the heir-apparent to Justin George," said Turco. "Our fullback will carry the ball 12-15 times a game, also," referring to three junior candidates in Marcus Russell, Justin Snyder and 240-pound Erik Rice.
Quarterback will be last year's back-up QB and part-time running back Danny Harris, a junior who has impressed Turco thus far.
"Harris is vastly improved at quarterback," he said. "He takes command like he's already a senior. With Danny, we plan to roll out and run more options this year."
Wingbacks include seniors Matt Cascio and Matt Carothers or Russell, while receivers are seniors George Revere and Rick Whalen. Tight end candidates are senior Sean Messett and sophomore Jeremy Dunlap.
On the big front wall are: tackles --- senior Chris Simon and junior Jake Dougherty; guards -- senior Tommy Malone or juniors Andy Wilds and Mike Tuscano, and center, junior Adam Cwynar.
Defensively, slated for action on the line are Wilds, Simon, Malone, junior Ernest Cottle, sophomore Jonathan Jennings and senior Pat Connelly. Linebackers are Doyle, Cascio, Carothers, Russell or Snyder. Backs are Harris, Revere, Messett or sophomore Zac Zuschlag.
Speaking of his defensive strengths, Turco commented, "Doyle can be a dominating player and Cascio is coming into his own and should be a force at outside linebacker. The defensive backs are all returning starters, so they should do nicely."
Doyle has been listed preseason honorable-mention All-State in one high school football publication.
Senior Steve Hough returns to handle kickoffs, while sophomore Elijah Pearce may kick extra points and some field goals.
"They are on loan from the soccer team," said Turco, who is also impressed by junior punter Jordy Farrell, who boomed a 70-yarder in the Hickory scrimmage.
As far as defending their 3-team MCAC Class A crown, Turco realizes it will be difficult.
"Sharpsville is the team to beat," said Turco. "They were a (state) Final Four team last year and they return a lot. I think the quote after last season was they 'Would own single-A football next year.' And I think West Middlesex is returning about 15 starters and is expected to be good."
Kennedy toughened up its schedule by adding two additional Catholic schools, Pope Pius X of eastern Pennsylvania and St. Thomas Aquinas of Louisville, Ohio.
"Pius X was ranked as high as No. 2 in the state last year and was in the top 10 all season. St. Thomas Aquinas returns 17 starters and they were 7-3 last year," Turco said, pointing out that Pope Pius X of Bangor, Pa., is coming to Hermitage, but it is a 1-year contract.
"It's too expensive to travel that far for a football game for us," said Turco. "I'd rather spend the money on fixing up the facilities here.
"Right now we're re-doing our whole (field house) lockerroom, thanks to the school and donations from the Penn-Ohio Football Club."
The veteran coach pointed out that a tough schedule can make a team better for the postseason playoffs, but also can make it more difficult to get there: "The (District 10) playoff committee is supposed to take into consideration strength of schedules and you hope they would. But there have been years we were 5-4 and I felt we were better than French Creek (Valley Conference) teams that were 8-1 and they got in."
Assisting Turco on the coaching staff are Joe Kenneally, Al Boggia, Archie Donofrio, Joel Giroski, Chris Joseph and Jon Stevens.
"One big plus for us this season is that we have coach Kenneally in the school (as the new dean of students)," said Turco. "In eight years, we've never had a coach in the school. And coach (Joel) Giroski was hired to teach at St. Joseph's School. St. Joe's is one of our big feeder schools."
Turco said another big part of the feeder program is the start of a 7th-8th grade team to be coached by former Kennedy head coach Neil Gargano, who started the Keystone Catholic Firebirds program for younger players a couple of years ago. But it will now include a team for junior high-age players.