Marple Newtown, Ridley and Springfield shared the Central League title in 2016. Garnet Valley finished one game back and Haverford was two games behind in the championship race.
The Tigers and Cougars, along with Strath Haven and Radnor, qualified for the District 1 Class 5A playoffs in the first year of the six-classification format. Ridley, Garnet Valley and Haverford reached the 6A tournament.
So don’t be surprised if the championship race comes down to the wire again, and involves multiple teams.
The question is, which teams will that be?
Well, let’s start with Garnet Valley. Mike Ricci has built quite a juggernaut in Concord and has one of the teams to beat in the league again.
Garnet Valley, ranked No. 5 in the PA Prep Live preseason Top 20, has three offensive linemen (center Tommy Mahoney and guards Jake Erley and Ryan Shomo) and two running backs (Matt Lassik and Danny Guy) returning from a team that went 12-2 overall and made a magical run to the District 1 Class 6A championship game, where it lost to North Penn.
Lassik and Guy combined for more than a third of Garnet Valley’s school-record 3,886 rushing yards a year ago. Lassik had 879 yards and 12 TDs on 141 carries, which included a 35-carry, 244-yard, four-TD performance in GV’s 44-27 win over third-seeded Upper Perkiomen in the district semis. Guy had 439 yards and five scores.
Springfield, ranked No. 14 in the PA Prep Live preseason Top 20, should be right there, too. Many believe the Cougars arrived a year ahead of schedule when they reached the District 1 Class 5A final last year. Head coach Chris Britton has a number of returnees including his entire defensive line from a team which went 12-2 overall and 8-1 in the league.
All-Delco Justin Shields leads that defensive line, which includes fellow seniors Derek Strain, Dan Pennestri and Kevin Deal. The Cougars pitched three shutouts last season and Garnet Valley and Academy Park were the only teams to top the 20-point mark against Springfield.
The Cougars have some weapons back on offense, too. Ja’Den McKenzie ran for 1,280 yards and 13 touchdowns en route to second team All-Delco honors. Philip Shovlin had 534 yards and four scores on 123 attempts. He earned All-Delco honors in track.
Don’t look past Marple Newtown, ranked No. 11. Anytime you have the best quarterback in the league coming back, you’re a threat to win the league title. Anthony Paoletti earned first-team All-Delco honors and, barring injury, will break the county record for passing yards in a career, which is held by his coach, Chris Gicking.
The University of Delaware commit threw for a county record 2,793 yards as a junior and needs 1,216 yards to break Gicking’s school and county record of 5,897 career passing yards. Paoletti, though, isn’t the only skill player back. Senior receiver Dash Dulgerian caught 42 passes for 888 yards and 10 touchdowns, and junior back Marlon Weathers ran for 1,130 yards and 17 TDs last season.
Dave Wood made a good impression in his first year as the head coach at Ridley. Wood guided the Green Raiders (11-2, 8-1) to a share of the title and a berth in the District 1 Class 6A playoffs for the first time since 2012. The Green Raiders, though, were decimated by graduation (33 players) and will be hard-pressed to repeat that playoff run from a year ago.
Keep an eye on Haverford, too. Head coach Joe Gallagher has a quarterback (Jake Ruane) who threw for more than 2,000 yards a year ago and an All-Delco wide receiver/linebacker (Jordan Mosley) who will play his college ball at Maryland in the Big Ten. Ruane threw for 2,119 yards and 16 touchdowns as a sophomore. Mosley was on the receiving end on 51 of those completions for a school-record 996 yards and 10 scores.
Upper Darby’s Derrick Korboi is among the other players to watch. He earned first-team All-Central League honors as an offensive and defensive lineman a year ago. Conestoga’s Jackson Niness earned first-team all-league honors on defense at linebacker and second-team as a tight end. All-Central linebacker Kyle Addis is back to lead Radnor.
One new coach joins the league. Andrew Pidgeon takes over at Penncrest. He was the offensive coordinator at Cardinal O’Hara last year. Pidgeon is no stranger to the Central League. He was an All-Delco quarterback at Ridley in 2008.
The 2016 Marple Newtown football season was one filled with superlatives.
“It was the most successful season in Marple Newtown history,” head coach Chris Gicking said of his 2016 Tigers’ 11-2 record. “We had a share of the Central League title for the first time since 1977, we had our first home playoff win in school history, and we (got) to the district semifinals.
“We had a great senior class, which left with the most wins in school history in three years – 25. And five of those players will be playing college football.”
There’s been no time to bemoan the fact that all those good things are in the past. Marple Newtown has been at work preparing to open its season Friday at the Wide World of Sports Complex in Florida, taking on Florida High of Tallahassee.
“It will be their second game of the season,” Gicking said.
After that, the focus will turn to the Central League opponents on the schedule, with Penncrest the first to visit and compete on the Tigers’ new turf playing surface.
“We’re working hard,” Gicking said. “We’ll try to replace the seniors that we lost the best we can. This is my fourth year, and this senior class came in when we as a staff took over.”
Gicking, who set the Delaware County record for career passing yardage (5,897 yards) while earning Delaware County Player of the Year honors at Marple Newtown in 1995, won’t mind seeing his record eclipsed this season.
Senior Anthony Paoletti (6-2, 210), who has committed to the University of Delaware, has thrown for 4,681 yards in his two varsity seasons. He broke the county single-season record with 2,793 throwing yards in 2016, when he accounted for 33 touchdowns – 25 in the air – and earned All-Delco honors.
“Last year was awesome, but we have to expect more this year and go after it,” Paoletti said.
Senior Dash Dulgerian (6-1, 210) caught 42 passes for 888 yards and 10 touchdowns, and junior Marlon Weathers (6-0, 185) picked up 1,130 yards rushing and had 17 TDs last fall.
Among the other returning Tigers are defensive linemen Kyle Tobin (72 tackles, seven sacks) and Mike Miller (56 tackles, six sacks), linebackers Al Katrakazis (52 tackles) and Luke Cantwell (50 tackles), and punter Reilly Fillman, who averaged 39.5 yards per kick.
“We really got into it last year,” Miller said. “We have to put things together again this year and try to go further than we did.”
The offense looks to returning linemen Kevin Hahn (6-4, 240), Mike Shelly (6-0, 250), Luke Zimmerman (6-0, 230), and James Diamond (5-11, 230) as well as running back Jack Fallows.
Among the newcomers are linemen Sean Standen (6-3, 260), Jimmy Geraghty (5-11, 200), Joe McMaster (6-1, 230), Liam Ferry (6-2, 210), Fotis Kotopoulos (6-1, 250), Sal Tartaglia (5-10, 200), Blake Turnier (6-2, 185), Jim Openshaw (5-11, 225), and A.J. Grosso (6-1, 230).
New faces on defense will include linebackers Mike Avellino and Tom Tobin and backs Jake Simpson and Cameron Leone. Alden Mathes and Seth Moyer can play quarterback, wide receiver and defensive back.
Among the other receivers will be Kevin Merrone, Colin Ferry, Luke Nichols and Joe Keffer, and Luke Jelus is a running back.
“Last year was awesome, especially seeing the way these guys have come along since they were playing for the Marple Junior Tigers,” Gicking said. “It was tough seeing so many good guys go, but we’ve identified the areas where we know we have to get better and hope everyone wants to have an even better season than we had last year.
“We lost in the district semifinals, so we came in expecting to work even harder if we want to take the next step and to get to the (district) finals.”
Florida High, Marple Newtown’s first opponent, is associated with Florida State University. Jarrod Hickman, in his 14th season as head coach at his alma mater, was a four-year starter in football, three-year starter and basketball and two-time state champion in the pole vault at the school. Among the school’s former players is Garrett McGhin, a 6-6, 327-pound starting offensive guard at East Carolina University.