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Season Preview: Young EAHS Football Aims to Stay in the Mix

“We’re back.”

That was the thought running through the minds of every player on the Elizabethtown Area High School football team in 2018. Off the back of a high-powered passing attack on offense spearheaded by first-year head coach Andy Breault, the Bears finished 6-4 during the regular season and qualified for the Class 5A District 3 Playoffs, erasing a decade-long postseason drought.

However, once they fell 30-0 during a rain-soaked game at home against Governor Mifflin in the first round of the playoffs, the ride was over just as quickly as it began. It also signaled the start of a new era, as a large group of talented seniors had just played their final game in blue. 

Other head coaches might have felt immediate pressure to start planning how to better that result next season, but Breault doesn’t think that way. He and his assistants proceeded to gradually lift the roster, made up of a host of players with limited varsity experience, up during the long offseason.

“Any pressure we feel is self-inflicted,” Breault said. “We got some new additions to the coaching staff, and the kids are picking everything up really well. The competition’s there for us, and this team has the potential to do great things. We’re young, so you have to count on some mistakes, but hopefully, the timing of those mistakes won’t affect the outcome of the games.”

The first step was preparing a new quarterback. Cole Patrick was a monster during his senior season in 2018, leading the Lancaster-Lebanon League in passing with 2,687 yards thanks to Breault’s spread offense. He threw 26 touchdowns and was an honorable mention for the Section Two All-Star team as well. Replacing him will not be easy, but a plan for the future was in place from the get-go last year.

Enter sophomore Pat Gilhool, who spent his entire freshman year as Patrick’s immediate backup at QB. He only saw cursory snaps during garbage time under center, but at 6-foot-3, he fits the mold as a signal-caller, and his time spent as heir apparent under Patrick should be crucial for his development. Working with Breault, a former QB at Kutztown University regarded by many in the L-L League as a passing guru, is a plus too.

“I’m not really feeling any pressure now, but when I get to the moment, I might feel it a little,” Gilhool said. “Just looking out at the stands and knowing that I’m starting will be a cool experience. (Breault)’s helped me out a lot lately. The biggest thing has been my release point and not keeping it too close to my body. Whenever I struggle, he just tells me what to do and who to look for on the field.”

“He surprised all of us,” senior center Joe Sikora said. “He definitely did a lot better than anyone would think. He didn’t look like a sophomore.”

“Seeing him progress was definitely cool,” senior wide receiver Cole Rice said. “He obviously has a quarterback build, and I think with the help of Andy and us seniors, he has the potential to be great. He didn’t really start off slow, but he picked it up fast during 7-on-7s. Hopefully, he carries it into the season.”

“We’ve been practicing a lot with our timing for game-time situations,” senior Cole Hitz, another wideout, said. “It’s been a lot of me and him doing extra stuff one-on-one on the turf field. It’s just getting that relationship down so we’re ready for the actual games.”

“He’s shown a lot of poise,” Breault said. “He’s stepping up in the pocket and mostly throwing on time. Sometimes he’s a little late and not comfortable with all the routes, but he’s got a good grasp of what we’re doing so far.”

Patrick isn’t the only player who’s gone on offense. The Bears also lost first-team Section Two All-Star Cole Livingston, a powerhouse weapon who led the team with 1,064 yards from scrimmage and 19 total TDs, to graduation. Dependable wideout Alex Diahn (613 receiving yards, 6 TDs) and jack-of-all-trades tight end Dylan Sweger (426 receiving yards, 2 TDs), committed to play at Shippensburg University and Juniata College respectively, are gone, as is leading rusher Zach Frank (421 yards, 5 TDs). Junior Luke Pierson, who had a team-high 41 receptions in addition to 640 receiving yards and 5 TDs, will not be back either.

That leaves plenty of open spots across the field. Rice, who flashed as a receiver at running back with 128 yards and a TD on just 6 catches, will be moving to wideout full-time this season. Hitz (3 catches, 23 yards, TD) is the only other player who had significant time last year coming back on offense. The rest of the receiving corps will be filled out by the junior trio of Brandon Lewis, Elijah Reitmeyer and Bobby Walters.

“I think it’ll be a good challenge,” Hitz said. “I’ve been helping out the younger guys a lot. They’ll step up. Rice knew the playbook, so he pretty much got it down right away.”

“It’s my first year playing there,” Rice said. “I thought it’d be a little hard, but I have good teammates and coaches to help me understand the position and routes. Hitz has been helping me a lot. We have a lot of other athletes who can take the pressure off us and create mismatches on the field.”

Meanwhile, senior Leon Allen is set to be the starter at running back; he was third on the depth chart behind Frank and Rice last season, not getting a touch until the playoffs, where he ran for 23 yards on 8 carries. Breault praised his effort, saying Allen has “taken pride in what he’s doing.” Juniors Riley Drager and Cam Poulos will get opportunities to earn touches as well, while sophomore Brandonn Frey will take over at tight end for Sweger.

“It’s just preparing the younger guys who are stepping into those roles,” Breault said. “They’ve looked good through the offseason, so we’ll see what happens when we put the pads on. We’ll be going with the same philosophy: throw first, run second. We’ll see what the defenses give us; we were keeping the tight end in to block more once they started blitzing more.”

The defense also took some hits as well, though not nearly as much as the offense, as Breault will be shifting from a 3-4 front to a 4-3 one this year. The Bears lost Tyler Lanza (a team-high 147 tackles) and Frank (49 tackles) at linebacker but will get senior Adnan Traore back. He was second behind Lanza with 93 tackles and led the team with 4 sacks, making the second team for the Section two All-Stars. Allen (16 tackles, 3 sacks) and junior Gavin Gray (36 tackles) join him at playing on the defensive line in 2018. Walters, a special teams ace last year, figures to get some snaps as well.

Rice, who led the team with 8 pass breakups and was third in tackles with 71 at safety, will be the only starter returning in the secondary with the losses of fellow safety Pierson (50 tackles, 5 pass breakups) and corners Livingston (31 tackles, 5 pass breakups, 5 interceptions) and Amos Kollie (28 tackles). Hitz played well in relief last season, picking up 23 tackles; he’ll shift between safety and corner. A rotation of players, consisting of seniors Anthony Pagan and Kaidyn Heaps, as well as sophomores Braxton Cicero and Addison Johnson, will see time at corner too, as will Drager at safety.

“I’ve known the defense from the coaches, so I’ve been helping out,” Rice said. “Hitz knows a lot too from last year. We obviously have a young secondary, so it’s gonna be the two of us helping the corners and safeties learn.”

“I see a lot of Livingston in the younger guys, particularly in Cicero and Johnson,” Breault said. “They’re making their break on the ball like he used to. There were a lot of picks at the Juniata camp and here in practice.”

Where Elizabethtown is especially strong is in the trenches. They’ll be returning all three starting interior offensive linemen in Sikora (an honorable mention for Section Two All-Stars) at center, along with Traore and junior Jett Kelly at guard. Tackles Zach Kreider (a Lock Haven commit) and Jonathan Heisey graduated, but junior Billy McNitt got a lot of playing time in injury relief for the latter last season. Senior tackle AJ Miller is the lone new starter. The team even has the flexibility to shift Kelly out to tight end to allow Gray, a capable backup, to step in at guard.

“With Billy getting as much time as he did last year, we all have a good amount of varsity time under our belts,” Sikora said. “It’s just AJ stepping up, and he’s done a good job thus far.”

The Bears had a huge rotation on the defensive line, with as many as nine guys getting regular playing time in 2018. Only a handful of them won’t be back; Hunter Murry graduated, while seniors Elijah Eberly (39 tackles, 2.5 sacks) and Jacques Mortha (33 tackles) elected not to play. 

Still, the four returning players who will be starting have plenty to look forward to. Senior Tristan Mabee (26 tackles) was a surprise honorable mention for Section Two All-Stars; he and Kelly (31 tackles) will act as the defensive ends, while Sikora and McNitt will be in charge of stuffing the run in the interior.

“We all have experience, so it should be no problem,” Sikora said. “We’re a close-knit group. Everyone just picks each other up and looks up to each other.”

“They all have their own strengths, so it’s up to us to use them accordingly,” Breault said. “Both sides of the ball are looking pretty good on the line thus far. You don’t have to tell the group up front the same thing over and over; you tell them what to fix once, and it’s fixed.”

Junior kicker Cade Denlinger (4 for 5 on field goals, 30 for 36 on extra points) made the honorable mentions for Section Two All-Stars last season; he and fellow junior Isaac Thomas currently plan to split punting duties, replacing Lincoln University commit Collin Hudak. Rice was also an honorable mention at kick returner. One thing working against Elizabethtown is its schedule; after having six home games in 2018, the Bears will be on the road six times instead this season.

“It’s something we don’t have too much control over,” Breault said. “It’s already done. We just have to play our game and do our thing whether it’s at home or somewhere else.”

Are back-to-back playoff appearances possible for Elizabethtown? It’s an interesting question. The Bears will be in the thick of a crowded Section Two, arguably the most difficult in the L-L League due to stalwarts Manheim Central (the Class 5A District 3 champ and state runner-up) and Cocalico (the district runner-up). Lampeter-Strasburg looks to be competitive as well.

On the other hand, both Solanco and Conestoga Valley experienced similar graduation losses to Elizabethtown, perhaps worse, while Garden Spot is in the midst of a long-term rebuilding effort. The Bears’ non-section games include a tough outing against Conrad Weiser and toss-ups vs. Donegal, Dover and Penn Manor.

Last season may have been the perfect storm for the team. But if the younger players are able to step up and the roster avoids the injury bug this year, the Bears could easily find themselves back in the postseason. If they want that to happen though, they’ll have to grind for it.

“I think we’ll be able to do it,” Gilhool said. “It’ll be tough, but we have the players to be able to get back there.”

“I feel like we put ourselves back on the map last year,” Hitz said. “We have some holes to fill, but I think these younger guys are gonna help us stay where we need to be.”

“Section Two’s obviously one of the toughest,” Rice said. “We’re looking to do the same this year, if not better. It’s a young team, but there’s potential in all of them.”

“We’ll take one game at a time,” Breault said. “Of course, we want a winning record first. Winning section and getting to districts and states can come after that. A lot of these teams get to the playoffs if they stay healthy, so that’s what we have to do to stay in the right direction.”

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