In the WestPAC this season there are two new coaches – at Rockwood and Ferndale – and two others returning to the top spot at Conemaugh Valley and Shade.
But it was the schools that have been the perennial powers in the league that received the most votes from fellow coaches as teams to watch during Monday’s WestPAC media day held at Portage Stadium.
With nine of the 11 schools represented, the host Mustangs were the first-place selection on seven of the ballots. Defending District 5-A champ Berlin Brothersvalley and Ferndale Area received the other first-place votes.
Overall, Windber received the most votes, being tagged as second or third on eight of the ballots, with North Star and Meyersdale also receiving three and two votes, respectively.
Coach Gary Gouse, who begins his 34th season at the helm for the Mustangs, is cautiously optimistic after last season’s 9-2 campaign.
“Confidence is a good thing and this group plays with confidence,” Gouse said. “I feel good about that. On paper with the kids that we have, we should be good. But the underlining is that we have to stay healthy. We don’t have replacements of that quality. We have a great 11 on offense and defense, but our younger guys have to get ready to play.”
The Mustangs’ seniors in attendance on Monday are very enthusiastic about the prospects for their team this year.
“The team, the coaches and the town, they always expect a lot of us coming out here on Friday night,” said Portage running back/defensive end Scott Giles. “We are pretty much picking up where we left off last year and we have a lot of guys coming back that know what they are doing.”
Added guard/defensive end Joe Krisko: “I think we are possibly better than last year and I think we are going to be near the top again. Experience will be one of the biggest strengths of this year’s team.”
Tight end/middle linebacker Joe Randazzo said that Portage’s defense will be the top of the line.
“We are going to be bringing out A-game in every single game and try to shut out every single team that we play,” Randazzo said. “We always have a feeling we can do that.”
The Mustangs will find out what they are made of right from the start, opening the season with North Star and at Berlin.
The recognition of the Ramblers by the coaches and players in the conference is something that Windber players and coaches take in stride.
“They know the pressures of playing at Windber and we put pressure on them all summer and they know that the expectations are pretty high this year,” said coach Matt Grohal, whose team was 9-3 last season. “They’ve shown the work ethic this summer and if they carry it over into the fall I think we will be fairly successful.”
“It’s an honor to be considered one of the top teams in the area every year,” Ramblers wing/safety Dan Tomlinson said. “We just go out and try to live up to those expectations and play our hearts out.”
But as all the coaches and players know, it’s a long season and anything can happen.
“You can’t underestimate anybody in this league,” Portage’s Krisko said.