Portage and North Star have played some close, dramatic games for more than a decade, with the Mustangs’ 13-10 comeback road win last season the latest chapter.
Cougars coach Stacy Schmitt appreciates how the two programs elevate their game for each other and show mutual respect.
Schmitt also knows the Mustangs have had his team’s number in a string of close contests.
“We’ve had some classic battles. Every year it’s us and Portage,” said Schmitt, whose Cougars visit Portage in tonight’s season opener. “I look for this to be another great football game.”
Portage was a decided underdog last season in Boswell but managed to produce a series of big plays on offense and defense in a win that sparked an enthusiastic celebration.
“All the years in coaching I’ve been involved in a number of close games with Portage,” Schmitt said. “We’ve come out on the wrong end of the stick a lot of times. We’ve had some great games against them. Seven or eight years ago they kicked a field goal in the freezing cold at Portage and we lost by (three) points. There have been a lot of great games.”
Portage has defeated North Star in 10 consecutive games dating to the Cougars’ most recent win in 2000 (34-28).
But the series isn’t as one-sided as the record would indicate. Five of the Mustangs’ wins were by eight or fewer points, with two decided by three points.
“It’s definitely going to be a great game. They’ve got a great program and great players,” Porage coach Gary Gouse said. “It’s been a battle between us the last couple of years. It’s been an exciting football game and I don’t think this is going to be any different.”
Last season North Star was considered a favorite in the WestPAC with a strong cast led by Division I recruit Tony Strasiser, a 6-foot-6 receiver. The Cougars finished 10-3 as District 5-A runner-up.
This time, Portage is the coaches’ preseason selection to win the conference, picking up seven of nine first-place votes after a 9-2 season and 6-A playoff appearance.
The Mustangs’ running game is led by junior Caleb Kephart and seniors Scott Giles and senior Chris Onder. Kephart ran for 1,195 yards and 15 touchdowns as a sophomore.
“We have some good playmakers like Caleb and (quarterback) Luke Dividock,” Gouse said. “We have more this year than in the past. We’ve got to let those guys make the big plays.
“Caleb is just so explosvie. You can throw him a little swing pass or screen pass, it looks like nobody’s blocking and the next thing he’s 70 yards down the field. He has that knack for taking it.”
Schmitt respects the ground attack.
“We have to stop their running game,” he said. “We’ve got to keep them from controlling the ball. They seem like they have a very strong defense this year so we’ll have to find a way to put some points on the board.”
North Star also has a deep backfield with junior Shawn Costas back after gaining 826 yards, and senior Thomas Miller coming off a 793-yard season. The duo combined for 1,619 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. Junior Zac Maluchnik also has emerged as a back.
“They’re going to be a running team. They’ve got the horses to do that,” Gouse said. “We’re going to have to force them into third-and-long. That’s our goal. Put them in a situation where they can’t use the run to their advantage. That’s where we have to win the battle. That’s where the battle will be won.”
A large crowd and big-game atmosphere is the norm in Portage, where the historic, stone stadium is complemented by a large video scoreboard.
“It will be packed. Opening night at Portage is huge,” Gouse said. “Our scoreboard and video board, that whole atmosphere and our band and our community, it’s a great place to play for anybody, even away teams like the atmosphere. It’s a fun place to play, no doubt.”
Berlin Brothersvalley at Conemaugh Township
The defending District 5-A champions will have to replace graduated Drew Glotfelty’s rushing production – 2,012 yards, second-best in the area. Also missing are four linemen and quarterback Blake Miller from an 11-2 squad that shared the WestPAC crown.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the Mountaineers will miss a step on offense. If Berlin successfully rebuilds its line, there is plenty of talent to put up yardage. Sophomore back Braden Fochtman gained 500 rushing yards last season even though Glotfelty carried the bulk of the workload. Taylor Cahill ran for 285 yards last season for Township before his family moved to Berlin, where he should see action in the backfield and at linebacker.
Senior Nick Stockwell is a threat at wide receiver. Senior E.J. Custer and sophomore Brentson Harding moved into Miller’s quarterback spot.
Township began camp with a light roster of 30 players. Senior quarterback Bruno Rosa passed for 1,164 yards and rushed for 336 more last season. Senior Jake Formica, who is 6-1, and 6-2 junior Luke Maurer present some big targets at receiver for the Indians, who went 3-7 last season, ending a string of five consecutive playoff appearances.
Last season: Berlin 41, Conemaugh Township 6.
Shade at Windber
Shade had a breakthrough season last year, going 6-5 and making the Panthers’ first District 5-A playoff appearance since 1989.
The Panthers must replace some key members of that team while preparing for a difficult Week 1 task at Windber Stadium.
Versatile senior Nash Walker will move into the quarterback position and be counted on for athleticism and leadership. Senior middle linebacker B.J. Spangler was among the area leaders with 142 tackles in 2012.
Windber will run the single wing offense for a ninth straight season. The Ramblers went 9-3 and made the 5-A semifinals a year ago.
Senior Devon Tomlinson will take over at quarterback while twin brother Dan Tomlinson is back after rushing for 580 yards and 13 touchdowns and catching 17 passes for 388 yards and four scores.
Dustin Blough gained 862 yards and averaged 8.7 a run as a junior.
Last season: Windber 20, Shade 6.
Meyersdale at Blacklick Valley
Third-year quarterback Blake Ray will be the man in the Nanty Glo spotlight this season after the graduation of Johnny Sheesley, who had 3,463 all-purpose yards and 173 tackles in three seasons before taking his talents to St. Francis University.
The Vikings defense looks to improve against the run after three conference opponents – Windber, Portage and North Star – each ground out 300-plus yards against Blacklick last season.
Meyersdale enters the season perhaps under the figurative radar, but the Red Raiders have the tools to make a statement.
Meyersdale returns 20 lettermen, with nine starters back on offense and eight on defense from a 1-9 squad.
Senior quarterback Lance Leydig returns, and senior running back-linebacker Gavin Berkey brings leadership.
Last season: Blacklick Valley 42, Meyersdale 7.
Bishop Guilfoyle at Bedford
Guilfoyle had six straight wins and rolled to nine victories while moving into the top tier of the conference a year ago.
The Marauders must rebuild an offensive line that returns only one starter to keep the trend moving forward. If the big guys come through, Bishop Guilfoyle will be dangerous with versatile quarterback Brandon Chadbourn, experienced back D.J. Kitt and play-making receiver Damon Rickens.
Bedford will be strong up front as the Bisons try to rebound from a 2-8 season. The Bisons return a bulky and veteran line on both sides.
Sophomore quarterback Austin Montgomery has experience leading the offense. Cody DeMoss, August Cook and Kody Blevins are backs.
Last year: Bishop Guilfoyle 42, Bedford 0.
Bishop Carroll at Bishop McCort
Bishop Carroll had a respectable finish to a 1-9 season with an upset over Class AAA Johnstown and close setbacks against Bedford and Westmont. The Huskies’ pistol will feature quarterbacks Dane Woo and David Maruca.
Bishop McCort had nine wins and reached the Class A title game a year ago.
The Crushers are counting on improving their running game as McCort hasn’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since 2009. McCort also will have a new quarterback, with junior R.J. Good, sophomore Blake Wade, freshman Levi Cook and senior Nemo Trexler in the mix during camp.
McCort built momentum at the end of the year, winning four straight before falling to Bellwood in the 6-A final. Along the way the Crushers ended Guilfoyle’s six-game winning streak and had playoff wins over Penns Manor and Northern Cambria.
Last season: Bishop McCort 38, Bishop Carroll 18.
Cambria Heights at Richland
Cambria Heights’ historic 2012 season included a 7-4 record and the team’s first playoff appearance since 1998. The Highlanders also were among a select few LHAC teams able to stay close to Richland last year.
Much has been made about how many key players are missing from Heights’ playoff team, so tonight presents an opportunity for the Highlanders to make a statement with a solid performance.
Richland is the preseason pick to win the conference according to LHAC coaches. The Rams welcome back a 2,000-yard passer in Matt Shaffer, a 2,000-yard rusher in Tribune-Democrat Offensive Player of the Year Tanner Solarczyk and the area’s leading receiver in Kyle Flick.
The Rams defense also has a host of standouts back from a 14-1 team that won the LHAC and 6-AA while advancing to the state semifinals.
Last season: Richland 38, Cambria Heights 20.
Central Cambria at Somerset
New coach Bill Corrente takes over a team that went 2-8 last season. Junior quarterback Will Seymour fronts the wing-T offense. He threw for 730 yards on a team that scored only 83 points last season.
Somerset opened last season 5-2 but finished with four straight losses during a string of close setbacks. The Golden Eagles have seven starters back on offense and nine on defense. Quarterback Tanner Stull is a three-year starter and playmaker.
Last season: Somerset 30, Central Cambria 0.
Penn Cambria at Greater Johnstown
Penn Cambria simply dominated the Trojans a year ago, collecting 321 rushing yards and scoring five touchdowns while keeping the traditionally potent Johnstown offense off the scoreboard in Cresson.
The Panthers started 4-1 and lived up to preseason predictions putting them at the top of the conference. But Penn Cambria lost its next four games and finished 6-5 while enduring a late-season coaching change.
New head coach Jason Grassi welcomes back five starters on each side of the ball.
The Trojans dropped their final four games in a 3-7 season that has served as a motivator for this group.
A renewed commitment to the weight room has provided a lift for a team coach Tony Penna Jr. believes is among the fastest and strongest Johnstown has had in years.
Last season: Penn Cambria 38, Johnstown 0.
Purchase Line at Ligonier Valley
Ligonier has emerged as a perennial contender in the Heritage Conference, so even though the Rams return only nine letterwinners and a handful of starters, expectations are high for a team that went 10-2 and won its first District 6-A playoff game.
Ligonier counts on 6-foot-7, 242-pound Alec Bloom, a University of Connecticut recruit, as well as veterans such as senior quarterback Scott Fennell and fullback Dereck Croyle.
Purchase Line is coming off a 2-8 season in which the Red Dragons allowed 281 points while scoring only 133.
The Dragons won two of their final four games, including the finale against Conemaugh Valley, 40-6.
Last season: Ligonier Valley 47, Purchase Line 0.
Northern Cambria at Penns Manor
The Colts pulled off a stunning upset last season, beating the visiting Comets by six points in the opener.
Northern Cambria went on to an 8-4 record and a trip to the 6-A semifinals. The Colts return six starters on each side of the ball from that playoff team. Senior quarterback Dartagnan Suchar had some experience playing behind graduated QB Jeff Hogan. Suchar is a solid runner.Joe Frontino, Derek Baker and Nolan Paronish are backs.
The Comets look to continue their winning ways after the graduation of standout quarterback Danny Ferens and a strong supporting cast of playmakers.
Last season: Northern Cambria 28, Penns Manor 20.
Chestnut Ridge at Central
Central returns a talented group of skill position players from an 8-3 team.
Quarterback Austin Cunningham passed for 1,406 yards and 14 touchdowns, and ran for 809 yards and 10 scores in 2012. Bradi Moore had 914 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns to go with 638 receiver yards and 10 scores. Austin Conrath ran for 508 yards and five touchdowns. All three are seniors.
Chestnut Ridge has 6-5, 222-pound senior quarterback Beau Bosch back after he ran for 1,302 yards last season on a 6-6 team. Bosch is a Lafayette recruit who also passed for 640 yards and accounted for 116 points in 2012.
Last season: Central 51, Chestnut Ridge 20.
Mike Mastovich is a sports writer for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/masty81.