RIDGWAY, Pa. — Many District 9 football teams find themselves in a similar position this year as they replace key players who graduated with new faces, but despite the uncertainty, coaches from across D9 gave their takes on who will be among the league’s best.
The coaches’ poll, taken at the annual District 9 Media Day on July 31, has four Big 30 teams ranked in the Small School Division, and one other in the Large School Division.
In the Small School North Division, Coudersport is the favorite while Smethport checks in at No. 2 and Otto-Eldred at No. 3.
All three of those teams reached the District 9 playoffs a year ago, and each has a reasonable expectation to be in the mix again this year.
Coudersport finished 8-5 overall in 2018, which included three consecutive wins in the District 9 playoffs to capture the Class 1A crown and reach the PIAA quarterfinals.
But the Falcons will have to find suitable replacements for leading rusher Stephen Kelly and three of last year’s starting offensive linemen — Elijah Ayers, Wyatte Osborne and Preston Cobb.
While the Falcons are retooling on offense, the Coudy defense will feature much more returning production, as 10 players who started at some point in the 2018 season are back.
With the return of so much defensive experience, along with the return of junior quarterback Hayden Keck, expectations for the Falcons are still high. Statewide outlet PennLive has the Falcons ranked ninth in Class A entering the 2019 campaign.
SMETHPORT, meanwhile, checks in at No. 2 in the North Division, according to D9’s coaches.
The Hubbers will feature a different style than last season’s bruising team that romped through the regular season undefeated and finished as runners-up in the District playoffs and an 11-1 overall record.
That team, which had 11 players named to the North Division all-star team, six to the Big 30 Charities Classic and four to the Varischetti All-Star Game, graduated its top two rushers, Nate Hollowell and Blake Kinner, as well as three offensive linemen.
That will result in a smaller, speedier and more athletic Hubber offense in 2019, according to head coach Adam Jack.
The defense boasts a little more experience, with six starters returning from last year’s squad, including three in the defensive backfield.
FINALLY, Otto-Eldred is fresh off a third consecutive District playoff appearance and a 5-5 regular season record.
Now, under second-year head coach Troy Cook, the Terrors will look to build on that. O-E returns six starters to each side of the ball.
Offensively, quarterback Cole Sebastian is back after leading District 9 in passing yards, touchdown passes and completion percentage. He racked up 1,957 yards, 21 touchdowns and completed 162 of his 275 passes for a percentage of 58.9.
On defense, the bulk of the returning experience is in the defensive backfield with three players back, but the front line features two returners as well.
In the Small School South Division, Curwensville is the preseason favorite, while Elk County Catholic and Redbank Valley round out the top three.
Elk Catholic is the reigning regular season South Division champion and went 7-2 in the regular season last year before a first round loss to Curwensville in the District 9 Class A playoffs.
The Crusaders bring back five players on each side of the ball, including quarterback Mason McAllister and running back Stephen Bobby, and head coach Tony Gerg is entering his seventh year at the helm.
Defensively, ECC’s experience is scattered, with two players back in the secondary, one back in the linebacking unit and two back up front.
FINALLY, in the Large School Division, Clarion was chosen as the preseason favorite, while Ridgway and Brookville are No. 2 and No. 3, respectively.
Each of those teams made the District 9 Class AA playoffs a year ago, and Ridgway was the eventual champion and finished the year with an 11-2 mark.
The Elkers bring back plenty of experience at the skill positions on each side of the ball, but will be retooling quite a bit in the trenches, particularly on offense.
The good news for Ridgway is that its defense can always be counted on to keep the team in games while the offense sorts through any potential issues up front. Last year’s unit allowed just 10 points per game prior to the team’s 56-14 loss in the PIAA quarterfinals against Wilmington, who finished as the AA runner-up.
Pennsylvania kicks off its high school football season on Aug. 23.
(Joel Whetzel, a Bradford Era sports reporter, can be reached at email@example.com)