DUKE CENTER, Pa. — They accomplished phase one of their plan last fall.
After a pair of standout seasons in which it won two Allegheny Mountain League North Division titles and reached the District 9 playoffs in both instances, the Otto-Eldred football team maintained much of that momentum in Year 1 under Troy Cook, going 5-5 in the regular year while making a third straight trip to the postseason.
The 2018 campaign wasn’t without its flaws.
“We kind of hit a few roadblocks along the way,” said Cook, whose team dropped four straight — three in blowout fashion — after a 3-1 start. “We had some injuries that reset the lineup a little bit; it took us a few games to get our feet back under us after that. But we had a strong finish to the season and made the playoffs.”
In that way, the Terrors were able to sustain the success achieved under previous coach Nick LaBella. Entering 2019, Cook and O-E don’t want to merely meet that same standard; they want to exceed it.
“Otto-Eldred, as far as we know anyway, has never won a playoff game,” Cook said. “As far as we’re concerned, as a coaching staff, as a team, that’s going to be the overall goal of the program until it happens. We think we have a solid group; hopefully we can accomplish that this year.”
MAKING A fourth straight playoff appearance and trekking as far as the D-9 semifinals won’t be easy.
The Terrors lost one of the key classes to that three-year run, including big-play receivers Chase Sebastian and Chris Connelly, the latter of whom doubled as the District 9 Small School North Defensive Player of the Year, and linemen Trey Lee (the D-9 co-Defensive Lineman of the Year) and Brady Valerius.
The cupboard is far from bare, however.
Though O-E welcomes back just nine letterwinners, six of those were regular starters, including quarterback Cole Sebastian, who returns after winning the job as a sophomore, one of the team’s top overall athletes in receiver Cameron Magee and defensive back Colton Gietler. And, three years after returning to respectability, the Terrors feel as though a winning culture has been established.
“We did lose a lot of seniors; guys that kind of helped build the program to where it is,” Cook acknowledged. “We have some spots to fill, but I really feel like those guys that left did a good job of getting the next group ready.
“Last year, they did a good job of saying, ‘make sure you guys pay attention to this, this is what I’m seeing when I do this.’ Now that these guys are ready to step up in that role, they kind of have a head start because of what (last year’s seniors) contributed.”
A YEAR ago, behind the younger Sebastian, who threw for nearly 2,000 yards and 21 touchdowns, and three all-league receivers, the Terrors boasted one of the most potent passing attacks in the Big 30.
That component helped them average nearly 42 points in their five wins.
Admittedly, though, O-E might have been too dependent on the passing game — Sebastian attempted 275 passes, or over 27 per game.
This year, in an effort to be a more complete team, they’re looking to strike more of a balance with their running attack. To help with that, Cook brought in a new offensive coordinator in Nate Zitnik, who recently helped run the offense at both Port Allegany and Portville.
“Our philosophies match up really well, which has been good,” Cook said of Zitnik, who also serves as the Port A baseball coach. “He’s a guy that we can say, you take the offense and run with it, so it’s really been great.
“We have the personnel to throw it, but there were times last year where the running game was kind of non-existent. And when teams can kind of load up on one aspect or the other, it hurts you, for sure. We want to still throw the ball around a little bit, maybe move quicker than last year, but definitely get more of a run game going.”
Cook, whose team was projected to finish third in the six-team Small School North in the preseason coaches poll (where it finished last year), believes he has the makings of an offensive line to do just that.
“(BRETT) Kreamer stepped up for us last year,” the second-year coach said. “He had a lot to learn as he was coming in, but he did very well, was very strong and probably one of the best guards in the league as the year ended.
“Zaz Bell’s another one. (He) was all over the line for us last year, but he’s probably looking at center right now. He’s a consistent kid, a smart kid … somebody that can kind of take control of the offensive line and lead that group.”
Entering Year 2 in the D-9 Small School Division, Cook and the Terrors feel as though they’re in a better position now.
Not only are they a year removed from having to face the gauntlet of the old Allegheny Mountain League South, they’re more familiar with the interdivisional foes in their league, “the Redbank Valleys, the Unions, teams that we really didn’t know too much about (last year),” he said. “Now we have something to go off of.”
And though phase two of the broader plan under Cook involves winning that elusive playoff game (a year ago, O-E was handled by Clarion-Limestone, which has since merged with Clarion, 48-18, in the Class A quarterfinals), there’s a more immediate goal as O-E looks to build on last year’s 5-6 finish:
A road matchup with Port Allegany in Week 1.
“That’s the long-term goal,” said Cook, whose staff also includes longtime aide Boyd Fitzsimmons, Shawn Rounsville, Brian Freer, Tom Van Scoter and Ryan Nielsen, of the postseason. “Obviously, (right now) we’re doing everything we can to get ready for Port Allegany, so that’s what we’re looking at in the short-term …
“But overall as a program, looking down the road, a playoff win is really what we strive for every year.”
THE RETURNING starters:
Zazeric Bell, junior, 6-4, 230, line both ways
Brett Kreamer, senior, 6-3, 200, line both ways
Cameron Magee, senior, 5-11, 170, wide receiver/safety
Cole Sebastian, junior, 6-0, 160, quarterback/safety
Ethan Smith, junior, 5-10, 175, wide receiver/defensive back
Colton Gietler, senior, 5-9, 160, running back/safety
ALSO LETTERING were:
Josh Rhinehart, junior, 5-9, 175, wide receiver/linebacker
T.J. Van Scoter, junior, 6-2, 190, wide receiver/linebacker
David Wheaton, senior, line both ways
THE PLAYERS, by position:
: Sebastian, Brendan Magee (fr., 5-6, 115)
: Gietler, Chance Palmer (so., 5-7, 165), Isaac Shaw (fr., 5-9, 175)
: C. Magee, Smith, Jake Merry (jr., 5-10, 190), Rhinehart, Van Scoter, Noah Wichert (sr., 6-4, 180), Micah Jordan (jr., 6-1, 160), Clayton Holden (jr., 5-8, 125), Blaze Maholic (fr., 5-2, 90), Mathius Spinney (so., 5-9, 145), Alekzander Harmon (fr., 5-3, 95), Braden Maholic (so., 6-0, 170)
: Kreamer, Wheaton, Michael Hewitt (sr., 5-10, 150), Gavin Pearce (so., 6-1, 170), Cohen Walker (so., 6-0, 215), Brett Taggart (so., 5-8, 270), Killian Ramsey (fr., 5-10, 165), Drew Windsor (fr., 5-7, 150), Christopher Rounsville (fr., 5-11, 135), Zackary Sands (fr., 5-11, 175), Maxton Splain (fr., 5-7, 185), Gabe Forrest (fr., 5-7, 165)
: Bell, Jacob Coffman (so., 6-1, 225), Harris Bell (fr., 5-9, 170)
: Kreamer, Walker, Pearce, Coffman
: Bell, Wheaton, Hewitt, Taggart, Bell, Forrest, Rounsville, Sands
: Gietler, Merry, Rhinehart, Van Scoter, Palmer, Ramsey, Shaw, Splain, Windsor
: Magee, Sebastian, Smith, Wichert, Jordan, Spinney, Holden, B. Magee, Bl. Maholic, Harom, Br. Maholic
23 — at Port Allegany, 7 p.m. 30 — Redbank Valley, 7 p.m.
6 — at Cameron County, 7 p.m. 13 — at Union/A-C Valley, 7 p.m. 20 — Smethport, 7 p.m. 27 — at Bucktail, 7 p.m.
4 — Coudersport, 7 p.m. 11 — at Curwensville, 7 p.m. 18 — Sheffield, 7 p.m. 25 — Cowanesque Valley, 7 p.m.