No bubbling and no shortened schedule at the outset at least for District 9 football this year.
Although the effects of COVID-19 are still around us, it’s an otherwise normal start to a PIAA-mandated season that’ll include up to 10 weeks of regular season followed by the tradition postseason format.
District 9’s 23 teams got their seasons going Friday with 11 games while two games are scheduled for Saturday.
While there are no mask mandates or crowd limitations regarding sports this fall, the one variable bearing watching is how athletic teams, not just football, are able to deal with losing or not losing players who are deemed in close contact or “line listed” with someone infected with the COVID-19 virus.
If fully vaccinated, no quarantine is mandated as per Center of Disease Control guidelines. So theoretically, the more vaccinated a team might be, the more impervious its roster will be to losing players to quarantine.
As far as the football-only landscape goes, it’s back to the regular District 9 League format with the Large School and two Small School divisions with the addition of Bucktail from District 4 in the Small School South. The Bucks replace Curwensville, which bolted to District 6’s Inter-County Conference this year.
Friday, the Small School South gets going with Redbank Valley at Keystone, Elk County Catholic at Bucktail and Union/A-C Valley at Brockway. In the Small School North, it’s just one game with Cameron County at Coudersport. Saturday’s North games have Port Allegany at Otto-Eldred and Smethport at Sheffield.
Also Friday in the Large School, St. Marys hosts Ridgway, Bradford visits Brookville, Kane hosts Moniteau and Punxsutawney travels to Central Clarion County.
Two non-conference games are also Friday with DuBois visiting Clearfield and Karns City trekking to Girard of District 10.
Here’s a closer look at the matchups. All game times are 7 p.m. Friday night unless otherwise noted:
Bradford at Brookville
Raiders head coach Scott Park is back for his seventh season and this year sort of starts like last season ended with players sidelined due to COVID-19 issues. The Raiders had 12 players out for last year’s 16-14 loss to Karns City in the D9 Class 2A final while they’ll face Bradford Friday without six players due to COVID-19.
The Raiders, 7-1 last year, will start a new quarterback era with another Krug as sophomore Charlie steps into the spot held by his IUP-bound graduated brother Jack who threw for over 8,000 yards and 100 TDs in four years. Junior receiver/DB Brayden Kunselman is the leading skill player back from a squad that lost a ton, 14 seniors, to graduation.
Bradford coach Jeff Puglio’s team was winless last year at 0-7 and 1-9 in 2019 since the Owls’ last winning season at 6-5 in 2018. Senior Elijah Fitton will be the quarterback. He didn’t throw a pass last year, but led the team in rushing with 192 yards on 41 carries. Senior Nolan Gonzalez (44-138, 3 TDs) also returns. Senior Dalton Dixon (23-407, 2 TDs) led the Owls in receiving. Senior Ashton Smith, a defensive back, and Fitton, also a DB, were the No. 2 and 3 tacklers last year on defense.
Moniteau at Kane
The Warriors were 2-6 while the Wolves finished 2-4, so both teams look to reverse losing seasons. For the Wolves, Todd Silfies returns to coach the team after his first tenure produced three D9 titles from 2012-2017. The Wolves bring back senior Harley Morris, the team’s top returning rusher with 260 yards on 52 carries. Senior Jake Costanzo and Morris were the top two tacklers on defense. The Warriors don’t return any significant playmaker from a year ago.
Ridgway at St. Marys
With these teams playing twice last year with St. Marys winning both, 35-21 and 34-7, this will be the third meeting in five games for both teams. Ridgway finished 3-3 after a playoff loss to Brookville while St. Marys lost its playoff game to Clearfield to finish 5-1.
For the Elkers, seniors Camron Marciniak (38-170) and Eric Salberg (37-142) were the top two leading rushers while seniors Wil Howard (13-326) and Salberg (10-129) were the leading pass-catchers.
St. Marys senior quarterback Christian Coudriet threw for 1,576 yards and 19 TDs last year and he sits at 4,188 yards and 41 TDs for his career. His top returning receiver is Logan Mosier (19-317, 3 TDs). Senior Connor Straub and junior Waylon Wehler are the top returning tacklers on defense.
Punxsutawney at Central Clarion County
Central Clarion was 5-2 last year while Punxsutawney finished 1-7. The teams met twice last year with the Wildcats routing the Chucks, 42-6 and 49-14.
The Wildcats, with new head coach Dave Eggleton, has their leading rusher back in senior Breckin Rex (57-376) with senior Christian Simko (12-241) the top returning pass-catcher. Senior lineman Kaoz Baker led the team in tackles with 9.6 stops per game.
The Chucks ended a 23-game losing streak in their season-finale win over DuBois. Junior Seth Moore threw for 129 yards in backup action and will be the starting quarterback this year. Junior Zeke Bennett (138-419) is the top returning rusher while senior Alex Phillips (18-204) and Bennett (18-178) were the top receivers last year. Senior Justin Miller is the top returning tackler for head coach Alan Nichol’s team.
SMALL SCHOOL SOUTH
Redbank Valley at Keystone
The defending Class 1A champion Bulldogs are coming off their first D9 title season since 1996 along with a first-ever state playoff win over Northern Bedford before finishing 7-1. Head coach Blane Gold has his top rusher back in senior Ray Shreckengost (98-485), receivers in seniors Marquese Gardlock (17-270) and Chris Marshall (14-206), and junior Tate Minich (15-85). He’ll also pick from a trio of players to start at quarterback between seniors Gunner Mangiantini and first-year Bryson Bain, and junior Cam Wagner. Mangiantini and Wagner combined to throw for 903 yards and 16 TDs last year. All-state end Joe Mansfield is the top returning tackler on a defense that gave up just 61 points.
Keystone, 4-2 last year, has senior quarterback Brett Wingard back after throwing for 511 yards and five TDs. Most of the leading skill players graduated with senior Caleb Nellis (5-75) the top returning receiver. Nellis and Zander McHenry shared the team lead in tackles on defense.
Elk County Catholic at Bucktail
It’s roughly a 90-minute for the Crusaders as they open at new division foe Bucktail from District 4. The Bucks hail from Renovo, 30 minutes north of Lock Haven, and they haven’t had a winning season since going 6-4 back in 2012. The Bucks were 1-6 last year and return senior quarterback Dylan Cross, who threw for 240 yards. Cross and senior Zach Pick were 2-3 on the team in rushing with 375 and 262 yards respectively.
The Crusaders have a new coach in Nick Werner, who has a team hit hard by graduation. Junior Joe Tettis and sophomore Noah Cherry are the top returning skill players.
Union/A-C Valley at Brockway (7:30 p.m.)
The Falcon Knights were 5-2 last year, losing both by a combined five points in a 10-7 loss to Redbank Valley and 12-10 loss to Smethport in the D9 Class 1A semifinals. South Division Offensive MVP Caden Rainey is back after rushing for 178 yards on 27 carries and catching a team-high 24 passes for 285 yards. South Division Defensive MVP and returning linebacker Carter Terwint led the team in tackles.
The Rovers, 2-5 last year, and head coach Jake Heigel will have a former Rovers coach on the staff running the offense with Frank Varsichetti. They’ll have a freshman quarterback in Brayden Fox with the top returning skill players in running back Ezra Swanson (46-104) and receiver Austin Schmader (20-226).
The Falcon Knights beat the Rovers twice last year, 37-7 and 40-7.
SMALL SCHOOL NORTH
Cameron County at Coudersport
Frank Brown is the new coach for the host Falcons, replacing Tom Storey after last year’s 4-2 season that ended in the D9 Class 1A semifinals with a loss to Redbank Valley. The Falcons’ lone significant skill player back from last year is sophomore Gavyn Ayers, who rushed for 253 yards and 4 TDs.
The Red Raiders, 0-7, head into the season with 20 straight losses and five wins over the past six seasons. Senior Dylan Baney passes for 384 yards and four TDs while leading the team in rushing with 162 yards. Senior Devin Fowler caught nine passes for 95 yards.
Port Allegany at Otto-Eldred (Saturday, 1 p.m.)
The Gators were 3-4 last year, one of the losses a 40-30 shootout loss to the Terrors in Week 2. Junior quarterback Drew Evens threw for 1,156 yards and nine TDs. Two juniors, Blaine Moses and Noah Archer, led the team in rushing with 450 and 342 yards respectively. Archer is the top returning receiver with 29 catches for 351 yards.
The Terrors, 4-3, lost all of their top skill players to graduation. Senior Jacob Coffman is the top returning tackler on the defense.
Smethport at Sheffield (Saturday, 1:30 p.m.)
The Wolverines host the Hubbers as a revival begins of the Sheffield program that folded up after last year’s season-opening 86-0 loss to Keystone.
The Hubbers lost in last year’s D9 Class 1A Championship game to Redbank Valley. The North Division champions ran the table during the regular season before beating Union/A-C Valley in the semifinals to get to the final. Senior quarterback Noah Lent passed for 617 yards and 13 TDs while leading the running game with 813 yards and 11 TDs.
DuBois at Clearfield
The Beavers were 3-5 a year ago under first-year head coach T.J. Wingard. They’ll open with a non-conference matchup against longtime rival Clearfield, meeting the Bison for the first time since 2019. It’ll be the 108th meeting between the teams, who last met in the 2019 opener won 31-20 by Clearfield.
Beavers quarterback Cam-Ron Hays threw for 927 yards and four TDs while Austin Mitchell (26-135) is the top returning rusher and Darraick Burkett (23-180) the leading returning receiver.
For the Bison, 4-2 last year, senior quarterback Oliver Billiotte leads the way after passing for 1,146 yards and 12 TDs and rushing for a team-best 248 yards and seven TDs. Senior Karson Kline (18-283, 3 TDs) is the top returning receiver while Jose Alban is the leading returning tackler on defense, averaging a second-best 7.4 tackles per game.
Karns City at Girard
The defending Class 2A champion Gremlins, 6-3 last year, head to Erie County to take on the District 10 Yellowjackets who were 2-6.
Gremlins junior quarterback Eric Booher passed for 849 yards and seven TDs with seniors Luke Garing (72-375, 9 TDs) and Jayce Anderson (49-254, 5 TDs) are the leading returning rushers. Junior Micah Rupp caught 19 passes for 316 yards and four TDs.
Everett at Curwensville
The Golden Tide were 1-6 last year and they’ll open a new era in their move back to District 6 scheduling in the Inter-County Conference, but this is a non-conference opener against the District 5 Warriors who were 0-6 last year.
Teams: Cameron County, Coudersport, Curwensville, Elk County Catholic, Keystone, Otto-Eldred Port Allegany, Redbank Valley, Sheffield, Smethport and Union/A-C Valley.
How many teams qualify: Up to eight teams can enter the tournament that would start with a quarterfinal round on Nov. 5-6.
Teams: Brockway, Brookville, Central Clarion, Kane, Karns City, Moniteau and Ridgway.
How many teams qualify: Since the playoffs start also on the weekend of Nov. 5-6 and there are only seven teams in the field, one would call this an open bracket.
Teams/How many qualify: The Class 3A and 4A teams from District 9 are part of sub-regional setups. In Class 3A, there are nine teams in a sub-regional with D9 and District 5. D9 will determine a champion among its three teams over as many as two weeks concluding Nov. 5-6. The trio of D9 teams are Clearfield, St. Marys and Punxsutawney.
District 5’s field is Somerset and Bedford and one of those teams meet the D9 champion Nov. 11-12 with that winner facing the District 6 champion the following week in the first round of the PIAA playoffs. The D6 field consists of Huntingdon, Penn Cambria, Tyrone and Westmont Hilltop.
Teams/How many qualify: DuBois and Bradford are part of the sub-regional with Districts 6 and 8, or Pittsburgh City League. The D9 champion meets the City League champion Nov. 5 or 6 with the winner of that matchup playing the D6 champion Nov. 12 or 13.