By Joseph Santoliquito
Philadelphia, PA (CBS)—It’s August and already St. Joseph’s Prep coach Gabe Infante is up against an unwinnable battle: It will be hard keeping his team from wandering onto social media without avoiding all of the good things that are expected from the Hawks this season.
Infante wins with a simple message: “They’re just words. We stress it’s a process each year. We haven’t won or done anything yet.”
The Prep coach is right. The operative word being ‘yet.’
Since the Philadelphia Catholic League joined the PIAA in 2008, something has been missing from the PIAA Class AAAA state playoffs—namely, Prep. The Hawks have never made the state playoffs in football.
This year they’re primed to make history.
The Hawks, who haven’t won the Catholic League in eight years (since winning the Catholic Red in 2005), are the best team and return the best player in the area—junior John Reid.
Of course standing in Prep’s way is La Salle, the five-time defending Catholic League Class AAAA champions. That won’t be any different this season, especially with the addition of new La Salle junior quarterback Kyle Shurmur, a familiar surname, because he’s the son of Eagles’ offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur.
Lurking not too far is the PIAA Class AAAA state runner-up Coatesville. The Red Raiders are the clear favorite to repeat as PIAA District 1 Class AAAA champions, with no District 1 team in site of challenging them.
Prep and Coatesville appear to be in a league of their own this season—much like Archbishop Wood was two years ago.
In fact, any of the teams that comprise the following list of preseason Southeastern Pennsylvania top 10 teams, from Archbishop Wood on down to Imhotep Charter, are capable of going deep into the state playoffs.
Prep and Coatesville are considered among two of the top three teams in the state—that’s how much better they are.
1. St. Joseph’s Prep
The Hawks finished 10-1 last year, their one loss coming against La Salle, 28-27, in the Catholic League Class AAAA championship. The young Hawks may have been a year ahead of schedule last season. Prep is considered by many the best team in the state. The skill nucleus returns, including arguably the best player in the state, 5-foot-10, 180-pound junior defensive back/offensive back John Reid, and Michigan-bound Jon Daniel Runyan, the 6-4, 250-pound son of former Eagle Jon Runyan who’s grown an inch and added 25 pounds. Junior tailback Olamide Zaccheaus returns, along with senior quarterback Chris Martin and senior linebacker Vince Moffett.
The Red Raiders finished 13-3 and reached the PIAA Class AAAA state finals. Nine starters are back on defense, including two of the best players in the state, 6-4, 245-pound linebacker/tight end Tyler Burke (Maryland) and 5-10, 185-pound running back/defensive back Daquan Worley (Penn State).
Add in some considerable size in 6-6, 290-pound Colin Raysor, and more speed in Isaiah Flamer and Devonte Suber and Coatesville has a good chance of playing again in December.
3. Archbishop Wood
Vikings’ coach Steve Devlin took a chance last year and handed the offense over to lanky 6-foot-4 freshman Tom Garlick. The hunch paid off—Garlick led the Vikings to the PIAA Class AAA state title game, losing to undefeated Erie Cathedral Prep, 24-14. Garlick is larger, more experienced and has back senior Josh Messina, who rushed for 125 yards in the state championship. Expect another trip into December for the Vikings, who might get challenged locally by Cardinal O’Hara.
4. La Salle
The Explorers have won six of the last seven Catholic League large-school titles. And if one high school team benefitted from Chip Kelly taking over as Eagles’ head coach and bringing in a new staff—it was the Explorers. They’ll get 6-foot-4, 210-pound junior quarterback Kyle Shurmur, the son of Eagles’ offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, who transferred in and who’s already receiving attention from Penn State, Vanderbilt and Michigan State. The Explorers, under coach Drew Gordon, are the five-time defending Philadelphia Catholic League Class AAAA champions. Last year they finished 12-2 overall, losing to St. Joseph’s Prep during the regular season and to eventual PIAA Class AAAA state runner-up Coatesville, 42-35, in the state semifinals. Only Prep stands in the way of the Explorers winning a sixth-straight league title.
The Redskins reached the District 1 Class AAAA semifinals last season, losing to eventual district champion Coatesville, 63-28, with a fairly young team, finishing 9-4. Some of the top players back for coach Mark Schmidt are running backs Denny Lord, Blake Sullivan and D’Andre Pollard. Quarterback could come down to Tyler Wombough or freshman Mason Jones.
Jeff Hollenbach returns as head coach of a team that finished 12-2 and reached the District 1 Class AAAA semifinals, where the Rams lost to Spring-Ford, 35-24. The Rams possesses one of the best players in the state in senior tailback Mike Class, who rushed for a single-season school-record 2,420 yards and 32 touchdowns in 13 games, averaging more than 8 yards a carry.
The Rams were the surprise of the area last season, vaulting all the way to the District 1 Class AAAA championship game, where they lost to Coatesville, 59-28. The Rams went 12-3, the most victories in a season for the program. Coach Chad Brubaker returns one of the most exciting players in Southeastern Pennsylvania in Tate Carter. Senior Jarred Jones is also dangerous in the open field. Quarterback will come down to senior Zac DeMedio or juniors Matt Daywalt and Brandon Leacraft.
8. North Penn
The Knights are traditionally always good, though last year they did not make the district playoffs. Figure on coach Dick Beck to have his team back in the mix, after 2012′s 6-4 finish. Tailback Kris Atkins and quarterback Austin Shearer will lead the offense, while Frank Tranzilli anchors the offensive line. Beck just has one problem: He fears no one. The Knights only open their first three games with La Salle, Archbishop Wood and St. Joe’s Prep—three of the top four teams in the area.
The Green Raiders like being overlooked, but that will be kind of tough looking over and beyond 6-foot-4 senior quarterback Colin Wright. Last year, Ridley went 11-1 overall and lost to eventual District 1 Class AAAA finalist Spring-Ford, 28-26, in the district quarterfinals. Wright threw four touchdowns in that district playoff game—and last season was supposed to be a learning year. Ridley won’t have it easy, with Garnet Valley, Haverford High, Springfield and Conestoga in the Central League mix.
10. Imhotep Charter
The Panthers reached the PIAA Class AA state semifinals last year, ending their season 14-1, before bowing to eventual state champion Wyomissing, 35-13. Senior DeAndre Scott is the top player back, and junior Denniston Moore could be special.
The website EasternPAFootball.com contributed to this story.
Joseph Santoliquito is a contributing sports blogger for CBS Philly.