In Mark Druga’s first season as the head coach at Burgettstown in 2015, he guided the Blue Devils to a 5-3 record in the Interstate Conference and a spot in the WPIAL Class AA playoffs.
A shift in conferences to the Century in 2016 saved the Blue Devils a lot of travel and allowed them to renew some old rivalries. It also ended with a second consecutive playoff appearance as Burgettstown posted a 4-3 conference record.
What the Blue Devils haven’t done is have success in the playoffs as they lost in the first round both times. That does not, however, mean there hasn’t been progress each year.
After losing to South Fayette 63-6 two years ago, the Blue Devils gave Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic everything it could handle in a 14-7 playoff loss last season. That loss came in Burgettstown as the Blue Devils hosted a playoff game at Hill Memorial Stadium for the first time in school history.
“The atmosphere at our playoff game was just incredible,” Druga said. “It was the first time we’ve ever hosted a playoff game and we’ve been around about 100 years. I know playoffs were much different prior to the 1990s, but still, we expect now to be in the playoffs.
“My first year, I told the boys before I became head coach in December that year, that I thought we could make the playoffs. Now, I’m saying that’s a foregone conclusion. I’m not being arrogant. That’s our expectation to make the playoffs every year. It’s not, ‘Hey, let’s hope, if everything goes right, we’re going to get in.’ Our goal is to win a playoff game. It’s not a far-fetched goal.”
It might not be far-fetched, but it’s not going to be easy, especially given what the Blue Devils have to replace.
Quarterback Brad McLaughlin was a three-year starter who led the Blue Devils in rushing and passing in each of the past two seasons, including 1,284 passing yards, 12 touchdowns and 562 rushing yards with six more scores last year.
Also gone is linebacker Bryan Krynak, a member of the Observer-Reporter’s all-district team. He had a season to remember, recording an astounding 15½ quarterback sacks, recovering two fumbles for touchdowns and making 74 tackles.
And lineman Dalton Green, all 6-4 and 275 pounds of him, anchored a young unit on both sides of the ball that got better as the year progressed. He also must be replaced.
Because of the youth of last year’s group, replacing Green, an offensive MVP of the BeeGraphix Football Classic over the summer, might be the easiest task.
“We come back strong on the line,” said Druga. “Last year, we had to replace four linemen. This year, we only have to replace one. That’s a great start, especially in football. It starts with the line. Those are the gentlemen we are counting on.”
The interesting thing about the group is that while it is experienced, the players are still young. Josh Noce, a converted running back who started some games in the second half of last season, is the lone senior. Angelo Fratini, Colby Green and Ethan Brothers each started last season as sophomores, and center Riley Kemper earned his way into the lineup as a freshman.
Replacing Krynak, who is now at Muskingum, might be more difficult.
“The 15½ sacks, they’re going to be tough to achieve,” said Druga, who added that key starters Jared John and Austin Safreed return to man the linebacker spots.
“With our defensive scheme, we have three of the four linebackers coming back. We have two great candidates vying for that other position.”
Candidates are the key word in replacing McLaughlin. Heading into camp, Druga had nearly as many candidates at quarterback as there were in the Republican primaries last year.
“He was everything my first two years as a head coach,” Druga said of McLaughlin. “It’s going to be very difficult to replace his numbers, both the running and the passing, but also from the aspect of his leadership qualities. I couldn’t have asked for anything more from him. We have four candidates. I thought maybe 7-on-7s and practices would separate them. Unfortunately, they all have strengths and weaknesses.”
The good news is that running back Nic Speer (270 rushing yards) and players who caught all but four of the Blue Devils’ 85 completions last season return. Ryan Lounder had 37 of those receptions.
If the quarterback situation works itself out, the Blue Devils should again find themselves in the playoffs. And you have to get to the postseason before you can achieve the goal of winning a playoff game. “We feel very confident we’re going to be in the playoffs,” Druga said. “I’m not going to say first (place), I’m not going to say fifth or the wild card. We’re going to be the in the playoffs.”