At South Fayette, losing is not an option. So the Lions embark on this football season cognizant of last year’s failure of meeting their high standards. The Lions won a conference championship and posted a 10-1 record, but lost to New Castle, 51-43, during the quarterfinals of the WPIAL Class AAAA playoffs.
Quarterback Drew Saxton said: “It was a disappointment because of the unrealized potential we had and did not achieve what we wanted to do or could have done.”
The Lions, who won back-to-back WPIAL and PIAA titles in 2013 and 2014, expect championship-caliber teams. “When you don’t win a championship, it’s a letdown,” said head coach Joe Rossi. “Our goals are always to win the conference, WPIAL and states. Definitely, the potential is there if the guys step up. We expect a nice season but you can’t tell until you put on the pads and play that first game.”
The Lions are optimistic because, despite graduating 22 players, the most since 2010, when they won their first WPIAL title. They return Saxton, a three-year starter at quarterback, as well as Division I recruits Ray Eldridge and Noah Plack.
Saxton passed for 2,638 yards and 30 touchdowns last fall in guiding the Lions to an 8-0 mark in the Northwest Nine Conference. Eldridge is a 6-4, 260-pound defensive end and offensive tackle committed to the University of Richmond. Plack is a 6-2, 205-pound tight end and linebacker. The University of Delaware recruit caught 35 passes for 679 yards and 10 touchdowns last year.
“Drew is the face of the program. The quarterback here has always been,” Rossi said. “Ray’s big, able-bodied and he works his tail off. Noah is one of the best defensive kids I have ever had here. He creates havoc on defense. He continues to get better and he enjoys playing the game. The kids feed off him.
“We know what we are getting out of those three guys but it’s never really a single person,” Rossi added. “It’s how well you are developing what’s around you and what you get out of the others.”
That onus falls upon Joe Farkas. The 2011 South Fayette graduate is the Lions’ wide receiver coach. He is saddled with developing the receiving group, which is the team’s primary question mark on offense. While Plack will be relied on for his share of catches, the Lions have a skilled crew that has yet to catch a varsity pass from Saxton. The group includes Michael Trimbur, Ryan Kokoski and Peyton Tinney, a transfer from Moon.
“Joe (Farkas) has knowledge of the position and he is responsible for getting those guys to gel but we are confident he can,” Rossi said. “Wide receiver is the question mark. It’s been a staple here for us. But we like our crew.”
The Lions like their running backs and offensive line. John Beck and Joe Mowad return to the backfield. Beck had a breakout game against New Castle, scoring four rushing touchdowns. Mowad has some experience, particularly in goal-line sets.
Joining Eldridge on the line is veteran Tom Elia. He started last year and is the right guard. Ben Coyne has experience at guard. Jake Walker, who played defense last season, will help the Lions at center. Sean Sutcavage and Rauri Way are expected to contribute. Plus, the Lions are developing sophomore Nolan Lutz into a tight end.
“We have so many positional battles. The most we have ever had,” Rossi said. “We have good players and others who like to battle.”
Having lost eight starters, battles will be ongoing with the defense. The line has depth and experience with two full-time starters in Eldridge and Walker returning. Coyne, Elia and Eamon Horowitz solidify the line.
Plack and Mowad anchor the linebackers. There is competition at the other slots with Zach Sabo, Johnny Obenour, Zach Blank and Lutz. In the secondary, Beck was a part-time starter last season at free safety. Trimbur leads the cornerbacks with Kokoski, Rayquin Glover and Tinney.
“We have a lot of battles for positions. There’s competition and depth. We will see early in the season who settles in and who can step up and handle the positions and pressure,” Rossi said. “Defense as a whole is a work in progress. Defense is a question mark and a concern because we only have spot maturity. We are looking for guys to gel.
“We have question marks that need to be answered,” he added. “Competition though only makes you better. We rely on the guys who we have here. They are not question marks. They just need to gain experience. It’s like it is every year. It’s high school football.”
High school football at South Fayette, however, is a happening. With 70-73 players out this season, Rossi said that this is maybe his biggest roster.
“Kids enjoy playing football here. It’s fun and we do have a winning tradition,” Rossi admitted. “We also have a strong off-season program where we do a lot of team-building things and kids see improvement. Plus, they enjoy Friday Night lights. We want to make sure we keep it that way.”
And, at South Fayette, that too is not optional.