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A simple game of Simon Says turned into more of a conditioning session for the James Buchanan football team. Video by Lindsey Smith

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For James Buchanan, there's nowhere to go but up.

After completing its second winless season in four years, the Rockets are itching to finally rebuild the struggling program.

It's easier said than done with just 30 players on the roster, but the returning core of players - which worked tirelessly in the offseason - is confident in the new mindset the Rockets are bringing onto the field.

A new motto, and team captains named for the first time in coach Andy Stoner's tenure, already spells change for the Rockets.

"I had a distaste in my mouth from last season, and the way things went as a team and the way we played on the field," Stoner said. "We need to be the team. We don't have all the talent in the world, so we have to out-work and out-compete people tooth and nail for things."

The Rockets return the entire offensive and defensive lines with more size, experience and speed than last year, anchored by seniors Zane Bray, Judson Iverson and Colton Beckman, and juniors Sean Bankson and Jackson Ellis. Bray will focus as a fullback, but will also play tackle and inside linebacker.

Since last year, the linemen, which have the burden of playing both offense and defense, have committed to a summer of training and are ready to get back on the field. Ellis and Bray put on a combined 54 pounds in the offseason.

"Some of these guys who played a lot last year are hungry to get started and they’re really anxious," Stoner said. "Some of these guys committed to 120 extra workouts; some of them were at six in the morning. The question is, we have the technique, but are we quick enough to use it on our opponents?"

A big loss for the Rockets is former quarterback Remi Spoonhour, who did not return to the team for his junior season. Spoonhour had 299 passing yards on 20 completions. The team is evaluating at least three potential quarterbacks, including senior Colby Bradshaw and sophomore Sawyer Egolf. Last year, Bradshaw had 54 rushing yards and 22 receiving yards.

Clay Sanders, a senior, had experience under center last year, throwing for 53 total yards. He also had 17 rushing yards and a single completion.

On the offense, the Rockets return Caden Ficks, who scored the team's only rushing touchdown last season, and Evan Stoner, who will bring some much needed experience to the offense. He ran for 42 yards last season, averaging 4.6 yards per carry and caught six balls for 34 yards.

Along with the addition of 10 sophomores, including quarterback prospect Egolf and Owen Stoner, who is expected to be a starting halfback, James Buchanan welcomed four seniors to the roster who did not play last year.

"Anywhere you go and play, it can’t just be 'I want to go and wear a uniform.' Other places that have a lot of numbers sometimes it’s like that, but for us we can’t afford that," Stoner said. "We are trying to make you the best football player you can be, and that’s the mentality you have to have coming into this program. Our numbers are so low if you want to be here you have to contribute, and some of these guys see that and it builds their confidence when they say, 'Hey I can do this.'"

The older additions to the roster help with size. Prior to Ethan Slifka, Cameron Funk, Eric Elkins and Quintin Gingrich joining the squad as seniors, the team had just three players who measured at least 6-feet. At 6-2, Slifka is the tallest player on the roster, and he will play wide receiver.

The average height of the team is just 5-foot-8, but that doesn't scare the linemen, who believe their improved technique will outweigh their size disadvantage.

"Size doesn’t matter," Beckman said. "We can still take care of the big boys. Size doesn't matter, it's the heart."

"We have to have more technique," Ellis said. "We can't rely on size because we don’t have it. We have to have a better technique. And we have to stay mentally active, too, because if we get tired there we can start to slip."

James Buchanan Rockets

Coach: Andy Stoner, fifth season, 7-33 (.175).

Returning starters: Clayton Bendell (sr., WR/DB), Caden Ficks (jr., RB/OLB), Evan Stoner (sr., HB/OLB), Judson Iverson (sr., T/DT), Sean Bankson (jr., G/ILB), Zane Bray (sr., T/DT), Jackson Ellis (jr., G/DE), Colton Beckman (sr., C/DT).

Other top players: Clay Sanders (jr., WR/DB), Colby Bradshaw (sr., HB/OLB), Cody Straley (G/DE), Trevor Layton (sr., G/DT), Griffin Kannel (sr., WR/DB), Owen Stoner (so., HB/CB). 

Predicted record: 2-8

In the huddle

Class: 4A

Enrollment: 300

Offense: Wing-T

Defense: 4-4

Stadium: Rocket Stadium

Location: Between the high school and the middle school, along Pa. 75 in Mercersburg.

Ticket prices: $4 for adults, $2 for students.

2016 schedule

Sept. 2 — at Hanover, 7 p.m.
Sept. 9 — Fairfield, 7 p.m.
Sept. 16 — Camp Hill, 7 p.m.
Sept. 23 — at Mifflin County, 7 p.m.
Sept. 30 — Shippensburg, 7 p.m.
Oct. 7 — at Northern York, 7 p.m.
Oct. 14 — West Perry, 7 p.m.
Oct. 21 — at Big Spring, 7 p.m.
Oct. 28 — Waynesboro, 7 p.m.
Nov. 4 — at Greencastle-Antrim, 7 p.m.

2015 results

L // Hanover // 33-0
L // Fairfield // 34-6
L // Camp Hill // 56-0
L // Northern York // 51-0
L // Big Spring // 32-6
L // East Pennsboro // 69-0
L // Greencastle-Antrim // 49-0
L // Waynesboro // 60-3
L // Shippensburg // 49-0
L // Susquehanna Twp. // 63-0

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