The case has not yet been proven, but there is ample evidence to suggest that 2016 could be The Year of the Running Back in Lebanon County.
If you're a local high school football fan you should be anxious to find out. And with no less than four returning 1,000-yard rushers dotting county rosters, you'll get plenty of chances to serve as witnesses to potential gridiron greatness from Lebanon County backs this season.
Most notably, that 2015 1,000-yard quartet of Alon Rhette of Palmyra, Justice Belleman of Cedar Crest, Tyler Horst of Elco and Luke Funck of Northern Lebanon.
Let's meet them, and find out what they've done already and what they may do this fall.
Alon Rhette, Palmyra: A 5-foot-9, 185-pound hard-nosed blend of speed and power, Rhette helped lead the Cougars to a 6-0 start and a return to the District Three playoffs last fall, and figures to be one of the centerpieces to Palmyra's push to return to the postseason.
Teaming with another skilled back, fellow senior Carl Reigle, Rhette will look to match or improve on his 2015 totals of 1,140 yards on 181 carries, 12 touchdowns and six 100-yard games. In all, he racked up 1,314 total yards and added 15 tackles, two sacks and a 70-yard interception return from his linebacker spot on defense.
"Alon, his lower body strength is just amazing. He’s so powerful," said Palmyra coach Chris Pope. "When he gets in the groove, he’s really hard to stop. He doesn’t need a whole lot (of room), he just needs a little. And with him and Carl, he’s a nice trade with Alon. His style is different, and I think they complement each other really well."
Justice Belleman, Cedar Crest: Justice was served (pun intended) last fall, as Belleman enjoyed a breakout season behind a sturdy Cedar Crest offensive line, rushing for 1,178 yards on 231 carries and scoring 14 touchdowns as the Falcons returned to the district playoffs for the first time in more than a decade.
Crest's O-line was hit hard by graduation, but the physical 5-10, 215-pound Belleman still figures to be a handful for opposing defenses this time around.
"A lot of his success, and I think he'd tell you this as well, came from his skills but was magnified by the play of the offensive line," Cedar Crest coach Rob Wildasin said. "But obviously I think it's exciting for our offensive line of 2016 to know that you have Justice and some other characters in the backfield that can do damage. It should make it exciting to block for those guys. Any time you've got a guy that can make something happen it should spur you on."
For his part, Belleman is confident that he and the revamped line, led by returning senior Garrett DeBien, will jell quickly.
"Last year, we had a very powerful line, which had an effect on how I ran," he said. "We lost a couple seniors up front, but I think with the underclassmen coming up, we'll do just fine. I think we'll have a good year again."
Tyler Horst, Elco: Here is a scary thought for Elco opponents: The Lancaster-Lebanon League's top returning rusher is not only a year older and more mature, but has also added an inch of height and 10 pounds to a now even sturdier 6-foot-1, 215-pound frame.
That's Horst, who's coming off a banner junior season in which he piled up 1,345 yards and 17 total touchdowns for the 5-5 Raiders.
Horst won't have the luxury of strong-armed quarterback Jeff Martin, who graduated, to take the heat off him this year, but should still be extremely difficult to stop when Elco is on offense.
"He fits the offense really well," Elco coach Bob Miller said. "We've turned into a power run game offense, and last year he brought a downhill running game. This year what he'll bring is 10 extra pounds and a lot more strength and speed. He's dedicated himself to be the best athlete he can be."
Horst is also looking forward to showcasing his experience and leadership skills in addition to the high level of production he expects to provide."
"I'd definitely say I'm a little bit more knowledgeable about the offense and stuff," said Horst, who's getting some college looks from FCS schools, including some from the Patriot League. "It'll be nice to help out the younger guys coming up and be more of a coach on the field. And hopefully all the weight room time will help with some bigger plays and stuff like that."
Luke Funck, Northern Lebanon: Two-time defending Section Three champ Northern Lebanon was hit hard by graduation, but still returns its feature back from last season's title team in 6-foot, 200-pound senior Funck, also an elite caliber wrestler for the Vikings.
Last year, Funck's substantial contribution to a big-play, prolific Northern Lebanon attack was 1,063 yards on just 148 carries (7.2 yards per pop) the highlight of which was a 257-yard, three-touchdown explosion in a win over Hamburg. Funck also showcased his explosiveness on special teams, returning two kickoffs for scores.
“We have five receivers coming back, so there’s still going to be a lot of experience. We still expect to have some running holes for Luke because of how we stretch the field vertically and horizontally.” NL coach Roy Wall said. “We have a lot of people coming back that might not be the high-profile kids we’ve had over the years, but we have some good talent coming back.”
Funck is just ready to play, period, no matter who else is suiting up.
“I’m just excited it’s my senior year,” Funck said. “This is what I’ve been waiting for since I was a pee wee. I just can’t wait. We just need to play as a team and work together, If we keep pushing through, we can win the section title again like we want to.”
Reporter Matt Catrillo contributed to this story.