We have T-minus two days until the 2011 high school football season kicks off in Pennsylvania. Before we turn all of our attention over to games themselves, I figured I'd fire up the crystal ball and try to take a spin through each of the YAIAA's three divisions.
What follows are my (somewhat questionable) attempts to pick out the players and teams that will push to the forefront of each division. A sample of the categories: Surprise team, surprise player, player of the year and division favorites. I certainly don't claim to be Nostradamus, but hey, why not have a little fun.
Anyway, here goes nothing. We'll start with Division I...
The skinny: This division has been notoriously muddled the last few seasons, with the gap between the first place team and the middle of the pack often slim. There's certainly no clear-cut favorite this year, either. Red Lion might get the edge in some eyes, based on some top-level talent and the return of rock steady quarterback Tanner Klinefelter. Central York has loads of skill position talent and almost its entire defense back, but there are questions about how quickly the offensive line can come together. South Western may have the division's best player (Mike Felton), but the Mustangs will have to improve in a lot of other areas following a 4-6 campaign.
After those three, you have a trio of wild cards. Dallastown is the defending champ, but the Wildcats were absolutely crushed by graduation. William Penn should be improved on defense and along its offensive line, but will it be enough to offset a completely untested group of skill position players? And Spring Grove bought in a young and promising coach in Russ Stoner, but has to replace every single one of its starters from last season.
Not going out on much of a limb here, but there seem to be some good vibes around this Mustang team after last season's struggles. Veteran coach Don Seidenstricker stressed the importance of team leadership in the offseason, and feels like his group has responded. Meanwhile, Felton is as versatile a threat as you'll find on offense; you can bet South Western will find plenty of different ways to get the Temple commit the football. South Western needs to establish consistency at the quarterback spot -- where returning seniors Jesse Good and Zach Gross split time last season -- and will need to improve along the offensive and defensive lines to contend.
Jason Milton, Red Lion
Milton received some lofty praise at Media Day from Lions coach Pat Conrad, who said he feels the speedy junior will add "another dimension" at running back. Certainly, Milton was lethal in small doses last season, where he averaged 8.5 yards per carry. If he can bring that sort of big play threat on an every-down basis, it should free up Klinefelter to pick defenses apart.
Player of the year:
Tanner Klinefelter, Red Lion; Mike Felton, South Western
I have to go with a tie here. Statistically speaking, Klinefelter is the YAIAA's top returning quarterback, having posted sparkling completion percentage (61.9) and TD-INT numbers (22-5) last season. Meanwhile, it's hard to quantify what Felton's mere presence does to defenses. Besides his ability to be a gamebreaker at both running back and receiver, his skill set forces defenses to constantly be aware of where he is. Felton is also a standout at safety, the position he will play at Temple.
Teams to beat
The top teams to me, at least in the preseason, are Red Lion and Central York. There are some similarities here. Klinefelter and Brandon Baker are the YAIAA's most experienced quarterbacks in terms of games started -- it's hard to overstate just how important experience is at that position. Both teams also have some holes to fill along the offensive lines. Red Lion lost a senior class stocked both with gifted players and assertive leaders, so we'll see how the Lions current players grow into those voids. There is undeniable talent, though, in the form of players like defensive end David Telp, receiver/cornerback Erik Althoff, and the aforementioned Milton.
As for Central, so much for me comes down to their line. This is not the biggest team by any means, but there is incredible speed all over the field. Pretty much the entire defense is back, as is Baker, who has started 19 games at quarterback. The Panthers need to solidify their tailback spot, a barren position production-wise for them last season. But once again, that comes down largely to the offensive line's ability to mesh.
Among the others: I think South Western is right there, and should be in the mix for a title come season's end. Dallastown will need to grow up fast ... real fast. But the Wildcats always have good numbers and have reloaded in the past. I don't think by any means this is back-to-square-one type season for a program that has evolved so much in the last five years. The buzz around William Penn is that the commitment level of its players has improved, but will that be enough to offset the loss of some remarkably gifted playmakers? And while I think Stoner was a great hire for the Rockets, it's impossible for anyone to know how his completely untested group of players is going to react when the lights go on Friday.
If I to pick a winner right now ... slight edge to Red Lion. But it's far from a landslide.
Your turn. What does everybody else think?