MANHEIM — Having faced the circumstances head on, Tony Cox understands how difficult it can be to make the transition from hunter to one of the hunted. Going from wannabe champion to maintaining a lofty level of excellence doesn’t occur with a snap of the fingers.
Yet despite facing a retooling job that will rely on a number of talented youngsters flush with enthusiasm moving into roles vacated by those graduated seniors who were front and center during an impressive revival of sorts, Solanco's third-year head football coach and his staff aren’t about to let up.
They certainly won’t be abandoning the blue-collar approach that formed the foundation for a 6-5 record during Cox’s first season and last year propelled the Mules to a sparkling 11-2 mark highlighted by a share of the Lancaster-Lebanon League’s Section 2 title and a berth in the District 3-AAA semis.
Why should they?
Particularly since enthusiasm is running extraordinarily high in the Quarryville-based school’s energized hallways and interest in Cox’s surging program continues to rise consistently with each passing 24-hour cycle.
Even a season-ending 35-7 loss to a Bishop McDevitt program last November that one week later captured its sixth straight 3-AAA championship couldn’t dampen Solanco’s upbeat mood. If anything, that setback served as motivation.
“It’s been exciting,” Cox said during a brief chat at the L-L’s football Media Day. “We’ve had huge kind of numbers coming in [to the weight room] after the McDevitt [loss]. The school district’s put together an athletic weightlifting class, so we’re going to have a weightlifting class for athletes throughout the year.
“So, let’s say when football ends and a kid comes in to play basketball, it’s going to be hard for him to come in at 6 a.m. before school because he has basketball practice. So now you can work out during the day,” Cox added. “So it’s going to be huge to have them work out for the whole year. It’s been great.”
Yet with perennial hammers Manheim Central and Lampeter-Strasburg among those sharing Section 2’s cramped playpen, sustaining the lofty level Solanco achieved in 2015 won’t be easy. Especially since Cox & Co. have a number of prominent people to replace.
While two-year starting quarterback Noah McCardell was among those who graduated, so were dependable backs Robbie Hassel, Prosper Eguzouwa and Darren Whearry. Other grads include wideout Troy Miller and several linemen.
Linebackers Kyle Williams, Gary Doubts and J.J. Garber also departed.
Sophomore Joel McGuire appears to have the upper hand in Cox’s quarterback competition, while senior Eric Hopkins is making the unusual shift from offensive tackle to fullback. In Hopkins’ case, having 4.5 speed is a significant plus.
Junior Alex McDonald and senior Ryan Yaretchko, who played backup roles in Solanco’s Navy spread attack, likely will get more carries this time around. Robbie McHugh, a 6-4 target, is out for the first time after concentrating on basketball.
“Joel McGuire has been relentless in the weight room,” Cox said of the 6-0, 155-pounder. “He’s had over 150 workouts since the season ended last year. He knew that he needed to be in the weight room. He’s a three-sport athlete.
“He’s been doing great, awesome,” Cox continued. “He’s way more advanced than Noah was when he first started.”
A sprinter on Solanco’s track team — the 5-9, 195-pound Hopkins competed last spring in the 100, 200 and ran a leg on the 400 relay — Hopkins’ transition has been much easier since he played running back at some lower levels of football.
“He’s excited,” Cox said. “When he goes out there, he’s just gone.”
Admittedly, Hopkins looked on longingly last year whenever Hassel did his 'Rock'em, sock'em' thing.
“When I watched film, I wondered if I could be like him,” Hopkins recalled. “He’s bigger than me, so I knew I wasn’t going to be a brute like him. But I kind of wanted to be like him, cause he was able to run the ball and I like running the ball.”
And while Hopkins is merely one example of what occurred during Solanco’s busy offseason, Cox & Co. also shifted some people around on the defensive side of the football. Since the Mules staff prefers football’s two-platoon version, getting lots of looks for plenty of people has enhanced the enthusiasm levels.
“No one wants to be on a team, work out all summer, stand on the sideline and watch one kid go from offense to defense, defense to offense,” Cox said. “Everybody wants to play, so it gives us the opportunity as coaches to be able to coach a kid all week at one position — so he gets good at it and so as he becomes better at it on Friday night there’s less mistakes made. That’s how I’ve always done it.”
So, as Solanco prepares for a 2016 campaign featuring non-league bouts with Pottstown, Conestoga Valley and Northeastern and the testy Section 2 slate, Cox knows his Mules will receive plenty of attention from opposing staffs.
Yet even though the Mules are no longer a secret, Cox and his gritty staff aren’t planning to overhaul how they prepare from one week to the next. At the same time, they hope to maintain the lofty level of excellence they attained a season ago.
So do the players.
“I would say we just get in the weight room and get stronger,” Hopkins cracked.
That’s part of Solanco’s approach, but there’s more to it than pumping iron. And since the Mules already have experienced quite a bit of success, why tamper with a formula or equation that appears to work mighty well.
“I don’t do anything different, to be honest with you,” Cox said. “I have pushed the weight room. My coaching staff has done a great job of keeping kids in shape in the summer. If they don’t see a kid for one or two days, they find out where he’s at. We call the parents, we call the kid, we keep in contact with him the whole time.
“There’s not a kid in my football program that we don’t contact if we don’t see him. I don’t change anything I do. We’re going to prepare for every program like we always do. I take video to colleges of people we have problems with to try to find out how we can fix it. I’m not gonna change what I am or what I do.”