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Annville-Cleona seeking steady growth after overhaul

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Had the 2015 season instead played out as an 11-week foot race, there is little question Annville-Cleona would've been found limping to its mid-November finish line.

The Dutchmen logged three losses in their final four games. They suffered a smattering of injuries and recorded a 2-4 mark in section play. And when it came to practice, there was one fatal flaw.

"We were better than we showed last year," Annville-Cleona coach Matt Gingrich admitted, "but we did not get better as the season went on."

Now entering their second campaign under Gingrich, the Little Dutchmen face serious roster turnover, having bid adieu to a class that generated more than 80 percent of its offensive yards and total tackles last year. Nonetheless, there's an air of excitement around the program that hangs as thick as the summer heat; an excitement due to the influx of fresh faces ready to emerge and fix that flaw.

And should this group manage steady improvement this fall, 2016 should enjoy a more enjoyable finish than its predecessor.

"Success will be judged a lot differently than last year because right now, we have 20 seniors, but in a way we really don't," Gingrich said. "And as good as they're going to be, you can't really call some of them seniors since they don't have that experience.

"So we would like to see continual progression throughout the year and ultimately be a really good football team by the end of the season."

The most significant progression must actually begin with a certain junior, quarterback Noah Myers. He served as the team's backup a year ago and now holds a firm grip on the starting job given his camp performance and the precious little depth behind him. He'll be joined in the backfield by seniors Cameron Hoch, a potent rushing and receiving threat hampered by injury last fall, and Dylan Bomgardner.

Out wide, Annville-Cleona has received a serious injection of potential with Griffin Hertz and Sam Mintz returning alongside newcomers Mitch Long and Matt Erickson. When the offense is sidelined, Long, known first as a baseball player, will still patrol center field as a safety in the Dutchmen's defense. Erickson, a 6-2 arrival from Arizona, is also expected to have a two-way impact at the same positions.

"He's going to be a player for us," Gingrich said of Erickson.

That group's ability to quickly separate from defensive backs must help offset the relative inexperience and lack of size up front. Drew Speraw, an all-section player, will again start at center and defensive end, surrounded by classmate Isaac Burris and a handful of new faces. Senior tight end Brandon Ulrich again laces up after a enduing torn ACL that wiped out his 2015 season.

However, given the collective inexperience of the new-look Dutchmen, implementing their playbooks is expected to be a slow and steady process over the course of the season. Excluding lifting sessions, Annville-Cleona met for only four days over the summer.

"We might not have some of the stuff installed, but that's OK," Gingrich said. "The kids have been great. They've had great attitudes, great effort."

Defensively, while the secondary projects solid depth, the same can not be said for the linebacker position, a top-heavy position of team strength. Ulrich's return should help solidify the middle, where junior Mike Sowers will look to improve upon his 43 tackles from a year ago. The spots behind them, though, remain question marks, as does how the entire back seven might stay clean behind an undersized line.

Though considering Annville-Cleona versatility off the line of scrimmage, the unit figures to be better protected from injury than it has been. The Little Dutchmen will indeed need all hands on deck early during an opening, non-conference schedule that includes two-time reigning district champion Camp Hill, a nine-win Hanover club and eight-victory Biglerville team.

"It's really exciting because a lot of these kids were actually here last year and are ready to go," Gingrich said. "There's just complete turnover and it just is what it is."

2016 Schedule

Aug. 26 — Trinity, 7 p.m.
Sept. 2 — Biglerville, 7 p.m.
Sept. 9 — at Camp Hill, 7 p.m.
Sept. 16 — at Hanover, 7 p.m.
Sept. 23 — at Elco, 7 p.m.
Sept. 30 — Lancaster Catholic, 7 p.m.
Oct. 7 — at Columbia, 7 p.m.
Oct. 14 — Northern Lebanon, 7 p.m. 
Oct. 21 — Bye 
Oct. 28 — at Pequea Valley, 7 p.m.
Nov. 4  — Donegal, 7 p.m.'s

2015 Results

W // Biglerville // 39-36
W // Hamburg // 30-14
W // Schuylkill Valley // 28-16
L // Donegal // 39-13
L // Elco // 40-39
W // Ephrata // 35-21
W // Kutztown // 33-8
L // Northern Lebanon // 58-36
W // Columbia // 35-8
L // Pequea Valley // 21-10
L // Berks Catholic // 61-14