Season openers against powerful programs possessing PIAA titles are becoming the norm for the State College football team.
For the third straight year, the Little Lions begin the season against a fellow Quad-A heavyweight when Bethlehem Liberty visits Memorial Field tonight.
The District 11 Hurricanes participated in three state finals from 2005-08. The third trip netted the schools first PIAA football title.
At least State College gets the Hurricanes on its own artificial surface.
The Little Lions opened the past two seasons at North Allegheny. State College also ended both seasons against the Tigers, who flipped their 2010 PIAA quarterfinal victory over the Little Lions into a PIAA title.
So, yes, staying at home is better than another season-opening trip to suburban Pittsburgh. But ...
We would like to play somebody that we knew we could beat, State College coach Al Wolski said. We always play teams from all over the state and all over the Northeast. This is another good one. They are a good, strong program.
Liberty, which counts former Penn State athletes John Fritz, Mitch Lekevics and Mike Hartenstine among its alums, went 8-4 last season. But the Hurricanes return just two starters, giving State College a rare edge in experience for a season opener.
The Little Lions return five offensive and six defensive starters from a team that went 8-5 and reached the PIAA quarterfinals for a fourth straight year. The number of returnees is a high for a Wolskicoached team.
Even if you have an experienced team its still not easy going to State College, Liberty coach Dave Brown said.
Both coaches consider their skill players a strength, which should create some intriguing perimeter matchups.
Libertys lone returning offensive starter is K.J. Williams, a junior wide receiver with scholarship offers from Pitt and Syracuse. Brown said Penn State has expressed interest in Williams, who caught 11 touchdown passes last season. The Hurricanes actually have two dynamic receivers, but the District 11 committee ruled Pius X transfer Boise Ross ineligible earlier this week.
State Colleges secondary returns starters Andrew Kelly, Dan Fry and Darian Herncane. The unit has received a jolt from transfer Ebrahim Britton, who played at El Paso (Texas) Montwood last season.
It's obvious looking at film that the skill positions are strengths for both teams, Brown said. It will be interesting to see how those groups matchup.
Despite the returning skill players, neither coach expects a chuck-it-all-over-place game.
The offenses are similar, with both teams relying on option attacks to accumulate yards. Wolski and Brown each spent time in Florida, thus explaining the similar offensive philosophies.
Were almost a mirror image of each other offensively, Brown said. We both spent time in Florida and I moved up here 12 years ago when he was coaching at Reading. I saw him, and I was, Holy cow, thats exactly what Im used to seeing as far as the option is concerned.
A crisp attack would help State College reverse two straight years of slow starts. An unforgiving scheduled led to an 0-3 start last season. An even nastier schedule yielded an 0-5 beginning in 2010.
State College recovered to stage extended playoff runs both seasons. The preseason suggests the Little Lions, who busted several big plays in scrimmages against Kiski Area and Altoona, might be primed for a faster start.
Just looking at our two scrimmages, we feel extremely good about our skill players, Wolski said. We have guys that can run, we caught the ball well and threw the ball pretty well. We have to play better defensive. We are still waiting for some leaders to emerge. Hopefully they will.
Guy Cipriano can be reached at 231-4643. Follow him on Twitter @cdtguy