For years Shannon Manning has been trying to beat the Bellefonte football team.
Now, the former Bald Eagle Area defensive coordinator is trying to revive the Red Raider program.
Manning, who takes over for Duffy Besch, faces big challenges in his first season as head coach. He inherits a team that suffered through a 2-8 season last fall and several of the players from that squad have followed former Bellefonte junior high coach Dave Carson as St. Joseph’s begins its inaugural football season.
A daunting as the task may be, Manning remains upbeat and his energy has transferred to his players.
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“It’s a different attitude from last year,” said wideout Nick Leiter. “It’s a different level of energy and commitment. When he came in, we didn’t really know what to expect, but since he’s been here it’s been a big change from last year and it’s nice to see. … So far, he’s bringing a new level of energy that we haven’t seen around Bellefonte in the past couple of years.”
“It’s an attitude change,” offensive and defensive lineman Matt Querns added. “The kids are very excited about having a new coaching staff and he’s also excited about being our coach. … He brings aggression. He’s teaching us how to be aggressive --- take names and kick butt.”
“A lot of it is enthusiasm, but I also think they like the schematic changes and increased structure,” said Manning of the players’ response to him and his staff. “It is extremely structured. Player accountability is extraordinarily high.”
Manning’s old boss echoes the kind words of the Bellefonte players. Manning helped Jack Tobias take BEA to the District 6 Class AA playoffs last fall.
“They’re getting a great coach,” Tobias said. “He’s a dedicated guy. I hated to lose him here obviously. I thought he did a great job for us. He was phenomenal in the weight room and did a great job organizing the defense.
“I think he’ll do a great job over there if they give him a chance. He lost a number of players to St. Joe’s and I hope people realize that. He’s a great guy and will do everything he can. They’re not going to find someone who’s going to work harder than Shannon.”
Manning said that aside from more administrative duties and paperwork, not too much has changed in moving to the head coaching ranks.
“The practicing portion has not been any different,” he said. “The football part has been very easy.”
It’s been easy despite overhauling both the offense and defense.
Defense is of special concern since the Red Raiders gave up 40 or more points (70 against Central Mountain) in seven of its losses.
Manning is switching from a 3-5-3 defense to a 4-2-5 and his players seem to like the change.
“We have to improve our defense a lot more than we did last year,” said running back/defensive back Doylan Deitrich, who along with Querns and linebacker Jake Martin are stalwarts on that unit. “The points we gave up last year were just unacceptable. The new defense that he is installing should work.”
Offensively, the Red Raiders are switching from the spread to the Wing-T. Deitrich, Storm Smith and Nick Jabco should get the bulk of the carries behind a line that’s anchored by Querns and Zach Danns.
Leiter provided a huge receiving threat. The senior caught a whopping 49 passes for 721 yards and four scores last fall.
Who will be throwing it to Leiter?
Mark Armstrong and Dan Caprio are locked in a battle for the quarterback spot.
While both playbooks may be foreign, Manning said the Red Raiders have been up to the challenge.
“They’re extremely willing to do whatever is asked of them and they make changes quickly,” he said. “They seem to fix things quickly. If you give them something, Day 1 looks OK and Day 2 they do a great job with it.”
The players say they are united to turn around a program that has gone 3-17 over the past two seasons. And even though some talented players are gone, the transfers may have united the group that remains.
“It really shows you who is committed to the program and who is willing to work hard to change the last two years into something good,” Querns said.
“Those players made the decisions that they felt they had to do,” Leiter added. “The people who stayed here, they’re my teammates. I’ll fight with them, go to battle with them.”
The good thing for Manning is that he doesn’t have to do a lot of homework for the teams the Red Raiders will face. He’s already very familiar with the challenges of the Mountain League.
“That’s a big help,” he said. “The opponents don’t really change. Now I have to prepare for Bald Eagle, instead of having to prepare for Bellefonte.”
Manning’s goals remain modest for now.
“I’m looking for constant improvement and constant progress and I’m looking for the kids to be willing to hold each other accountable, both on and off the football field,” he said.
Winning is a byproduct of that philosophy.
“A lot of that will take care of itself as we continue to progress as a team,” Manning said. “If we’re able to put more offense and defense in, work together and get to know each other --- not just the players but also the staff --- a lot of things like the winning seasons and playoffs will take care of themselves.”
“Coach Manning has really preached that we have to change things and turn things around,” Leiter said. “It won’t be an immediate success, but over the course of the season you’re going to see a different team from Bellefonte.”