Penns Valley coach Martin Tobias has five starters returning on offense and defense this season.
That means there’s six spots open on each side of the ball and the competition is fierce.
“There are no guarantees here,” said Tobias, whose numbers have increased from 37 to 46 players at camp. “A lot of guys have been working hard. Everything’s up for grabs and it still is. ... We’ve got a lot of athletes. The kids have worked really hard this summer. It’s one of the best summers we’ve had in a number of years as far as turnout. I think the guys were turning out because they knew there was going to be a lot of competition in camp. There are a lot of open spots.”
“For all of the younger guys, there’s a couple of positions open,” said senior running back/safety Luke Bitsko. “They have a chance to get in and play on Friday night, which is a rare opportunity for a sophomore or junior.”
“We’ve got some seniors back who have played a lot, and we have some underclassmen who are stepping into roles and feeling confident,” added wideout Sean Beamesderfer. “I think we will be alright.”
The Rams finished 4-6 last season and were close to breaking through in many of the losses. Paced by the passing of quarterback Cameron Tobias (1,953 yards, 15 touchdowns), the Rams averaged nearly 30 points per game.
Defense was what proved costly. In their six losses, the Rams gave up an average of 46 points, with no winner scoring less than 34.
“Our defense needs to step up a little bit from last year,” Bitsko said. “We gave up too many points in too many games. It was more like 11 guys trying to do one thing instead of a group of 11 working together.”
“We’ve really been emphasizing tackling and limiting the big plays,” Tobias said. “We’re trying to create turnovers. On the defensive side, we’ve got a lot of guys to replace. ... We recognize that we gave up too many points, and a lot of those points came on big plays.”
Ben Alexander steps into the huddle for Cameron Tobias, who is now at Lock Haven University. Alexander saw most of his action last season at the JV level.
“He’s been doing a nice job,” Tobias said. “The big thing is he just doesn’t have a lot of varsity experience. We’re testing him under fire as much as we can. We’re trying to get him ready so that he’s sharp. He knows what he’s doing. Now it’s just a matter of being able to do it under the pressure of the Friday night lights.”
Alexander will work with some experienced skill players.
Bruising Wyatt Sharp (369 yards, 6 TDs) will be in the backfield, along with Bitsko and Colton Treaster. Beamesderfer, Dan Kozar and Ryan McElwee are experienced wide receivers.
Center Collin Egelhoff and tackle Gabe Gensimore are returning starters on the offensive line. Hunter Ilgen also is a likely starter as the competition continues for other spots. Zach Auker will be at tight end.
Kozar is punting, while Egelhoff and Chase Collison are battling at placekicker.
Defensively, Dustin Zettle and Gensimore are at the tackles, while Auker and Egelhoff are at ends.
Sharp, Ilgen, Treaster and Andrew Hurd are in the mix at linebacker.
Beamesderfer and Kozar are in the defensive backfield, while Garrett Evans, Kevin Sweeley, Corby Woodring are battling for the other spot.
Tobias said the team’s opening scrimmage pointed out plenty.
“The scrimmage was a good indicator of where we’re at,” he said. “We need to do a lot better. We saw some good things that we liked. We’re looking for consistency and building our depth. We were pleased our kids knew their assignments. It wasn’t mental stuff. It is physical stuff we need to improve on.”
Players are hoping the adjustments could lead to a postseason spot.
“We’ve been right at the brink towards the end of the season,” Beamesderfer said of the playoffs. “ I think this season we’re going to be pushing each other and the coaches are going to be pushing us to get one of those spots. It’s a pretty big goal and we’ve been right there the last two years. This year, it would be nice to get in there.”
Bitsko agrees, but says chemistry is the key.
“I’d rather have a good team that is close and doesn’t make it than a team that wins a state championship and hates each other,” he said.