For the first time in 30 years the Bald Eagle Area football team is going into the season wearing the mantle of defending District 6 champion.
And while that’s an honor, it also comes with a price.
“We’re not an underdog anymore,’’ said coach Jesse Nagle, who guided his team to an 11-3 record, the district 3-A title and a trip to the PIAA quarterfinals. “We have a bull’s-eye on our back. We talk to the kids about that every day. We tell them everyone is going to be gunning for you so you have to work harder than everyone else.’’
That’s what happens when you’re ranked third in the state in at least one poll. Fortunately for BEA, it has quarterback Jaden Jones back for his third year as a starter. He is one of three key playmakers returning from a year ago. He completed 177 of 305 passes for 2,966 yards and 31 touchdowns while throwing 19 interceptions. Jones also ran 135 times for 359 yards and eight touchdowns.
“He’s a special athlete,’’ Nagle said of Jones.
So is Gage McClenahan, a Cornell wrestling recruit who is a running back-defensive back. He went down with a gruesome knee injury in the eighth game of last season. He ran for 358 yards and three touchdowns and also caught 23 passes for 411 yards and four more touchdowns. He’s also a big hitter in the secondary.
“It was devastating what happened to him,’’ Nagle said. “But I’ve never met a kid who works harder than him. He’s better than he was before his injury. He’s faster, stronger and more explosive. You won’t see him at running back right away. We want a long season so we’re going to take it easy on him at first.’’
Several plays before McClenahan went down against Clearfield, wide receiver Matt Reese went down with a broken collarbone. Reese also starts in the secondary.
“People tend to forget about Reese,’’ Nagle added. “When we lost him and Gage we lost our fastest guys.’’
This year, wide receiver Kaden Bittinger is also back and he brings more speed to the lineup.
“With those three — McClenahan, Reese and Bittingeer — teams are going to have a hard time covering us one-on-one,’’ said Nagle.
Reese caught 21 passes for 334 yards and two scores while Bittinger was second on the team in receiving with 36 catches for 611 yards and six touchdowns.
Clearing the way for the offense is a line that Nagle called, “the best line we’ve had in years. It’s our strongest by far.’’
Among the linemen BEA is counting on are Asher Burkett, Caleb Burns and Justin Hockenberry.
BEA also returns a veteran kicker in Peter Vancise, who kicked 29 PATs and a field goal.
Defensively the line and the secondary are expected to be strong suits but the loss of Caleb Roberts and Kael Gardner at linebacker left big holes. The secondary also lost Nick Turner, who led the team with five interceptions.
David Close, Burns, Burkett, and Hockenberry are expected to anchor the front.
“Gardner and Roberts will be tough to replace,’’ Nagle said. ‘We have six guys competing for those two spots.’’
The Eagles open their season on the road at Troy in a game that was pushed back to 5 p.m Aug. 24 — a Saturday.
The Eagles return home the following week to take on Philipsburg-Osceola on its brand new field.
“The kids are really excited about our new field,’’ Nagle said. “Its an upgrade from what we had.’’
It’s a fitting venue for a defending champion, bull’s-eye or not.
“We’re right where we want to be,’’ Nagle said.
Previews of all Centre County’s Mountain League teams will be published in the coming week.