It’s difficult for rivalry and friendship to coexist.
So when head coach Jack Tobias and his Bald Eagle Area football team face former Eagles’ defensive coordinator and new Bellefonte head coach Shannon Manning on Friday at Rogers Stadium, friendship will be put on hold.
“We’re friends throughout the year, but on Friday night that’s out the window,” Tobias said with a chuckle. “Like I told him, ‘Best of luck’ and I hope they win every other game except when they play Bald Eagle.”
Manning has kept in touch with Tobias and the BEA staff, and said playing against them might be a little “awkward,” but competitive nature will prevail after kickoff.
“I have a team that I’m responsible for,” Manning said. “I can’t be concerned with what their outcome is over there. I really have to be focused on what we’re doing, how we’re doing and what changes might need to be made.”
BEA is coming off its first season over .500 since 1994. That effort resulted in a District 6 playoff berth.
The Raiders are retooling with a new staff after last season’s 2-8 record.
“I think their expectations were high so I didn’t really have to tell them much,” Tobias said of his offseason approach with his team. “They got a taste of being in the playoffs and got that monkey off their back. I think they had a great attitude in the offseason and really worked hard. They’re playing with a lot more confidence and attention to detail. It’s been a great camp.”
The Eagles lost senior quarterback Cole Long, who threw 74 of the team’s 87 passes last season, which ended in a 41-6 loss to Ligonier Valley in the Class AA first round.
After scrimmages against West Branch and Juniata, Tobias has seen enough to name a starter, although he declined to make the decision public.
One thing is sure: Whoever plays quarterback for BEA will hand the ball plenty to senior running back Dakota Bartley.
The fleet-footed, shifty back led the Eagles with 695 rushing yards last season. Bartley had three 100-yard games.
“I think he picked up right where he finished the season,” Tobias said. “Came to camp in great shape and is much stronger than he was last year. … First two scrimmages he had real good showings so we’re expecting big things out of him again this year.”
BEA also returns speedy senior Bryan Greene, who was third last year in rushing (214) behind then-senior Dion Barnard (335).
Greene also took a few snaps under center along with junior Jason Jones. Either could start at quarterback Friday.
Greene’s twin brother, Bryce, who didn’t play last year, will provide another speedy threat. Jordan Kobularcik is a talented tight end who can also play in the slot.
“They have a lot of really good pieces,” Manning said of a BEA offensive attack that helped carve up Bellefonte twice last season, 42-17 and 41-0.
The Raiders’ defense, which gave up 40 or more points in seven of its losses, must cope with the Eagles’ team speed while adjusting to a new defensive system.
Gap control is the focus of the new 4-2-5 scheme that Manning said requires discipline.
The team’s scrimmages against Moshannon Valley, Purchase Line and Southern Huntingdon revealed modest progress, he said.
“We’re definitely not where we wanted to be, so this week (of practice) is big for us unlike a team that has been together or has had the same staff for a number of years,” Manning said. “We don’t have that luxury.”
The Raiders must rely on senior leadership from defensive lineman Matt Querns, defensive back Doylan Deitrich and linebackers Brian Hough and Jake Martin.
Offensively, switching to a wing-T formation after using the spread last season will also prove challenging.
After quarterback Jordan Fye graduated and Phil Fenstermacker transferred to St. Joseph’s, sophomore Mark Armstrong will start under center.
Manning said the wing-T requires precise footwork from its quarterback, which is something Armstrong is still choreographing. However, his coach is most pleased with something less tangible.
“Mark has poise,” Manning said. “For a sophomore, he does a really good job as a leader. He doesn’t have a problem stepping in and taking charge of the huddle or taking command of a situation. He’s not at all intimidated by only being a sophomore.”
Being cool under pressure will be important as the Raiders try to replace NuNu Buey, who also left for St. Joseph’s after leading the team in rushing (585 yards).
Deitrich, Nick Jabco and Austin Jackson will get Buey’s carries in the backfield, led by fullbacks Storm Smith and Dominic Masullo.
Nick Leiter, who led the team with 49 catches for 721 yards (14.71 per catch) and four touchdowns, will also figure prominently, although the new offense may curtail his receptions.
“At split end, it doesn’t really change his role,” Manning said. “It may change the frequency with which he sees the football, but it won’t change his role. He’ll still be our go-to receiver and he’s still a downfield threat that stretches the field.”
For a young team with just nine seniors and new offensive and defensive systems to implement, the Raiders will not measure progress solely by the scoreboard, Manning said.
“We haven’t talked in terms of wins and losses because I truly feel that if we make progress those things take care of themselves,” he said. “We are an extremely young team in a talented conference and as long as we make progress week to week, the wins will take care of themselves.”
Manning, who started his career coaching the Bellefonte offensive and defensive lines for the 1999 District 6 Class AAA championship team, expects his team to have a specific identity.
“Hard-nosed. Physical. Get after ‘ya. Constant effort,” he said. “Win, lose or draw you want your opponents to step back and go ‘I’m glad that game didn’t go into overtime, and I’m glad we don’t have them on the schedule anymore.’
“That’s what we’ve been trying to hammer home with these guys,” Manning continued. “A physical style of play. Take pride in everything you do from how you break the huddle to how you get to the line of scrimmage. Everything. Just trying to get them to take pride in all that they do and translate it to off the field and in the classroom as well.”