Richland may have lost a number of talented individuals from last season’s District 6 Class AA championship squad, but the Laurel Highlands Athletic Conference coaches tagged the Rams as the team to beat on Friday at the league’s annual media day held at Greater Johnstown’s Trojan Stadium.
The Rams received nine of 12 first-place votes and were ranked no lower than fifth in the poll conducted by The Tribune-Democrat. Bishop Guilfoyle was second, receiving two first-place votes while Chestnut Ridge was third with the final first-place selection. Richland had 18 points, far outdistancing the Marauders with 40 points and the Lions with 41.
The Rams, who have six starters back on offense and five on defense, finished 13-1, winning the conference title, the district crown in a 21-12 victory over Ligonier Valley, and advancing to the first round of the PIAA playoffs before succumbing to Philadelphia West Catholic 35-7.
“Hearing what I’m hearing from the other schools, we seem to have the bull’s-eye on our backs and we accept that,” Richland coach Brandon Bailey said.
“Obviously, when you win, those types of things happen. It’s a lot easier sneaking up on people like we did last year, but we had a great offseason and we are excited to have the opportunity to come back and defend our title.
“The nice thing about last year was that we were able to get some comfortable leads last year and get a lot of other players some quality playing time, so almost everyone on both sides of the ball had a lot of quality varsity snaps.”
Westmont Hilltop was ranked fourth by the coaches with Bishop McCort and Bedford right behind.
Forest Hills, under new coach Justin Myers, was ranked seventh, followed by Somerset, Cambria Heights and Greater Johnstown. Central Cambria and Penn Cambria rounded out the 12-team field.
Richland will be replacing quarterback Joe Hauser, who finished as the Rams leading passer, along with linemen Dylan Dininny and Collin Instone, but returns the area’s second-leading receiver in Caleb Burke, who had 71 catches for 1,229 yards.
“We love having the target on our back and being the team that everyone wants to beat,” Burke said. “That just means you did something last year. We have a bunch of tough kids and we’ve worked very hard over the offseason.”
Bishop Guilfoyle finished 8-3 last season, losing to District 6 champion Juniata Valley in the semifinals.
“Our expectations are that we never like to look at the end result, really what we hope is that we get better every week,” Marauders coach Justin Wheeler said. “We do think that the program is in a really good place and our kids know what it takes to be committed and to win. So for us, we know where we are starting and I just tell the kids every day, to get better that day.”
Chestnut Ridge made a huge first impression in its return to the Laurel Highlands last season. The Lions were 8-2 in the league and went on to capture the District 5 Class AA title before falling in the first round of the PIAA playoffs to District 10 champion Wilmington.
“Our kids were anxious to show their merit, so that was an advantage for us last season,” Chestnut Ridge coach Max Shoemaker said. “Now we are a little more of a known quantity. We are excited about the prospects of what can be developed this year and hopefully our kids take it one game at a time. We are going to be inexperienced all the way across the board, but we have a few good kids coming back.”
Included in that group of returnees for the Lions is junior quarterback Logan Pfister, who passed for over 1,700 yards rushed for another 1,042.
“Logan Pfister is unique,” said Shoemaker, who has three returning players on offense and four on defense. “As a quarterback, he brings a lot to the table. I’m sure opposing defenses will be trying to figure out ways to shut him down and we will be trying to find way to get him loose.”