Football season kicks off tonight

CENTRAL SUSSEX — It might still feel like summer outside, but in the mind of prep sports fans it’s football season.

Games across the state kickoff tonight, with Sussex Central’s home bout versus Laurel the first on tap.

Sussex Tech and Indian River will both get started a day later with long road trips, the former heading to A.I. duPont and the latter all the way out to Frederick, Md., where it will play Linganore High.

Phil Townsend's career as a head coach begins tonight. (Sussex county Post/Jeff Mitchell)

Phil Townsend’s career as a head coach begins tonight. (Sussex county Post/Jeff Mitchell)

Here’s a look at each local team’s prospects for its respective seasons.

Sussex Central

Sussex Central finished last season as one of the hottest football teams in the Henlopen North.

Unfortunately for the Golden Knights, who won their final four games, a slow start to the year led to the program’s second consecutive .500 record.

The first half of Central’s schedule this season could prove to be even more difficult than last year’s, as the Knights dropped Division II teams Lake Forest and St. Mark’s and picked up contests at Queen Anne’s County High School (Md.) and Interboro (Pa.) They open the season 7 p.m. at home in the DFRC Kickoff Classic versus Division II runner-up Laurel and begin conference play Oct. 2 against crosstown rival and defending North champion Sussex Tech.

“We need to start faster than we did last season and minimize mistakes,” coach John Wells said. “Mistakes hurt us in our first three games last year. We want to come out fast and play clean football.”

There will be some new faces at multiple skill positions when the Knights begin the season. Amontay Clanton, a two-year starter at quarterback, running backs Shawn Savage and James Jenkins and tight end JD Messeck all graduated in the spring.

Senior Chase Wells and junior Brady Bowden are competing for the quarterback position with the loser likely finding a starting spot at receiver. Junior Mark Tolson will likely step in at tight end and senior Aaron Spady could be the Knights’ top receiver.

Senior Cory McCary and juniors Fulton Holland and Tim Jones all got carries last year and return to the backfield. Juniors John Morris and Kendrique Nocks return as well. The group will be joined by senior halfback Kiante Sturgis, who transferred to Sussex Central from Indian River.

“Our quarterback won’t have as strong an arm downfield (as Clanton did) but (he’ll) complete passes,” coach Wells said. “We’re very happy with the backs we have and our (offensive) line.”

Strong defense was a staple at Sussex Central when it dominated the North through the end of last decade, but in recent seasons the unit has been underwhelming. Wells thinks the recent trend could change this season.

“Our defense hasn’t played well the last two seasons, of course it’s been against teams with good skill players on our schedule,” Wells said. “How much of it was our defense, how much was the opposition? I think with what we have back it’s promising but we have to keep working. Several linebackers are back and our secondary is young but pretty fast. There’s seven or eight guys vying for jobs (in the secondary).”

Finishing alone on top of the Henlopen North is Central’s first goal, but the ultimate hope is for the Knights to win their school’s first football state championship.

“The goal this year is the same as most years,” Wells said. “These seniors were freshmen the last time we even tied for the conference. We want to be in the playoffs and try to get to that last game and bring some excitement back.”

Sussex Tech

Sussex Tech is coming off arguably the best season in program history since the football team joined Division I two decades ago.

Behind a powerful ground game and a strong rush defense, the 2014 Ravens finished 10-2 overall, went undefeated in Henlopen North play and reached the state tournament semifinals.

Sussex Tech begins its North title defense tonight. (Sussex County Post/Jeff Mitchell)

Sussex Tech begins its North title defense tonight. (Sussex County Post/Jeff Mitchell)

Despite the loss of some key contributors on both sides of the ball – including All-State first team running back Kani Kane, second team defensive tackle Billy Ball, linebacker Scott Wolk defensive back Jamont Matthews and punter Ryan Seeley, as well as third team receiver Travis Quillin – coach Mark Quillin thinks this year’s Ravens can go even farther.

Part of the reason for his optimism stems from the return of 24 seniors to the flock this season.

“I think the seniors got a real taste of what it was to have a quality season,” coach Quillin said. “We won through a quarterfinals game against a very tough opponent Salesianum before losing to Middletown. Taking that loss the way we did has been in their craw all year. It’s a little bit of a motivation factor. Our offseason has been the best in my three years here because of the senior leadership we have.”

On offense last season the Ravens’ gameplan typically included a heavy dose of Kane. This year, however, Quillin said Tech will be more balanced with the ball.

Back with the team is senior quarterback Justin Hill. In the backfield with him will be classmate Patrick Griffin, who will move from fullback to tailback, senior fullback Timaun Williams and junior Isaiah Brown, who will take over for graduated speedster Xavier Drummond.

“We’re a little more balanced this year,” Quillin said. “Our three backs are a little more even in terms of speed. Pat Griffin is taking over for Kani, we’ll modify our offense a little to fit him. Timaun Williams is a quick fullback instead of a power back and Isaiah Brown is a good athlete and smart kid. Justin Hill coming back is a blessing. We won’t be quite a tall at split end, but we’ll have good speed and we’ll work on crisper routes. Blocking will still be a key point for us on the perimeter.”

Tech’s defense will benefit from the return of senior Jimmy Harmon at the safety position. Williams and Brown will also be part of the secondary. Junior Jordan Marvel is moving to inside linebacker to replace Wolk and has put on about 20 pounds without losing speed, Quillin said.

“Defensively it’s going to be tough to replace Billy Ball,” Quillin said. “It’s going to be a defense by committee. Team defense is what wins it all.”

Sussex Tech is scheduled to begin the season with nonconference road games at A.I. duPont on Friday and then Indian River on Sept. 18. The Ravens begin defending their Northern Division title Oct. 2 at crosstown rival Sussex Central.

Indian River

As a player, Phil Townsend was part of Indian River’s return to football relevance during the middle of last decade.

Now the former linebacker, who graduated in 2007, will look to guide the Indians back to the Division II playoffs after a rare losing season.

Townsend, who joined the IR staff in 2011 as a special teams coordinator, was named the Indians’ new head coach entering this season. He’s taking over for mentor Ray Steele, who guided IR to a state championship in 2011 and took the Indians to the playoffs the following two seasons.

Getting back on top of the Henlopen South, Townsend said, is a priority for IR this season.

“The Indians will be in the mix for the Southern Division title,” he said, noting key games this year will be at Laurel (Oct. 9), home versus Delmar (Oct. 30) and at defending South champion Lake Forest Nov. 6. Those three teams outscored IR by more than 100 points last season.

Coming off three consecutive playoff appearances, IR struggled to a 4-6 record in 2014 and went 3-3 in conference play. One reason for the Indians’ struggles, their new leader said, was youth.

Fortunately most of those young players return to the tribe this season with experience under their belt. Included in the group of returnees is a trio of seniors who all earned All-South second team honors, linebackers Lance Harmon and Deandre Cooper and guard Joey Anderson.

IR will have to replace speedy halfback Kiante Sturgis, who transferred to Sussex Central prior to the school year, in the backfield. The Indians will look to returning junior Gerald Foreman, as well as senior Gunnar Moldrick and Harmon to do so.

Those backs will be running behind an experienced offensive line that includes returners Anderson, senior Sito Osegueda, junior Zion Howard and sophomore John Kohr. Junior Gianni Gottschalk returns at tight end as well.

“(We) came off a tough 2014 football season,” Townsend said. “Many of the starters were underclassmen and participated in out of season weight training.”

Senior Jake Hudson figures to run the offense under center this season, while senior newcomers Harley Hunt (two-way lineman), Barry Hooper (receiver/defensive end), Isaiah Morris (running back/defensive back) and Connor Phillips (two-way lineman) will be counted on to make an impact.

On Friday IR will open the season at Linganore High School in Maryland and a week later Townsend will make his home debut as head coach in a nonconference bout versus Sussex Tech. The Indians finish nonconference play on the road at Cape Henlopen and then begin their hunt to reclaim the South on Oct. 2 at home versus Seaford.

From the Sussex County Sports Desk

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