Strap ‘Em Up: Football season kicks off tonight

It’s an earlier start than usual, but high school football is back in Pennsylvania.

Teams now have the option to begin the season or play a second scrimmage in what the PIAA calls “Week 0” this Friday and Saturday, and all four Warren County programs chose to get the ball rolling with official games.

On Friday, Eisenhower visits Mercyhurst Prep and Youngsville hosts Saegertown in non-region action. Warren and Sheffield get underway on Saturday at East and hosting Elk County Catholic, respectively.

This week’s games are also a chance to get an early look at Pennsylvania’s new six-classification system. Youngsville and Sheffield remained at 1A, Eisenhower is 2A and Warren is 4A. With the exception of Sheffield, all are opening the year against teams one class higher.

Below are previews of all four games along with projections from the Born Power Index.

Eisenhower (0-0) at

Mercyhurst Prep (0-0)

As the only local team to make the playoffs last year, Eisenhower has high expectations heading into the 2016 season.

The Knights have plenty of talent returning on both sides of the ball as they venture into Class 2A. The biggest change for Ike will be at quarterback, where Spencer Head will move under center after the graduation of his older brother, Louie. His weapons in the passing game include receivers Jaydon Hayes and Spencer Gray, who along with tight end Thomas Warren are all big targets standing well over 6-foot.

On the ground, expect to see Adam Pascuzzi return to his role as the primary running back with Bryon Braswell offering a change of pace. They’ll run behind an experienced offensive line featuring returning starters Hunter McNutt, Ryan Schnars, John Hummel and John Bortz.

That group will also make up the defensive core tasked with stopping a Mercyhurst Prep offense that averaged a dismal 9.6 points per game in last year’s 1-9 season. The Lakers do return several key players, including Jesse Luketa, who is attracting Division I interest at linebacker. Sophomore Zack Helsley is back to lead the running game after rushing for close to 1,000 yards as a freshman, and four of five starters on the offensive line also return.

WHEN: Friday, August 26 at 7 p.m.

WHERE: Erie Veterans Stadium

BPI: Eisenhower is favored by 17.6 points

Saegertown (0-0) at Youngsville (0-0)

It’s been a tough couple of years for the Youngsville football program.

Progress doesn’t come easy, and the Eagles will look to continue rebuilding when they open the season against Saegertown at Mike Shine Field. First-year head coach Andy Chase will take over on the sidelines after previously serving as an assistant, and will try to build a foundation for future success.

Despite low participation numbers, Youngsville has a few key returners from last year’s 0-10 team. Mason Benjamin was all over the field as a sophomore and can fill several roles for the Eagles this season as well. Senior receivers Brady Kesterholt and Wyatt Rugar are back along with running back Dylan Burt to give junior quarterback Gavin Horner plenty of options on offense.

The Eagles aren’t the only team trying to make positive steps in Friday’s game, as Saegertown is coming off a 1-9 season with the lone win coming at Youngsville’s expense. The Panthers bring back their three leading rushers from that team in Shane McClinton, Zach Posego and Ezra Mattocks along with an experienced offensive line. The run game could be important for Saegertown with the loss of last year’s quarterback, Dane Rhoades.

WHEN: Friday, August 26 at 7 p.m.

WHERE: Mike Shine Field

BPI: Saegertown is favored by 11.8 points

Warren (0-0) at East (0-0)

Warren is a young team looking to rebuild, while East is just trying to put a team on the field.

The Dragons were hit hard by the graduation of several key skill players, not to mention the loss of starting running back Solomon Gross. Gross moved to Indiana, leaving the backfield wide open for a new crop of players to step up as Warren jumps up to Class 4A this year.

One of those players that might take on a bigger role is running back Austyn Cummings. Cummings rotated into the backfield last year as a freshman, and could join teammates Nick DeSimone and Marvin Bryant in carrying the workload left by Gross and Ryan Gorgacz. Jake Kupchella and Mitchell Bryant are two players coach Greg Latimer can use to fill the void left by the graduation of quarterback Evan Suppa while the trio of Austin Brenner, Andrew Egger and Hayden Salapek return to anchor both the offensive and defensive lines.

East has struggled getting players to consistently attend practices and has already had to cancel a scrimmage this year. Coming off a season with only one win, the Warriors are also tasked with replacing most of their starters on both sides of the ball.

WHEN: Saturday, August 27 at 1 p.m.

WHERE: Erie Veterans Stadium

BPI: Warren is favored by 15.5 points

Elk County Catholic (0-0) at Sheffield (0-0)

The co-op with Abraxas makes Sheffield the Allegheny Mountain League’s wild card heading into every season.

This year, the Wolverines have the benefit of returning their entire starting offensive line to bring some stability to a roster in a constant state of change. Mason Albaugh, Cameron Retterer, Drew Higby, Nick Knowles and Gabe Donato are back to block for a new mix of skill players.

Cale Albaugh is back at quarterback for Sheffield and Matt Dunham returns to the backfield. Any number of players could contribute through the co-op, including Kevin Evans, Darnell Mason, Damani Ray and Jahrid Burges. Evans’s name should ring a bell to Warren County football fans – he caught Adam Higby’s pass on a two-point conversion to beat Eisenhower in overtime in 2014.

As always, the big question mark for the Wolverines is how quickly they can come together as a team before AML North play begins. That won’t be an easy task right away with Elk County Catholic coming in as a historically strong program out of the AML South, though the Crusaders did lose a number of key players from last year’s roster.

WHEN: Saturday, August 27 at 1:30 p.m.

WHERE: Sheffield High School

BPI: Elk County Catholic is favored by 46.3 points