Familiar names atop District 9 coaches poll

Times Observer photo by Brian Hagberg Smethport’s Blake Kinner (5), head coach Adam Jack and Nate Hollowell (21) spoke about the pressure associated with being the preseason No. 1 team in the District 9 Small Schools North coaches poll during District 9 Football Media Day in Ridgway, Pennsylvania, Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018. The Hubbers, who made 12 appearances in the old Allegheny Mountain League championship, are more than comfortable being the team to beat in the division and look forward to having other teams get “up” to face them.

RIDGWAY, Pa. – There have been a slew of changes to District 9 football since the final whistle blew last season.

Gone are the Allegheny Mountain League and Keystone Shortway Athletic Conference, in their place is the District 9 Football League. The league is separated into three divisions, Large School, Small School North and Small School South.

There are new faces at the helm for schools like Kane, Sheffield and Keystone, and some of the league’s premier players from a year ago have graduated.

With all the changes, however, familiarity reigned in the first District 9 Coaches Poll released during the District 9 Football Media Day in Ridgway Wednesday.

The teams sitting atop each division in the polls are all coming off strong 2017 seasons, and most have traditionally been D9 powerhouses.

The Small School North looks strikingly similar to the old AML North, with Cameron County, Coudersport, Otto-Eldred, Port Allegany, Sheffield and Smethport. And much like that AML North a year ago, coaches picked the teams finishing 1-3 for the top spots in the poll. Only they expect the order to be shaken up.

Smethport finished third in the AML North in 2017, but the Hubbers played well late in the year and return 16 starters, which is a big reason why they were picked for the top spot in the poll. Smethport appeared in 12 AML title games from 1989-2017, so having a target on their back doesn’t faze the Hubbers. In fact, they relish it.

“We want to be in the position to play up,” Smethport coach Adam Jack said.

“We set our expecatations that high,” senior running back Blake Kinnear added.

Otto-Eldred, coming off an AML North title, came in at No. 2, with 2017 AML North runner-up Coudersport third.

The Small School South division features a mix of AML and KSAC schools, with Clarion-Limestone, Curwensville, Elk County Catholic, Keystone, Redbank Valley and Union-A-C Valley.

Curwensville was the top pick by coaches as the best team in the division. The Golden Tide will have to replace District 9’s all-time leading rusher Nick Stewart (7,324 career rushing yards), but coach Andy Evanko has seemingly always found another runner to step in.

Redbank Valley comes in at No. 2, with Elk County Catholic third.

Coming off a surprising 9-2 season a year ago, Brookville took the top spot in the Large School (Bradford, Brockway, Brookville, Clarion, Kane, Karns City, Moniteau, Punxsutawney, St. Marys and Ridgway) poll. The Raiders key additions of coach Frank Varischetti (and his up-tempo offense) and quarterback Jack Krug (2,856 yards, 40 touchdowns, 11 interceptions in 2017) sparked Brookville’s turnaround. Both are back this year, and with a year of familiarity with each other, expectations are sky high.

The only team Brookville lost to in 2017, Clarion, takes the second spot in the poll, with Bradford (playing in its third league in four years) coming in at No. 3.

“We’re excited,” Bradford coach Jeff Puglio. “The competition is going to be fierce.”

That fierce competition will be on display early as the Owls and Raiders meet in Brookville Aug. 24.

With all the traditional powers filling out these polls, one school was noticeably absent.

Kane has been to six straight District 9 Championships, winning three. The loss to Clarion in the 2017 title game snapped a 39-game league winning streak for the Wolves. Todd Silfies stepped down as head coach in the offseason, but first-year coach Jim Hillman has plenty of experience, both with the system and the players.

Hillman has been part of the Kane staff for 23 years, and spent the last 10 as the middle school head coach.

“I often say they were mine first,” Hillman said.

Regardless of the lower external expectations, the Wolves are ready to show everyone they’re still the same force.

“People are going to see us being ourselves,” senior lineman Jake Silvis said. “I just want to strap the pads on.”