OLYPHANT — An extensive list of veteran players makes the Old Forge football team a prohibitive favorite to continue two championship trends.
The Blue Devils have two separate 20-game winning streaks – in Lackawanna Football Conference Division 4 games and against District 2 opponents – as they prepare to open the season Sept. 5 at GAR in a clash of two of the district’s top small-school teams.
“It’s a different feeling than we had last year,” Old Forge coach Mike Schuback said during the LFC Media Day Aug. 11. “Last year’s record was a surprise. This year, we feel like we should be in that championship game.
“We feel like we should be playing in Week 12 with our experience.”
Coming off a school record 14 wins and first-ever appearance in the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association Class A championship game in 2013, Old Forge kept rolling last season even though it had many personnel changes.
Cooper Califano, who led the offense by rushing for 1,264 yards and 16 touchdowns last season, and Armando Sallavanti, the leading tackler on a defense that produced seven shutouts, are back from a team that was 12-0 until being roughed up in the first round of the state playoffs.
Califano joins Sallavanti at linebacker and Sallavanti also plays tight end, making them two of the half dozen two-way starters the Blue Devils bring back. Old Forge has two more returning starters on offense and another on defense.
It all adds up to make Old Forge appear to stand well above the pack as it gets ready to pursue its fifth straight Division 4 title and the fourth District 2 Class A championship in five years.
“There’s no doubt this year, returning upwards of seven or eight guys on both sides of the football,” Schuback said, “you definitely feel confident.”
Joey Gutowski, the quarterback/defensive back, returns. Gutowski moves to wide receiver at times with Paul Cariati able to step in and also is likely to be a key kick returner as the Blue Devils have to completely revamp their special teams.
Wide receiver/defensive back Jaret Horn and two-way linemen Mike Cantarella and Dylan Wilcox are the other two-way returning starters.
“Now, it’s their turn,” Schuback said. “They’re assuming the roles as leaders and captains of this team.”
Trevor Brown and Christian Mitchell are also back in the offensive line while Brendan Mozeleski returns at linebacker.
“We’re tackle-to-tackle based,” Schuback said. “Our inexperience at wideout will dictate some things throwing the football. Our offensive line is solid; our linebacking corps is solid; our secondary is solid.”
The Blue Devils do have some holes to fill.
Mozeleski could end up starting both ways, but Dean Nalaschi is also working at fullback.
Andrew Belles and Jonathan Herrera are battling for a vacant spot at guard.
Jerry Hobbs and Nasir Harris are wide receivers.
The tougher part of the Old Forge schedule could be in non-league games in the first half of the season, including playing potential District 2 Class AA contenders GAR, Lakeland and Lake-Lehman.