There's a sense of optimism at Burlington Central, where new coach Rich Crabel has been hired to guide the program back to the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
Crabel was the team's defensive coordinator from 1999-2005 and an assistant under former coach Aaron Wichman, who resigned last spring and was later hired as Freeport's head coach. He brings a new approach coupled with a deep knowledge of program personnel.
"I spent the last two years setting up the defense, and I know these seniors because I coached them as freshmen," Crabel said. "I don't usually try to put numbers out there as far as predicting records, but I expect us to be successful every time we step on the field. And we play some very good teams."
A team strength is depth at the skill positions, particularly on offense. Junior quarterback Ryan Ritchie (5-11, 180) returns for his second season at quarterback.
"He looks good," Crabel said. "He's throwing the ball really well and he's got a lot of weapons."
The tip of the receiving spear is senior Zach Ranney (5-10, 155), a returning all-BNC East pick whose ability to run after the catch makes him a dangerous target. The team's deep flanker corps also includes juniors Joe Breeden (5-7, 130) and Tyler Majewski (6-0, 175).
The Rockets enjoy height at split end, thanks to seniors Mikiel Thompson (6-2, 190) and Shane Robinson (6-1, 185) and junior Carter Muelling (6-5, 195) "We just got (Muelling) into the program," Crabel said. "He'll go get a ball. And we have six to eight more receivers after these guys who will get chances after working hard."
Ritchie has tall tight ends to target: Andrew Yarwood (6-3, 185) and Troy Klingberg (6-3, 195). Senior Logan McFarlane (5-10, 260) is the team's most experienced offensive lineman. Junior Paxton Cesaroni (6-1, 210) has been slowed in the preseason by an injury but is expected to be a factor.
Offensive coordinator Brett Porto has the green light from Crabel to pass more this season, but he can also count on multiple ball carriers in the prostyle offense. Senior Chandler Crary (6-0, 200) returns to play fullback. He'll split carries with senior Al Willett (5-10, 190). Junior Joel Bouagnon (6-1, 205) will start at tailback.
"And there's another five running backs we can work in and get time," Crabel said. "We'll do our best not to play kids both ways. We'll be happy if we're under four playing both ways. For the most part I don't like to play defensive and offensive linemen both ways. That helps during games. We want to make sure we get as many of our 45 players on the field as we can."
Defensively, Crary earned all-BNC East honors last year at linebacker. He will be joined at linebacker by Bouagnon, a prospect whom Crabel says has the build and athleticism to handle the rigors of playing both ways.
Likewise, Willett is a returning starter at safety who has grown stronger and gained speed, his coach said.
Senior safety Johnny Major (5-10, 165) is the third returning stater on defense, though Klingberg saw time at defensive end and Ranney played some in the secondary.
Majewski and Breeden will see time at cornerback. Yarwood, Klingberg and junior Matt Bozich (6-1, 180) will rotate at defensive end and five more players are in the mix at defensive tackle.
Burlington Central returns only four starters on each side of the ball, but a good attitude makes up for a lot, said the new coach.
"These kids have a really good work ethic," Crabel said. "If we have a strength it's good leadership. These kids haven't been as successful as they wanted to be in the past, so they're definitely geared to changing that. We still have a lot of work to do, but I think we'll be a successful team."