At the dawn of the 2018 football season, no one who broadcasts, reports on, or scouts at the high school level expected the Shamokin Indians to reach the semi-finals of the District 4 Class AAA playoffs.
Perhaps the sole exceptions were Shamokin head coach Henry Hynoski and his cadre of assistants.
When looking at the revamped schedule, many of the Shamokin faithful were willing to concede the rookie head coach and his staff a two win resume in their first season – especially after coming off three years where the team’s combined record stood at a doleful, 2-28.
Forget the sophomore jinx, second year blues, or whatever one wants to label it. Such a protracted and misguided myth is too often overstated in an attempt to sell other narratives that must conform to the fashionable football zeitgeist.
Hynoski’s history and lineage prove this true as the Northumberland County native has experienced success playing at every level of the game. That’s why the Shamokin Area School Board floated the idea of selling the former Pittsburgh Panther and New York Giant on Shamokin. To Hynoski’s credit, not all notable players can make the successful transition to coaching, but given his pigskin pedigree this was certainly no great revelation that many have come to appreciate and value.
Hynoski knew full well that committing to coaching on the high school level in a program that had been anchored in the doldrums was about changing attitudes, habits and instituting commitment. Over time, a football team takes on the personality of its head coach and the Indians were a quick study commencing with their opening stanza last season against Milton in a no quit 34-33 second half comeback victory that was simply inconceivable over what seemed like a generation of Shamokin football.
That momentum would carry the Indians all the way to the PIAA District 4 semi-finals, tallying six wins along the way. The tracks for this year’s campaign are greased for a season to remember that would include a win over Mount Carmel followed by a District 4 AAA championship.
Defending State AA Champion Southern Columbia takes to the road in a nationally televised game on ESPN 2 to open their season heading to Columbia, South Carolina against the Hammond Skyhawks, a program that has won 10 state titles since 2004 and 16 overall in the Palmetto state. As great as that is, the home opener that so many in the area are anxiously awaiting is the one at Crispin Field in Berwick when Southern meets the Bulldogs next season.
In the surprise move of the off-season, another Mt. Carmel native is taking over the reins of those formidable Berwick Bulldogs. Longtime head coach Carmen DeFrancesco, who after being dismissed by his alma mater and who had no intention of coaching again, is back manning the sideline.
DeFrancesco’s coaching resume is as formidable as it is lengthy. There is no lack of experience, motivation, or losing to be found. It was DeFrancesco’s established relationship with Bo Orlando, Berwick’s first year athletic director that rekindled the coaching spark. Berwick will be his sixth and final stop as a head coach.
Like Mount Carmel, it would not be hyperbole saying the Berwick Bulldogs are one of the Cadillac high school football programs in Pennsylvania. DeFrancesco did not sign a multi-year deal as the head coaching position at Berwick is reviewed yearly. DeFrancesco, along with C.J. Curry, the grandson of the winningest high school coach in Pennsylvania, the late legendary Berwick head coach, George Curry, are the only additions to the Bulldog staff. All the assistants of former head coach Frank Sheptock, who resigned following the end of last season, remain.
DeFrancesco has won with every program where he was the head coach. At 66, he is healthy, wealthy and wise and brings with him two eras of coaching experience to Crispin Field that was honed on the gridirons of Cardinal Brennan, Danville, Shamokin, Upper Dauphin, and Mt. Carmel compiling a stellar 152-98 lifetime record to draw upon.
When Bucknell dismissed head coach Joe Susan at the end of last season, the national search found his successor in David Cecchini, a former star wideout at Lehigh, who was the head coach at Valparaiso. It won’t be easy for Cecchini, who doesn’t have the luxury of any assistants leftover from last year’s Bucknell squad and must figure out who will be his quarterback as the 1-10 Bison played their version of musical signal callers to perfection last season.
The last time Bucknell won a Patriot League title was in 1996 when then head coach Tom Gadd had a number of local players on the roster who contributed. Cecchini would help himself if he scouted the local landscape and with it bring some much needed talent and perhaps some renewed interest in Bucknell provided there ever was one – sans the inaugural 1935 Orange Bowl – which saw Bucknell shutout the University of Miami 26-0, during FDR’s first term as president.
Gadd accomplished much during his tenure in Lewisburg, but the one thing he never came close to doing was filling the cavernous 13,100 seat Christy Mathewson-Memorial Stadium, which forever eluded the Bucknell Hall of Fame coach, who succumbed to cancer much too soon. Not much has changed since then as the Bison recorded their smallest crowd of the season last year on senior day in November. Moreover, the Bucknell women’s basketball home opener the same month saw more fannies in the seats.
Cecchini went 2-9 last year at Valparaiso and in his five years there went 17-38. Cecchini did however lead them to their first winning season in 14 years in 2017. But anytime head coaches talk about “reaching our full potential and if 6-5 is that ceiling…” The Bucknell faithful shouldn’t expect too much.
If there is one coach in the Patriot League who knows the lay of the land regarding Pennsylvania high school football talent, it’s the second year head coach of the Holy Cross Crusaders and Kulpmont native, Bob Chesney, Jr., who this past spring was inducted into the Bernie Romanoski Sr. Chapter of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame.
In their five victories during his rookie campaign last season Chesney rallied Holy Cross from four double-digit deficits into wins. During the season finale at Georgetown, the Crusaders posted the biggest comeback in school history by rallying from a 26-point fourth quarter hole to earn a 32-31 win.
Bucknell’s sole victory last year, ironically came against Holy Cross, 19-16 victory on the road in Worcester, Massachusetts. In a homecoming of sorts, Bob Chesney’s Crusaders will meet up with Bucknell on October 5 in Lewisburg.
Chesney has not only the football chops and acumen, but the coaching pedigree to go along with a lifetime head coaching record of 72-31. With his stellar rookie coaching job last year, the youthful head coach has put the Patriot League on notice making him my pick for the league’s 2019 Coach of the Year.
Punch your ticket and let the games begin.
Greg Maresca is a NYC native, USMC veteran and graduate of Bloomsburg University who has resided in Penn’s Woods for 30 years and has written a weekly for 13 of them.