In a year in which seemingly nothing has gone according to plan, high school football was not spared.
Practices disrupted, plans changed, questions raised, routines switched around … you name it, football — along with just about everything else — has been on the rocks for quite a few months now. But the sport and the people who run it and play it are finally ready to go this Friday.
Chambersburg, without benefit of non-league games, or even a scrimmage, will face a huge challenge Friday night at 7 when it travels to Landis Field to take on Central Dauphin, a PIAA Class 6A state runner-up last year and the Mid Penn Commonwealth Division favorite.
The Trojans must find a way to replace 21 seniors from last year’s 6-5 team. It won’t be easy — three starting offensive linemen and the entire defensive front have departed, along with plenty of skill players.
“A lot of how we do this year will depend on what our front lines can do,” Chambersburg coach Mark Luther said. “In high school, if you can get solid line play, you can be successful. If we struggle up front, it will be tough for us. But if we get solid line play from the O-line and D-line, then I think we can be competitive.”
On the offensive line, the returning starters are senior center Chase Shaffer (5-10, 215) and senior left guard Joey Fuller (6-3, 250).
“Those two give us the experience, and we’re trying to find three more willing to take on a big role for us,” Luther said.
As of now, it appears that junior Brandon Vaughn (6-2, 200) will start at right tackle, sophomore Lucas Lohman (5-9, 220) will be at right guard and sophomore Carter Flory (6-2, 215) will be at left tackle. Sophomore Shonathan Desena (6-3, 250) and junior Patrick Demory (6-4, 235) are also in the mix.
“You cringe a little bit when you put sophomores out there in this conference,” Luther said. “Desena and Demory are big kids, but they’re only in their second year of football, so that makes it tough.”
Wide receiver is a position in which the Trojans are stacked, with the return of speedster Kevin Lee and smooth Sam Vessah, both seniors. Vessah caught 18 passes last year for 273 yards (15.2 avg.) and two touchdowns, while Lee snagged 11 balls for 211 yards (14.1 avg.).
Senior Carter Sollenberger (6-1, 185) will be an option at either wideout or tight end, and junior Malachi Scott (5-9, 150) or sophomore Curtis Bryant (5-11, 145) could also be targeted. Junior James Lilley (6-4, 200) will get the nod at tight end.
Luther said, “We need to find ways to get Vessah and Lee the football. They are both practicing and playing like seniors — confident — and we’re excited about both of them. Sollenberger is a good athlete with good hands and Lilley has been aggressive and physical.”
It will be up to new quarterback Malaki Blair (sr., 6-0, 160) to get them the ball. Blair is not a typical drop-back passer. He is more of a dangerous running threat in Chambersburg’s option system, but the Trojan staff will try to find plays for him to throw the ball, both on quick passes and downfield shots.
“Malaki played some last year and he’s played JV and junior high, and he’s done some really good things this summer,” Luther said. “He offers us a little more explosiveness with his legs. He’s not a pocket passer, but he’s good at the RPO stuff.”
Behind Blair will be another big weapon for the Trojans, senior running back Jayden Jones, who was reportedly transferring to Shippensburg over the summer. Last year Jones ran the ball 40 times for 325 yards (8.1 avg.) and six TDs, and caught two balls for 56 yards.
Luther said, “Obviously, Jayden’s going to be our feature back. At 6-feet, almost 190, that’s big for a high school runner. He has the talent and the ability; if we can create some seams for him, he could come up with some big plays.”
Backing up Jones will be junior Grant Hopple (6-1, 210), senior Nate Abbott (5-8, 150) and junior Dauntae Spencer (5-8, 165).
Luther said, “Every year, you have to look at what your strengths and weaknesses are. This year, our focus on offense is maybe not so much up the middle, but being quick and spreading the ball around. Maybe hit on some short, quick throws, and try some downfield stuff, which hopefully opens things up for Jayden running the ball.”
Whenever Chambersburg’s offense stalls, it will have a serious weapon in senior kicker Tanner Luther (5-8, 175), who is also the backup quarterback. A year ago, playing behind brother Tyler, Luther was 8-for-8 on extra points. He’ll also do the punting.
“I wouldn’t hesitate to let him take a (field goal) shot from 50 yards out,” coach Luther said. “And I expect most kickoffs to reach the end zone.”
On defense, Fuller (1 sack last year) will play at nose guard, flanked by ends Lilley and junior Jordan Spoonhour (6-3, 200).
“Spoonhour’s a lanky kid, who can move for his size,” Luther said.
The linebacker corps will include Hopple and senior Xavier Trawick (5-10, 190) on the inside, and Sollenberger and Vessah on the outside. Sollenberger recovered four fumbles last year, blocked a punt and had a sack. Hopple and Trawick each had a fumble recovery.
“I think Grant can be a big factor,” Luther said. “He has good size and he can move. Carter started every game last year and had a great season, and he’s more confident this year.”
The secondary will include Lee at right cornerback, Jones at right corner, Abbott at free safety and Tanner Luther at strong safety. Bryant and junior Andrew Bell (5-8, 150) will also see time at the corners.
Lee and Jones each had three interceptions a year ago, with Jones returning one for a score.
Luther said, “The defensive line doesn’t have to re-establish the line of scrimmage, but it can’t just give up ground. If we can hold the line and give our linebackers and the athletes behind them a chance, then that will keep us in ballgames.”
While the Trojans missed out on a lot of team sessions this spring because of COVID-19, they did get together for many practices in the summer. All in all, Luther estimates the time spent as a team worked out to roughly the same as in a normal year.
“It’s been taxing mentally, because we’ve had so many questions,” Luther said. “Like, what are we playing for, and when can we start, and when is our first game? Because of that, it feels like it’s been a really long season already and we haven’t even played a game yet.
“We just want to get to the kickoff Friday, and say, ‘Let’s go for it.'”
NOTES: Chambersburg’s scrimmage vs. Hershey was called off last Friday because a Trojan player — who had not practiced all week — tested positive for COVID … The team was cleared to begin practice for Monday … CD scrimmaged Middletown on Saturday.
The Trojans have seven games on their schedule, but only five are (at this point) for sure: Friday at CD, 7; Oct. 2 at home vs. Carlisle, 7; Oct. 9 at Altoona, 7; Oct. 16 at home vs. CD East, 7; and Oct. 23 at Cumberland Valley, 7 … Harrisburg is on the schedule for an away game Oct. 31, but the Cougars are not playing fall sports … Nov. 6 should be a home game for the Trojans against State College, but the Little Lions are still not sure if they’ll be playing football this fall or not.
Because the PIAA will allow football games among non-playoff teams to be played up until Thanksgiving, Luther said he has asked his AD, Jeremy Flores, about adding a game or two at the end … Luther said, “I’d like to stay local, maybe play Greencastle or Waynesboro. It’s about giving the kids, especially the seniors, a chance to play, since they probably won’t play this sport after this year.”
Chambersburg has qualified for the playoffs for the past two seasons … They lost 41-13 to Wilson in the first round of the District 3 Class 6A playoffs last year … Seven graduated players were hoping to play college football this fall.
MEDIA NOTE: As of Tuesday, Mid Penn Broadcasting and TheSportsPage.blog expect to be able to air at least a radio broadcast of the Chambersburg at Central Dauphin football game … We are working on being able to live stream the game, but that decision, which is up to the home school, is still under consideration …We will update this information as we get it.