After 2020 emergence, Shenango banking on experience
Thursday, August 26, 2021 | 6:01 AM
Jimmy Graham has watched his crop of seniors grow in a major way. And now it may be time for the harvest.
Shenango went 1-9 in Graham’s first season in 2018. That was followed by a 6-4 campaign in which the Wildcats fell just short of the postseason. In 2020, however, Shenango broke through, going 7-2 and reaching the WPIAL Class A semifinals, losing to Clairton.
“The guys I have now, it’ll be their fourth year with me,” said Graham, who is coaching at his alma mater. “I think they’ve bought in. We took our lumps their first year, and a lot of these kids had to play as ninth graders. Gradually, we’ve gotten a little bit better.”
That seems like an understatement.
As freshmen, the Wildcats’ current seniors were outscored by 330 points and had the fourth-worst defense in the WPIAL. A year ago, the offense was the fourth-best in Class A.
“One of the hardest things to do is replicate experience,” Graham said. “Looking back, it was bad during the time, but in the long run, it’s benefitted us.”
Graham will have to find a way to fill the void left by graduated tailback Reis Watkins, who scored 21 touchdowns and finished seventh in rushing in the WPIAL.
Shenango plans to rely on a committee of tailbacks including CJ Miller, who saw time when Watkins was banged up late in 2020. Hayden Morgan and Hunter Lively will tote the ball as well.
On top of the loss of Watkins, the Wildcats will also have to find a new quarterback, as last year’s primary starter, Tino Campoli, will not play in 2021 due to a surgery from a baseball injury. Freshman Sam Patton and sophomore Sam Myers have emerged as potential options.
Because of the uncertainty at that position, the Wildcats will rely on veteran linemen in seniors Brandon Stuck, Trever Valenti, Jason Domenick and junior Kyle Lenhart.
“We do have a little bit of experience on the line,” Graham said. “They know what it takes to produce some good rushers and open holes up.”
Dalton Peters, Adam Bryant and Preston Schry will play wide receiver. Sam Patton’s older brother, Will, is set to work as a tight end alongside Colton Fedrizzi.
Graham acknowledges that the depth of the roster will be a bit challenged, with only 27 players. Because of that, the group of offensive linemen will work on the defensive line.
The linebacking corps is led by Aaron Martin, while the main running backs and receivers will play in the secondary.
“We’re pretty happy with the group that we have and think we can make some noise in the conference,” Graham said. “But we have to stay healthy.”
That will be key in Big Seven Conference play, and in nonconference action, where Shenango meets nearby rivals — and solid squads — like Laurel and Neshannock.
“They’ll be tough matchups for us,” Graham added. “They are rivalries here in Lawrence County. We’ll do our best to get prepared for those. We look forward to those games.
“As for our conference, there are some really, really good teams. I wouldn’t say there’s one team where you say, ‘Yeah, that’s an easy W.’ Everything looks good on paper, but you’ve still got to go suit up and play the game of football.”
Ultimately, Graham wants to continue the impressive turnaround he has led since returning to Shenango. But he has seen how quickly his program has risen and knows it could always head in the other direction.
“We had a great season last year, but that doesn’t guarantee us anything,” he said. “We have to come out and put the work in and prepare week in and week out for the next opponent.
“I always tell the kids, give me 100% effort. Don’t ever let me question your effort. And whatever happens, happens. … Just don’t go out and give half effort and wonder why we lose.”
Coach: Jimmy Graham
2020 record: 7-2, 6-1 in Class A Big Seven Conference
All-time record: 420-362-38
Date, Opponent, Time
8.28 at Neshannock, 7
9.3 Laurel, 7
9.10 at Ellwood City, 7
9.17 at Fort Cherry, 7
9.24 Cornell*, 7
10.1 at Burgettstown*, 7
10.8 Northgate*, 7
10.16 at OLSH*, 7
10.22 Rochester*, 7
10.29 at Union*, 7
Passing: Tino Campoli
49-107, 746 yards, 8 TD
Receiving: Ryan Lenhart*
15-223, 3 TD
Rushing: Reis Watkins*
128-1271, 21 TD
• Shenango’s WPIAL semifinal appearance in 2020 was the program’s first since 1987, and the first playoff appearance since 2016.
• After a standout career at Shenango, Graham played quarterback at Westminster and is the school’s second-leading passer in its history.
• Reis Watkins averaged 9.9 yards per carry in 2020, earning Big Seven Conference Offensive Player of the Year honors. He is now playing at Slippery Rock.
• Outside of the loss to Clairton in the Class A semifinals, the Wildcats’ only other loss in 2020 was to Rochester, 13-0, in the final week of the regular season.
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