Having stabilized program, next step for Freedom is playoff berth

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Saturday, August 20, 2022 | 12:01 PM


After three coaching changes in the previous four years, the Freedom football team was looking to establish some stability last season.

With athletic director John Rosa stepping in as head coach, did the Bulldogs do that?

Yes.

But they were one quarter away from making that a “yes” in all capital letters.

The Bulldogs had a solid season. They went 4-6, and two of those losses were by five points to South Side in the season opener and two points in overtime to Western Beaver the week after that.

“For the most part, we played competitively, which is what we were hoping to do,” Rosa said. “I think it’s going in the right direction. We lost a couple of key players that will be tough to replace. We’ll have a young team than can compete. That’ll be the goal, again, to try to be in competitive games.

“We don’t expect to win every game, but we don’t expect to lose every game, either. Hopefully we can pull out more than we don’t pull out.”

The variable that could have upgraded last season from good to great was a Week 9 matchup with rival New Brighton with a playoff berth on the line. The game hung in the balance in the fourth quarter, but Freedom suffered a 20-8 loss.

It’s a game the Bulldogs have not forgotten.

“We had seven turnovers,” Rosa said. “We talk about that game a lot. Every time we drop the ball in our summer workouts, we talk about the seven turnovers we had in the New Brighton game. New Brighton’s our crosstown rival. We battle. It’s a rivalry game. That one stung, but I don’t think one game really defines our season. We’re trying to get things going in the right direction.

“We had a lot of young kids playing. Even though we had a handful of seniors who were pretty crucial for us, all of these young kids we had playing last year, they’re back with experience. We feel that gives us a good nucleus to start with.”

The most crucial graduated senior the Bulldogs need to replace is quarterback Carter Slowinski, a 1,400-yard passer who led the way last season. Rosa said a handful of players were competing for that spot in camp.

Beyond that, Freedom has some pieces in place. Four starters return on the offensive line. Dekota Roberts is an exciting young receiver to watch. Tyler Welsh and Cody Patterson are promising ballcarriers.

Cooper Young is the kind of athlete who will find a spot on the field even if he doesn’t win the quarterback competition. Nate Dinardo is a solid returning starter at cornerback.

The key to the whole operation, though, could be senior Damian Grunnagle, a four-year starter who will be a physical force as a fullback and tight end on offense and especially as a linebacker on defense.

“He’s as solid a player as you’ll find in Double-A football on the defensive side of the ball, and he’s one of those quiet leaders,” Rosa said. “It’s not all rah-rah. It’s, ‘I’m going to go out and do my job.’ ”

In an interesting wrinkle, Freedom will go back to its Wing-T offense this season, which should be a nice addition to the rough-and-tumble Midwestern Athletic Conference.

“Teams are going to have to change their defenses up a little bit,” Rosa said. “That works both ways. We won’t necessarily know what they’re going to do to us, but they’re going to have to change maybe what’s been successful for them against some of the other teams. It can work both ways, but it adds a dimension to scouting and gameplanning and things like that that maybe gives us a little bit of an advantage.”

Freedom

Coach: John Rosa

2021 record: 4-6, 3-4 in Class 2A Midwestern Athletic Conference

All-time record: 426-543-54

SCHEDULE

Date, Opponent, Time

8.26 Quaker Valley, 7:30

9.2 Ambridge, 7:30

9.9 at Beaver, 7:30

9.16 Ellwood City*, 7:30

9.23 at Riverside*, 7

10.1 at Western Beaver*, 12:30

10.7 Neshannock*, 7:30 pm

10.14 at Mohawk*, 7

10.21 Beaver Falls*, 7:30 pm

10.28 at New Brighton*, 7

*Conference game

STATISTICAL LEADERS

Passing: Carter Slowinski*

108-206, 1,447 yards, 11 TDs, 12 INTs

Rushing: Josh Pail*

99-391, 5 TDs

Receiving: Josh Yeck*

39-595, 4 TDs

*Graduated

FAST FACTS

• Freedom will have to replace its only all-conference selection from last season, running back Josh Pail, who led the team in rushing each of the past two seasons.

• Before last season’s opener, Freedom renamed its field in honor of alumnus and 2020 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Jimbo Covert.

• After making the WPIAL playoffs each of the previous four seasons, Freedom missed the postseason in 2020 as the district went to a shrunken pandemic-year playoff field and in 2021 because of a loss in the last game of the year to New Brighton.

• Freedom and New Brighton have one of the longest-running rivalries in the WPIAL. The schools first met in 1902.

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review Assistant Sports Editor. You can contact Jonathan by email at jbombulie@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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