Line leads Laurel in quest for elusive playoff berth

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Friday, August 28, 2020 | 11:17 PM


It’s not the kind of distinction any football team would want to earn, but Laurel is one of the top candidates all the same.

The Spartans might just be the best team to not qualify for the WPIAL playoffs either of the last two seasons.

“It’s nice to be noticed,” coach Brian Cooper said. “It would have been a lot nicer to be in there.”

Take last year for example. The Spartans went 7-3 with their only losses coming to WPIAL champion Clairton and playoff qualifiers Cornell and OLSH. They beat WPIAL runner-up Sto-Rox. But because the Class A playoff bracket only included eight teams, Laurel was on the outside looking in.

“We just feel like if a couple breaks went our way, we could have easily been champions instead of not making the playoffs,” Cooper said. “We know we’ve been playing quality football.”

As Laurel tries to get over the hump and qualify for the playoffs this season, it will set its sights on a new bracket. Realignment has bumped the Spartans up to Class 2A and the Midwestern Athletic Conference.

Cooper said the promotion is likely to be short-lived. One larger-than-average class moved Laurel up a classification, and by the time the next realignment is drawn up, the Spartans will almost certainly return to Class A.

In the meantime, they’ll take their shots at some larger foes.

“We had a couple good, strong years in the section we were in,” Cooper said. “We feel we’re battle tested and ready to go.”

Laurel makes the climb to Class 2A with a couple of impact players in tow.

Starting in the trenches, 6-foot-4, 285-pound WPIAL wrestling champ Mitch Miles will lead the way on both sides of the ball.

“He’s the best I’ve ever coached at the high school level,” Cooper said. “To move like he does and be explosive like he is, the kind of run blocker he is, how smart he is with the game, I’m having a hard time understanding why he hasn’t got the big-time offers yet because to me, he’s a big-time ballplayer. If it doesn’t happen, some of the Division I-AA or Division II schools are going to get one hell of a ballplayer because to me, he’s the best I’ve ever seen.

“It’s nonstop. Pancake after pancake, driving kids 10 or 15 yards down the field.”

Add Rylan Collier, a 290-pound three-year starter at center; Andy Harlan, a 280-pound returning starter at left tackle; and Cam Caldararo, a two-year starter at tight end moving to guard, and Laurel should routinely push teams around.

“We’re big up front with a lot of experience,” Cooper said.

Injuries helped keep the Spartans out of the playoffs the last two years, and one of the players who went down was running back/linebacker Luke McCoy, now a junior, who suffered a knee injury. He ran for 1,000 yards as a freshman, and at the point he was injured last year, the Spartans had yet to give up a point.

“He’s back and he’s faster than he was. His 40 time and the speed and strength, he looks really good,” Cooper said. “He’s such a versatile player and an impact player. It’s great to see him healthy again.”

The biggest question mark is under center. Junior Logan Ayers looks ready to step in, but he lacks experience and didn’t have passing scrimmages over the summer to hone his game. Senior Zach Maine and sophomore Chase Tinstman are also on the depth chart.

Kobe DeRosa, Michael Pasquarello and Josh Gibson are back in the backfield and Landon Esposito returns at wide receiver.

“All those guys are fast, explosive guys,” Cooper said. “The speed on the field is exciting to see. I think we’ll be very good defensively and we’ll take a little bit to mature offensively, but the skill level is there.”

Schedule

Coach: Brian Cooper

2019 record: 7-3, 5-2 in Class 2A Midwestern Athletic Conference

All-time record: 336-255-10

Date, Opponent, Time

9.11, at Neshannock*, 7

9.18, at Beaver Falls*, 7

9.25, Riverside*, 7

10.3, Freedom*, 7

10.9, at New Brighton*, 7

10.16, Mohawk*, 7

10.23, Ellwood City*, 7

*Class 2A Midwestern Athletic Conference game

Statistical leaders

Passing: Will Shaffer*

44-97, 602 yards, 9 TDs

Rushing: Dom Wade*

144-780 yards, 7 TDs

Receiving: Dylan Aquaro*

24-358 yards, 5 TDs

*Graduated

Fast facts

• Laurel is celebrating the 40th anniversary of its only WPIAL championship. The Spartans defeated Clairton, 14-12, in the Class A finals in 1980.

• Laurel was held under 20 points only twice last season, in a 15-0 win over California and in a 33-7 loss to WPIAL Class A champion Clairton.

• With 142 boys in grades 10-12, Laurel is the sixth-smallest WPIAL school in Class 2A football. Frazier (140), Carlynton (139), South Side (136), Chartiers-Houston (135) and Sto-Rox (13) are smaller.

• Laurel made the playoffs the last two seasons it competed in Class 2A in 2016 and 2017.

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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