Mars slowly but surely acclimating to coach Eric Kasperowicz’s system

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Sunday, August 14, 2022 | 12:01 PM


A new coach, a new quarterback and a new playbook.

This is a summer of transition for the Mars football program under new coach Eric Kasperowicz, but learning a new offense and defense doesn’t happen overnight. Kasperowicz was hired in April, but it was sometime in early July that he and his staff started to notice the players were much more confident at practice.

“It did take a while,” Kasperowicz said. “Right around the Fourth of July, we gave them time off and that next week we had a practice or two where it really started clicking.”

The football program is trying to bounce back from a 2-8 season a year ago when the Planets were shut out twice and outscored 286-78.

Kasperowicz’s son, sophomore Eric Jr., will be the team’s starting quarterback after transferring from Pine-Richland. The former Pine-Richland coach moved his family into the Mars district and the WPIAL already ruled his son fully eligible for the season.

Mars was traditionally known for a strong running game under longtime coach Scott Heinauer, but the Planets are transitioning to a spread offense. When Kasperowicz was at Pine-Richland, the Rams went 85-18 in eight seasons with four WPIAL championships and two state titles.

“It’ll be the same offense and defense units you’ve come to know at Pine,” he said.

In his last season there, Pine-Richland averaged 48 points per game and allowed 12.

The offensive transition started last season when Mars hired former Pine-Richland assistant Ed Malinowski as offensive coordinator, but the defense got a complete overhaul once Kasperowicz was hired as head coach in April.

“This year, as we began to start up, you could see the whole spread offense clicking in guys’ minds,” said senior Noah Nesselroad, a wide receiver and defensive back. “It was almost one by one. You saw people start getting it and start understanding this isn’t a run-first offense anymore.”

The defense has taken a little longer to learn since it was entirely new.

“We’re not all there yet,” Nesselroad said, “but we’re getting there.”

Kasperowicz said Nesselroad will be one of the players Mars relies this season. The 5-foot-8, 165-pound slot receiver led the team with 33 catches and 257 yards, numbers that should dramatically jump.

“If he doesn’t catch 80-plus balls, it will be surprising,” Kasperowicz said.

The Planets also return senior receiver Hayden Mayer (6-0, 175), a deep threat who caught two of the team’s six touchdowns last season. Nesselroad also caught two TDs.

Last year’s starting quarterback, senior Rafael Bartley (6-3, 215), will play tight end and H-back this year. He completed 91 of 176 attempts for 971 yards with six touchdowns and 13 interceptions.

Leading rusher Evan Wright, a junior, also returns. The running back had 114 carries for 621 yards and four touchdowns last season. He averaged 88 yards per game with three 100-yard games.

“I think he could be one of the top running backs if he stays healthy,” Kasperowicz said. “He’s explosive.”

The offensive line received a boost with the addition of senior Evan Frye (6-3, 245), a member of the school’s state champion lacrosse team.

The defense is led by senior middle linebacker Jack Hull (5-11, 185). Junior Connor Hartle (6-2, 160), also a lacrosse player, will bolster the defense.

“There’s a good core, albeit we only have 15 seniors,” Kasperowicz said. “But there’s a good group of guys who will play a lot of football for us.”

He said one of the biggest disruptions this summer was family vacations. Summer workouts are voluntary prior to camp, but Kasperowicz decided to provide parents with three suggested weeks for scheduling their vacations next summer, hoping to have more players available at the same time.

“You can imagine trying to run anything if you’re missing a different 10% every week,” he said. “It’s tough to get into any continuity.”

Kasperowicz has said Mars now is similar to where Pine-Richland was when he took over in 2013. The Rams were 4-6 in 2011 and 4-5 in 2012, missing the playoffs both seasons. Pine-Richland went 5-5 in Kasperowicz’s first season. In Year 2, the Rams were 15-1 and finished as state runners-up.

But Kasperowicz said his only measuring stick for year one here is steady improvement.

“If the kids are working hard and are excited to be here, then I think you can put your head on the pillow at night and be OK with it,” he said.

Mars

Coach: Eric Kasperowicz

2021 record: 2-8, 2-5 in Class 4A Greater Allegheny Conference

All-time record: 428-525-32

SCHEDULE

Date, Opponent, Time

8.26 at Montour, 7

9.2 New Castle, 7

9.9 at Blackhawk, 7

9.16 Indiana*, 7

9.23 Moon, 7

9.30 at Highlands*, 7

10.7 Kiski Area*, 7

10.14 at Armstrong*, 7

10.21 Hampton*, 7

10.28 North Catholic*, 7

*Conference game

STATISTICAL LEADERS

Passing: Rafael Bartley

91-176, 971 yards, 6 TDs

Rushing: Evan Wright

114-621, 4 TDs

Receiving: Noah Nesselroad

33-257, 2 TDs

FAST FACTS

• Mars last won a playoff game in 2015. The Planets are 0-5 in the postseason since.

• While the football team struggled last season, there was plenty of success in the Mars athletic program. The girls soccer and boys lacrosse teams won WPIAL and state championships.

• One Mars graduate has played in the NFL. Sam Cooper, a 6-foot, 200-pound tackle out of Geneva College, played one game for the 1933 Pittsburgh Pirates, as the Steelers were then known. It was the first season in franchise history. Cooper was paid $100 for the game he played. He went on to be a superintendent of a boys’ home, teacher, coach and principal and died in 1998.

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at charlan@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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