Small roster Imani Christian hopes for happier ending

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Tuesday, August 20, 2019 | 9:51 AM


Imani Christian is faced with a steep task to begin 2019, but it is not necessarily something new.

The Saints’ thin roster was nearly cut in half by graduation this spring following a 7-4 season that ended in a blowout loss to eventual Class A champion OLSH in the quarterfinals.

“We’re always going to have a small roster,” said coach Ronnell Heard, who has been Imani’s coach since it joined the WPIAL in 2012. “It’s never a concern because our guys know what to expect, and we’ve been rolling like this for a couple of years now. That said, I would like to have a couple extra bodies.”

The biggest losses came to the passing game. Gone is quarterback Israel Reed, who passed for 31 touchdowns and 2,883 yards, fifth-best in the WPIAL last year. His favorite target, Rahmon Hart, is now playing at Ball State.

“You don’t necessarily replace those kind of guys,” Heard said. “You just hope that you get somebody that is kind of close, and you can build them up to where it was.”

Filling Reed’s spot is last year’s backup, sophomore Pharaoh Fisher, who played receiver and cornerback in 2018.

“He’s picking the offense up really good,” Heard said. “He’s strong, he throws a really, really good ball. I’m absolutely confident that he’ll be able to get the job done.”

Imani, which features an up-tempo, pass-heavy offense, may rely slightly more on the running game this season. And the primary ball carrier will be senior Adrian Nanji, who Heard predicts to be “one of our studs this year” after rushing for just 57 yards last season.

Balancing a high octane offense and a light roster is a challenge, however.

“You have to be very strategic about it,” Heard said. “We pick our moments when we’re going to move up-tempo and when we’re not. We do a lot based on who we’re playing and what the situation presents us.”

The wideout group is led by Demetrius Epps, Sean McCaskill, Raysean Jackson and Keyshawn McCaskill, Sean’s younger brother. That group, however, did not record a single reception last season.

Imani will have, Heard predicts, around 25 players on its roster. Typically, with numbers like that, finding offensive linemen is the biggest challenge. But the Saints have had fortune in that area of the field, according to Heard.

Letonio Morand and Darrell Strong, both 6-foot-4, 300-plus pound sophomores, are the lead blockers at tackle.

“Believe it or not, we always manage to find really big linemen,” Heard said. “I always say that God just brings us whatever we need. It’s so weird.”

Needless to say, just about everyone on Imani’s roster will play both ways.

Fisher, both McCaskill brothers and Jackson make up the secondary. Nanji is a key linebacker, while Strong and Morand form a defensive tackle duo that weighs over 600 pounds.

“Obviously, conditioning and our weight training is really important,” Heard said. “We focus a lot on weight training, conditioning and stretching of muscles, just to make sure that we don’t have a great amount of injuries and can last through the season.”

The Saints made the WPIAL championship game two seasons ago, losing by a point to Jeannette. So bowing out to OLSH in the opening round, a 60-6 drubbing, was an unwelcome ending to 2018.

“Last year was two-fold,” Heard said. “We underachieved a little bit, but I still was happy with what we were able to accomplish. I just wasn’t happy with the outcome of the playoffs.

“It’s definitely motivating. When you get back home you get to watch the film and understand where you were weak at and where you got taken advantage of. As a coaching staff, we’ve adjusted those things to ensure that will never happen again”

Imani Christian begins its season in Week Zero against Maryland’s National Christian Academy in the Western Pennsylvania vs. Everyone Showcase.

The Saints jump into conference play the following Friday at Springdale before navigating a tough Eastern Conference that features heavyweights Clairton and Jeannette.

“I know we’re young, but I also know we’re talented,” Heard said. “As long as those guys stay healthy and they continue to learn and grow, we’ll be just fine.”

Schedule

Coach: Ronnell Heard

2018 record: 7-4, 4-2

All-time record: 29-25

Date, Opponent, Time

8.24, National Christian Academy, Md.+, 11

8.30, at Springdale*, 7

9.6, at Jeannette*, 7

9.13, at Valley, 7

9.20, Greensburg C.C.*, 7

9.28, at Riverview*, 1

10.4, Clairton*, 7

10.11, Leechburg*, 7

10.18, at Beth-Center, 7

10.25, at Sto-Rox, 7

*Class A Eastern Conference game

+At Wolvarena

Statistical leaders

Passing: Israel Reed*

135-232, 2,883 yards, 31 TDs

Receiving: Rahmon Hart, Jr.*

62-1,380 yards, 16 TDs

Rushing: Reed*

105-453 yards, 6 TDs

*Graduated

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