With nearly entire roster turned over, Laurel still expects to compete
Monday, August 14, 2023 | 12:01 AM
When a Class A program loses just about its entire group of starters from a previous season, there could be legitimate reason for worry. But Brian Cooper is far from hitting the panic button.
Cooper, in his 10th season as Laurel’s coach, enters the 2023 season with more than a few holes to fill throughout his starting lineup.
The Spartans lost 20 of 22 starters from last season, in which they went 9-2 and won Class A’s Big 7 Conference. But what followed was a heartbreaking loss to rival Union, 30-28, in the WPIAL quarterfinals.
“The last two years, we were a play or two away from playing in the ultimate games you want to be in,” said Cooper, who led Laurel to an 11-1 record in 2021, with a 6-0 loss to Serra Catholic in the quarterfinals that year. “But we’re right there. We only lost by a couple of points last year and feel the program is going in the right direction. Even though we’re young this year, we’re going to continue that tradition that we have here.”
And Laurel is young. The Spartans will have to replace their top quarterback, running back, top five pass catchers, and four of five starting offensive linemen from last season.
Under center, Luca Santini will take over after getting limited reps as a freshman last season behind Chase Tinstman, who passed for 1,130 yards and 12 touchdowns. Jackson Sauders will work in as a wildcat quarterback occasionally, as well.
“Luca has a strong arm and is a good athlete,” Cooper said. “He started as a freshman on the basketball team, so that shows his athleticism. And he’s been a quarterback his whole life. He understands the system and understands the game. He’s just not as big of a running threat as Jackson will be.”
Speaking of running, Laurel has developed quite a tradition in the backfield. Two years ago, Luke McCoy and quarterback Kobe Derosa combined to run for nearly 3,000 yards and scored 45 touchdowns. Last season, Landon Smith took the reins, rushing for 1,747 yards and 30 scores.
“We feel like we have a great running back in Ben Hennon,” Cooper said of the senior, who scored five touchdowns on just 22 carries last season. “He’s a strong runner, one of the strongest kids on the team, and definitely the fastest kid on the team. He would’ve gotten a lot more playing time last year if Landon hadn’t had the season he had. We think Ben’s going to continue that tradition and have a great season.”
From a pass catching standpoint, sophomore Jack Miles will take over at H-back. Sauders and Santini will play receiver when the other is playing quarterback. Landon Smith’s brother, Brayden, will play receiver, as well as Xander Johnson, J.J. McBride and Tyler Shearer.
Keegan O’Brien is the team’s lone returning starter, and will play guard on the line. Jayden Iorio will start at center. Casey Wilson, Mack Shevitz, Kevin Mahoney and Jack Perdue will all get snaps up front, as well.
Defensively, Laurel must replace its top seven tacklers from 2022. Hennon and Miles will play inside linebacker, Smith McBride will be on the outside. Sauders, Johnson, Shearer and Nathan Hill will make up the secondary, while Shevitz, Wilson, Landon O’Linchy, Iorio and O’Brien will play on the defensive line.
“We only have three seniors, and only seven juniors — and some of them are first-year players,” Cooper said. “But we just say, ‘whatever it takes, there’s no excuses.’ I don’t care if you’re young or didn’t start last year. We’re going to teach the things we do and push ourselves to get better every day.”
Laurel has built up a challenging nonconference schedule that features a few regional rivalries, including a Week 1 game against Neshannock, which handed the Spartans their only regular season loss in 2022. They also play New Brighton, Mohawk, and have a game against a non-WPIAL team in Class 2A Berlin Brothersvalley, which won the District 5 title last season.
“Neshannock’s always a hard-hitting game, well coached, a good rivalry game, and we’re going to see where we’re at,” Cooper said. “Moahwk’s big and physical, and Berlin Brothersvalley, they’ve been in the state playoffs, lost a lot, but do return an all-state quarterback. That will prepare us well for conference play, where we have some good quarterbacks we’ll face.”
The conference is tough, without question. Last year, Union entered the WPIAL playoffs as the No. 10 seed, and won the district title. Rochester and South Side and Shenango have had quality seasons of late. Northgate and Summit Academy round out the Big 7.
“We feel that we’re in one of, if not the best Class A leagues in the state,” Cooper said. “With Union having their starting quarterback (Braylon Thomas) back, and as good of an athlete as he is, they have to be favored to win it. … You just have to get ready to embrace the grind and get ready to go through it.”
Given the strength of the conference, the immense inexperience in the starting ranks and the lack of seniors on the roster, it may be easy to think that Laurel is in for a transition season. But Cooper has faced these challenges before, and with 20 wins over the last two years, the Spartans hope to not only be competitive, but find a way to get over the top when November rolls around.
“We’re such a different team than we were last year,” Cooper said. “To me, it’s about getting better every day. I preach that all the time. Holding yourself to a higher standard, coming in here and giving us everything you have. And you need a little luck to go your way when you’re in those big games.”
Coach: Brian Cooper
2022 record: 9-2, 6-0 in Class A Big 7 Conference
All-time record: 361-261-10
Date, Opponent, Time
8.25 at New Brighton, 7
9.1 Neshannock, 7
9.8 at Mohawk, 7
9.15 Berlin-Brothersvalley, 7
9.22 Union*, 7
9.29 at Rochester*, 7
10.6 Northgate*, 7
10.13 at South Side*, 7
10.20 Summit Academy*, 7
10.27 at Shenango*, 7
Passing: Chase Tinstman*
68-127, 1,120 yards, 12 TDs
Rushing: Landon Smith*
196-1,747 yards, 30 TDs
Receiving: Carter Haney*
20-452 yards, 3 TDs
• Landon Smith is one of several recent Laurel grads to play college football, as he is a freshman at Geneva College. McCoy plays at Slippery Rock.
• Laurel has won one WPIAL title, taking Class A in 1980.
• The Spartans averaged 43.5 points per game last season.
• Cooper, who is a teacher at Shenango, will face the school he works for in Week 9.
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