Young Mapletown roster making push to improve

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Saturday, August 29, 2020 | 10:00 PM


As Mapletown coach George Messich and his staff gathered at his home on Friday nights last season, watching video of the game their team just played, a thought often occurred to them.

“We have a really, really great JV football team,” Messich said with a laugh. “They just happened to play varsity football. They were so young as ninth and 10th graders. If we played a JV schedule, we might have been undefeated.”

Messich isn’t exaggerating.

Mapletown started a sophomore and two freshmen in the backfield. A freshman and two sophomores started on the offensive line.

Even by the standards of Class A football, where lineups filled with underclassmen are the norm, the Maples were a young team last year.

They suffered growing pains, but they showed improvement. After the previous season saw no wins, nine losses and a forfeit, the Maples banked a couple of confidence-building victories.

“Both of those groups had a lot of success when they were playing seventh and eighth grade football,” Messich said. “They want to win, they’re competitive, and they work. I give them a lot of credit. They really push themselves every day we’re out there.”

Tailback Landan Stevenson was the breakout freshman last season, racking up 1,357 yards from scrimmage and 18 touchdowns.

“He’s going to be a really great running back,” Messich said. “Our seniors took him under their wing and thought the world of him being our running back as a freshman.”

Junior quarterback Max Vanata and sophomore fullback Cohen Stout also started last season.

“I’m really impressed with that backfield,” Messich said. “They’re good kids. They’re tough kids. They really work.”

Wide receiver Lance Stevenson and right tackle Blake Holbert will provide senior leadership.

Sophomore guard Levi Howard, junior guard James Thompson and junior center Riley Franks are also returning starters. Junior Gaige Shaw is penciled in at left tackle.

Messich said he expects his linemen to take their biggest strides defensively this season.

“Being a year older, our defense is going to be a lot better,” he said.

Messich, meanwhile, is entering his fifth decade coaching at Mapletown. His enthusiasm has never waned.

“That time has flown by,” he said. “It’s amazing. It’s not like it’s a job. I’ve always believed that. I’ve seen times where we tried to get some people to coach and they said, ‘I’m not doing it for that amount of money.’ I thought, ‘If you’re doing it for that reason, I’m glad you’re not coaching.’ It’s a lot of fun. I’ve really enjoyed going to practice. When it becomes a job, I think that’s when you have to get out.”

Despite his extensive experience on the sidelines, Messich has never seen a season anything like this one. There is no playbook for preparing a football team to play during a pandemic.

Messich said he used the extra time to work on technique.

“I’m a firm believer you win and lose football games because of technique,” Messich said. “In the old days, it was just a real physical, tough match. I don’t think a lot of people realize how much technique is involved today.”

Among the many safety procedures teams have put in place this season, social distancing was not a problem with a roster the size of Mapletown’s.

“I got a real kick when they first started talking about this virus, they said teams that have 70 or 80 kids, they can’t take them all to road games. You can only take half of them,” Messich said. “I told my wife, ‘We only have 61 boys in 10th, 11th and 12th grade. We don’t have to worry about it.’”

Schedule

Coach: George Messich

2019 record: 2-8, 1-6 in Class A Tri-County South

All-time record: 324-473-39

Date, Opponent, Time

9.11, at West Greene*, 7

9.18, at Carmichaels*, 7

9.25, California*, 7

10.2, at Monessen*, 7

10.9, Avella*, 7

10.16, at Jefferson-Morgan*, 7

10.23, Bentworth*, 7

*Class A Tri-County South Conference game

Statistical leaders

Passing: Max Vanata

42-100, 571 yards, 4 TDs

Rushing: Landan Stevenson

186-987 yards, 15 TDs

Receiving: Landan Stevenson

19-370 yards, 3 TDs

Fast facts

• George Messich is the dean of WPIAL football coaches. He has been head coach at Mapletown from 1978-81 and 1987 to present.

• Mapletown’s last playoff berth was in 2016 when the Maples went 5-6 overall but 4-3 in the Tri-County South, finishing in fourth place.

• With 64 boys in Grades 10-12, Mapletown is the smallest public school in WPIAL football. Avella is second-smallest with 67. Mapletown’s two wins last year both came in matchups against Avella.

• Mapletown and Avella were scheduled to meet twice again this year, but coronavirus-related schedule changes canceled the Week Zero matchup.

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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