A new chapter in Port Allegany High School football begins this week.
Following a major remodeling project that started last spring, the Gators will officially debut their upgraded facility on Friday, Aug. 30, when they host District 4’s Athens Wildcats for the first home night game in the 100-year history of the program.
Not just the lights, bleachers, and pressbox are new, though. It will be a different look on the field, too, with lineman Brandon Raymo the only returning full-time starter from the team that shredded the District 9 and PIAA record books last fall on its run to the state semifinals. Will Mike Bodamer’s young squad be ready for prime time?
Hold that thought. The core of the back-to-back D-9 champions may have moved on via graduation, but there’s still some talent at Gator Field. More than anything, despite 20 returning lettermen, it’s the size of his roster that concerns the ninth-year head coach.
“You have to take every year differently,” said Bodamer, whose glittering 25-3 record the last two seasons improved his career mark to 56-32. “Last year, those kids knew what they wanted to accomplish. This year, we basically have two starters back. The others got a lot of playing time, but they’re still relatively young and inexperienced. I really don’t know what they expect.
“A kid like Brandon Raymo, he knows how to win and knows what it takes to win. He and Tyler Shaffer come gametime will be fine, but they’re going to have to pick the other nine kids up and lead the way, show them what it takes. At this point we’re just really unsure. I know we have the talent – we have 15 kids that can really play well – but whether or not we can sustain a whole game with that lack of depth is going to be the big question.”
With all-time PIAA passing leader Matt Bodamer now at Edinboro, sophomore Jordan Seefeldt takes over the reins of coordinator Jason Luther’s multiple-concept spread offense. Seeing significant playing time as Bodamer’s backup last season, Seefeldt completed 26 of 38 passes for 229 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions and also rushed for 91 yards and a score.
“He’s really improved in these first two weeks,” Mike Bodamer said. “The first scrimmage down at Curwensville, he hit all the receivers right in the chest. I think he was 6-for-9 for 80 yards or so, which is pretty productive for 20 plays. Deep ball, we’ve got to work on that, but I think the short passing game he’ll be okay. And he’s a decent runner, so that’s going to be another dimension. Matt ran last year, but it was more just scrambling. We didn’t have a lot of direct calls. Jordan’s going to be a little different. We’ve added a couple more option plays, zone-read type plays. Hopefully that will be a good part of his game.”
Being able to turn and hand the ball off to Shaffer should help ease any growing pains. The 6-1, 190-pound senior exploded into the spotlight midway through last season with two long touchdown runs against Smethport, finishing the year with 51 carries for 573 yards (for a gaudy 11.24-yard average) and 11 touchdowns while splitting time with Trent Neal in the Gators’ “Thunder and Lightning” backfield. As the electrifying half of that tandem, Shaffer showed he could score from anywhere on the field, outrunning the entire Brockway defense on an 89-yard sprint to the end zone in the Allegheny Mountain League championship game and taking a 66-yard interception to the house in the Gators’ playoff opener against Elk County Catholic.
“He’s going to have to get in shape early,” Bodamer said, “because he’s definitely going to be the workhorse of the team.”
Senior Cory Burr – who was on track to play a significant role last year before a concussion ended his season after just four games – and juniors Chad Gaines, Chris Lashway and Rick Veilleux are the top options to line up at receiver. Sophomore Mac Tanner will split time between running back and H-back.
“Our four receivers, we’re awful small, but all the kids are good athletes,” Bodamer said. “Mac’s an extremely good runner once he gets it. Chad’s a lot like Tyce, he’s got that deceptive speed. And Cory, we call him ‘Crazy Legs’ because once he catches the ball, he just runs all over the place. If we can get the ball to them, we should be okay.”
Raymo will switch from right to left tackle with junior Christian Moses moving into his old spot, while senior Bryce Stahlman takes over at center. Ethan Budd is penciled in as one starting guard, with fellow sophomores Nate Lowery and Bryan Stahlman, junior Chevy Smith and senior Tyler Bee among the options for the other spot.
“Lack of depth is a problem, but our first five, six kids, they’re pretty good,” Bodamer said. “If those kids stay healthy, we should be all right.”
More concerning, he admitted, was the rebuilding project on defense.
“We don’t have a lot of kids back on the defensive side of the ball – all of our secondary, all of our linebackers are brand-new,” he said. “So we’re definitely going to have to score some points. Unlike last year, when I think we had them at zero most of the time at halftime, I don’t think that’s going to be the case this year. Teams are going to score on us. We just have to keep things under control and just manage our offense the best we can.”
Bodamer is relying on Raymo (defensive tackle) and Moses (middle linebacker) to anchor the unit, while trying to take advantage of Shaffer’s and Tanner’s speed at the other linebacker slots. Budd, Smith, both Stahlmans and sophomores Cullen McDowell and Hunter Strawderman will compete at end, while senior Jake Safford is slated to start next to Raymo at tackle. The four new starters in the secondary will come from the group of Burr, Lashway, Gaines, Seefeldt, sophomore Tre Garzel and senior Joel Schroll. Burr, Raymo, and Shaffer have been selected as team captains.
“We’ll have a 4-4 or 4-3 look depending on what team we’re playing,” Bodamer said. “We’re going to be bringing a lot of people. We don’t have a lot of size to stuff people, so we’re going to have to stunt quite a bit, use what speed we do have and try to get after the quarterback and control the run game.”
Longtime assistants Justin Bienkowski (offensive/defensive lines) and Nate Zitnik (receivers/defensive backs) return for another season along with junior high coaches Bob Rankin and Dan Eskesen, while Willie Bova, Scott Lowery, Chad Saltsman and Josh Saltsman will serve as volunteer coaches.
With more and more AML teams trying to copy the success of the spread-style offense that first Brockway and then Port employed to dominate the league, will any of them be good enough to dethrone the Gators for the league crown? We’ll see.
“Actually, seeing some of the tapes, I think it’s going to be competitive all the way around,” Bodamer said. “Brockway’s probably the favorite, just because they have most of their skill guys back. But I’ve heard their line isn’t what it was, they’re not as big, so that could hurt them. North-wise, I’m thinking Eldred probably has the most talent, the most experience coming back. But I think the North’s wide open. Anybody could win it. In the South, I still think Brockway’s probably – probably – the team to beat.
“A lot of us depends on injuries,” he said. “We definitely have a shot. As long as we can do well enough to make the playoffs, that’s our goal. We just want to be one of those eight teams. It’s going to be tough this year … but if we stay healthy, we’ll be okay.”
Aug. 30 Athens H 7:00
Sept. 6 Kane A 7:00
Sept. 14 Ridgway H 1:30
Sept. 20 Coudersport H 7:00
Sept. 27 Otto-Eldred A 7:00
Oct. 4 Smethport A 7:00
Oct. 12 Sheffield H 1:30
Oct. 18 Cameron Co. H 7:00
Oct. 25 Brockway A 7:30