Balanced Mix of Youth, Experience as Eisenhower Opens 2021 Season

Eisenhower coach Jim Penley talks with players during practice on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021. Photo by Brian Hagberg.

RUSSELL, Pa. – Eisenhower nearly had as good a season as the Knights could ask for in 2020.

Eisenhower ran roughshod over its Region 5 opponents, then dispatched Cochranton in its final tune-up before the District 10 Class 1A playoffs. The Knights knocked off West Middlesex in an instant classic to reach the D10 championship.

The Region 5 All-Star team might as well have been Eisenhower’s two-deep. Even assistant coach Jeff O’Brien got in on the action, taking home the Jim Kelly District 10 Assistant Coach of the Year award.

About the only thing the 2020 Knights didn’t do was capture the D10 title.

That’s something the 2021 Knights are looking to rectify. They’ll have to do it, however, without a number of key contributors from the 2020 season.

But most of the newly-minted starters saw significant varsity action a year ago and head coach Jim Penley sees that as a major positive going into Friday’s season and home opener against Region 2 foe Saegertown.

“We had a plethora of sophomores who played and started for us, we had a tremendous junior class. Even though it’s not a big junior class, the guys who are in there are all football players,” Penley said. “When you realistically look at it, we had five or six guys who were underclassmen who started last year on both sides of the ball. And there were a lot of other guys who got substantial playing time. Even though we lost a tremendous class of seniors, we had a big group of kids who really played.”

Eisenhower brings back 11 starters, five on offense and six on defense, with most of them along the offensive and defensive lines. Having that kind of experience in the trenches will be key as the Knights will have to replace nearly every skill position starter from a year ago.

Gone are QB Owen Trumbull (Region 5 Player of the Year), WR Dillon Benson (First-team all-region, second-team all-state), WR Caleb Robinault (First-team all-region), WR/RB Zane Alexander (First-team all-region), OL Jared Beers (First-team all-region), and OL Brodie Porter (First-team all-region) to graduation. The Knights will also be without RB Cael Black (First-team all-region) due to injury.

That’s 1,300 passing yards, 1,400 rushing yards, 1,100 receiving yards and 54 total touchdowns.

While all that statistical output will have to be made up, the guys providing protection have a wealth of talent and experience.

“You bring back a tight end like Mike Jones, this will be his third year starting. Gannon Jaquay and Connor Younger, this will be the third year starting at guard and center. Caleb Penley, this will be his second year starting at guard,” Penley said. “All those guys were all-stars last year. And what’s been really nice getting into camp, is we don’t have a lot of confusion on blocking assignments. Now it’s just getting the younger talent that we have in the backfield up to speed.”

For all the accolades that went to the offense, the Knights defense may have been even more impressive in 2020.

Eisenhower held opponents to a paltry 142 yards and 7.6 points per game. The Knights return five of the front seven starters from a year ago.

“Last year, it wasn’t our offense that made us amazing. It was our defense,” Penley said. “We bring back a large group of guys who’ve already done it. We bring back two all-star linebackers in Jaquay and (Benji) Bauer. It’s great to have that level of comfort knowing those guys have been in it.”

It’s not just the Knights who are looking to build off a solid 2020 campaign either.

Saegertown finished the season with a winning record (5-3) for the first time since 2011.

The Panthers opened their 2020 season by snapping a 38-game losing streak with a win at Cochranton. It was Saegertown’s first victory since a 28-7 win at Youngsville on Oct. 30, 2015.

To replicate or improve on last season’s success, the Panthers are going to have to find a replacement for RB/WR Jake Reisinger who led the team in both rushing and receiving (156 carries for 875 yards and 11 TDs rushing, 15 receptions for 258 yards and three TDs receiving).

The Panthers will have experience in the backfield, starting with QB Henry Shaffer (34-68, 466 yds, 5TD, 3 INT). Shaffer is also the top returning runner from last season (107 rush yds), though Keenan Schaaf and Zach Yoder combined for 47 carries, 186 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

Yoder is the top returning receiver with eight grabs for 110 yards and a score.

The opener should prove a solid litmus test for both teams as they start a full slate of Region 2 action. The region was split last year (to cut down on the amount of travel during the pandemic) with Saegertown part of Region 4 (3rd) with Cambridge Springs, Cochranton, Lakeview, Maplewood, and Northwestern, and Eisenhower in Region 5 with Iroquois, Seneca and Union City.

“The region that we’re in, in this small school region, is one of the most challenging and fun regions that you’re going to find because everyone is so close to each other,” Penley said. “We’ve got similar size rosters, we’ve got similar size talent. And I think that’s what’s always made this small school region . . . there are so many different things that you get to see, and I think that’s what makes it a lot of fun.”

Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. and the game will be live-streamed on D9and10Sports.