Perception may not be reality for Phillipsburg High School football.
A quick glance at a roster sees only six returning starters from last season’s 10-2 Mid-State 38 Delaware Division and North 2 Group 4 sectional championship squad.
So, maybe the Stateliners’ colors should be changed to green and gray.
“On paper, you could say we’re inexperienced,” P’burg coach Frank Duffy said. “I guess you could say that. We lost a lot of varsity experience.”
But Duffy doesn’t see a lack of returnees as automatically bad.
“I am not sure that always translate into negativity,” he said. “It can be exciting to have all these new faces in certain spots; it brings an element of excitement. It can be a good uncertainty. These new guys can play. They are really hungry and they really competed well in the offseason. It’s their time to shine.”
That may be so, but the flip side of that is, as Duffy noted, “Expectations are always high at Phillipsburg.” So, that shining had best start quickly.
Perhaps no Stateliner faces more pressure to step right up and get it done than senior quarterback Ben Ries, who takes over at the most important position on the field for three-year starter Jack Stagaard, now at Millersville University.
“I have to uphold the legacy of success at Phillipsburg,” Ries said. “Jack and the (Class of 2019) printed out a blueprint of success for us. Now, it’s just a matter of us following it.”
Ries, who went 1-for-3 passing in 2018 for 14 yards and an interception, said he’s ready for the challenge of quarterbacking Phillipsburg.
“I just had to get bigger and stronger, and be more consistent,” said Ries, who goes 5-foot-11, 180 pounds. “Before there were throws I couldn’t make, but I had to get my arm strength up to get the ball there. I put in work every day I could, and I think I am one step ahead now.”
Duffy said Ries fits the quarterback template perfectly.
“Ben’s always been a positive kind of kid,” Duffy said. “He is a natural leader and takes command of the huddle. He’s worked on his craft and physically has gotten so much better.”
Senior fullback/linebacker Isaiah Craighead said he knows Ries can get the job done.
“I have been playing with Ben since we were little kids,” he said. “I believe in Ben.”
With a new quarterback, the Stateliners may run the ball a bit more, with junior Matt Quetel (276 yards, 4 TDs in 2018) at halfback and senior Bobby Coury (291 yards, 5 TDs) at fullback and Craighead, also a good receiver, in the mix.
The questions up front come because just one returnee, senior Dan Pantuso, has much experience on either side of the ball. The Stateliners never lack for hard-nosed, physical trenchmen, but the deficit of tested veterans means things may take a while to get settled at the level P’burg is accustomed.
Whatever the defensive line ends up looking like – senior Robert Martin will play at one defensive end spot, bringing his “high motor and great attitude,” according to Duffy – it will be backed by a terrific linebacker corps led by the Coury twins and Craighead (who, with Martin and Ries, make up the five captains).
Duffy is hoping his defense and special teams can crank up the takeaways and blocked punts, the kind of plays that can swing games from a momentum and mindset viewpoint.
Mentally, the Stateliners, whose motto is “Beat the Odds”, are ready to do just that.
“A lot of people doubt us,” Ries said. “Because we had a lot of people graduate, they don’t think we can do it.”
Phillipsburg’s players do.
“I am very confident,” Craighead said. “We have a lot of new kids in some spots but we’re going to bring the same focus to practice we have from year to year. We have to keep working to always get better, to question ourselves and ask, “Did I make myself better as a player today?’ We’ve had the fire since we started lifting in January. We just have to keep it going.”
Why Phillipsburg fans should be excited
The new turf field at Maloney Stadium gives the team a steady place to practice even in bad weather and will make for an even more stunning setting for Friday night football. It also will have real benefits in practice.
“It helps with spatial awareness and landmarks; we’d tell kids to line on the numbers, outside the hashmark, and that was a challenge for us with the grass and it not being a real football field, though our guys did a phenomenal job of lining the practice field,” Duffy said.
And for traditionalists who wanted to keep the grass, Duffy has a simple answer: “The most important game of the season (Easton) is played on turf,” he said.
The players seem positive. “It’s growing on me,” Craighead said. “I like that we can still practice on it even when it rains.”
In Bobby and Tommy Coury, the senior twins who play linebacker on defense and wide receiver (Tommy) and fullback (Bobby) on offense, P’burg has two splendid throwbacks to a different time in football – tough, aggressive bangers who play with unbridled passion, thrilling and almost inspirational to watch.
Senior Ray Poremba is all-region caliber at wide receiver. Kicker Mike Gomez is dependable and tested.
Duffy and his staff have proven resourceful and adaptable, with two sectional titles and an 11-game Delaware Division win streak going over three seasons.
Why Phillipsburg fans should be concerned
This is the least experienced Stateliners team in several seasons. The lines will be especially youthful and that is perhaps the major question mark. There will be a new quarterback after years of the steady Stagaard and there’s a bundle of yardage to replace produced by graduated tailback Joe Green and wide receivers such as Sterling Walker-Sutton and Ray Stem.
A very young defensive backfield could be vulnerable in a division that likes to go for big plays in the passing game.
There hasn’t been a win over Easton since 2014, which means nobody in garnet and gray has beaten the Red Rovers, a worrying sign, especially given that Phillipsburg judges successful seasons first on whether they have beaten Easton or not.
P’burg is in search for defensive backs, defensive linemen and kick returners.
Coach Frank Duffy on the offense
“We’ll take what defenses give us. I don’t think we’ll throw as much as (in 2018). We’ll be more smash-mouth, ground-and-pound football. If defenses give us the pass, we need to take advantage of it, but I don’t envision us passing it as much as we did … We have to put the ball in the hands of our playmakers, That was something Jack did very well.”
Senior QB/FS Ben Ries on the key to success
“I think it’s a matter of execution. If we run the play right, and everybody is on the same page every single play, we can get the job done.”
Sr. FB/OLB Isaiah Craighead, Sr. FB/LB Bobby Coury, Sr. WR/LB Tommy Coury, Sr. K/P Mike Gomez, Sr. TE/DE Robert Martin, Sr. TE/WR/DB Ray Poremba.
Sr. OL/DE Dan Pantuso, Sr. RB/OLB Robert Sutton, Jr. RB/LB Matt Quetel.
Sr. WR/DB Nazier Alexander-Parker, Sr. DL Chance Capps, Sr. WR/DB Christian Chiulli, Sr. OL/DL Matt Daniskas, Sr. OL/DL William Haussman, Sr. OL/DL Ethan Imboden, Sr. FB/OLB Matt Kowalczyk, Sr. WR/DB Marco Moser, Sr. OL/DL Devin Reppert, Sr. QB/FS Ben Ries, Sr. DE Nasir Taylor-Holloway, Jr. OL/DL Matt Barna, Jr. WR/DB Danny Gale, Jr. QB Matt Garatty, Jr. OL/DE Jordan Kiley, Jr. WR/DB Jaleel Terrell, Jr. WR/DB Michael Wambold.
Conference: Mid-State 38, Delaware Division.
Section: North Group 4.
Coach: Frank Duffy (fourth season, 25-10).
Last five seasons
2018: 10-3 overall, 5-0 division.
2017: 10-2, 5-0.
2016: 5-5, 3-2.
2015: 9-3, 6-1.
2014: 11-1, 6-1.
Their home: Bellis Field at Maloney Stadium.
Brad Wilson may be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @bradwsports. Find Lehigh Valley high school sports on Facebook.