Perhaps the biggest football question marks for Phillipsburg this fall come on its lines, where just one starter, senior Daniel Pantuso, returns on both sides of the ball.
The good news for Stateliner fans is that, after last week’s quad scrimmage at Maloney Stadium, those questions may be finding answers on both sides of the ball.
Pantuso would know, after all.
“We definitely held our own,” said the senior, who started the final three games of 2018 for P’burg up front. “We played some pretty hard teams. I was proud of our guys.”
The Stateliner foes were indeed challenging. In Wayne Hills and Union P’burg faced two of the three teams they lost to in 2018 and the third Wednesday opponent, South Jersey’s Rancocas Valley, went 9-3 last season and made the South Group 5 final.
“I’d never heard of Rancocas Valley and I wouldn’t say they were any worse than Wayne Hills or Union,” Pantuso said. “They were surprisingly good.”
Pantuso and the Phillipsburg lines may well surprise this fall, too, in a season that opens Sept. 6 at Warren Hills. The 6-3½, 220-pound senior takes charge of the offensive and defensive lines from his tackle spots.
“Daniel has done a great job of being a leader on our lines,” Phillipsburg head coach Frank Duffy said. “We started to recognize him about halfway through last season. We started to play him at defensive end and (offensive) tackle and he really showed well for himself there.”
Pantuso, an Alpha resident, is switching from defensive end to defensive tackle for his senior season.
“At defensive end there’s a little more finesse and more pass-rushing moves,” Pantuso said. “Inside, you have your hand in the dirt every play, your head’s down, you’re fighting for every inch.”
Duffy said Pantuso’s switch was to make the defense stronger.
“He’s a tough kid,” Duffy said. “It’s a little bit of musical chairs on the defensive line, and we have to get our best players on the field, so we moved Daniel inside. He has the strength to play defensive tackle.”
That’s in part because Pantuso beefed up - but in a smart way.
“I had to get bigger because I was a little skinny, and the competition was getting bigger and stronger,” Pantuso said. “I wanted to put some weight, but not too much. If you put on too much weight you can feel it in your knees when you run.”
One advantage Pantuso brings no matter where he plays is his long arms.
“With Daniel’s wingspan, it’s tough for (blockers) to get inside on him,” Duffy said. “That makes him tough on defense and is a positive too on offense where he be tough with his length and reach.”
Pantuso’s physical package and overall experience will be a big boost on lines that will be talented but green.
“We have all new guys, and no one has faced this level of competition before,” Pantuso said. “I started the last three games so I have a feeling of where I need to be as a player and am building off that. I need to be more of a vocal leader. These guys will be facing things they never have faced before.”
Pantuso can tell the newcomers what to expect on varsity.
“You can take a play off or slow down at the junior varsity level,” he said. “You take a play off on varsity, you get exposed.”
Pantuso knows whereof he speaks. He’s been an interior lineman throughout his career, except for a short time his freshman season when he played tight end. It was a memorable if brief tenure.
“I had one catch and it was a touchdown, against Franklin,” said Pantuso with justifiable pride.
Now, Pantuso’s role will be providing the muscle to help the Stateliners score and then shut down their foes. He sees one key aspect ahead for his position mates to reach a high level.
“I think we’re there physically; mentally we just have to focus on getting smarter as players and developing a consistency,” Pantuso said. “We need to develop who we are as an offense and not try and be something we’re not.”
What Phillipsburg is not is the senior-heavy team of 2018. But Pantuso said that doesn’t limit the ‘Liners at all.
“We know as seniors that we have like six or seven guys who played a lot,” he said. “We know we’re a brand new team, a whole new season, full of kids who have never played on Friday nights and don’t know what to expect. We’re all excited. These scrimmages are 15 minutes on, then five minutes off, but they get the blood flowing.”
This being Phillipsburg, there’s no question that’s pure football blood in players such as Daniel Pantuso.
Brad Wilson may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @bradwsports. Find Lehigh Valley high school sports on Facebook.