Mike Brennan took over as Hazleton Area football coach five years ago. A year later, Rich Mannello did the same at Dallas.
They shared a common goal upon being hired — take a once-proud program that had lost its way and restore the past glory.
Both are on their ways to accomplishing the objective as Hazleton Area (1-1) travels to Dallas (2-0) at 7 p.m. Friday for a Wyoming Valley Conference interdivisional game.
Brennan cited last year’s matchup with Dallas, a 16-13 victory in Week 9, as a key turning point. The Cougars entered that game off an upset loss to Donegal, a team which was 2-4 at the time. After the Dallas win, Hazleton Area blanked Crestwood in the regular-season finale and then upset Williamsport 28-27 in the District 2/4 Class 6A semifinals. The season ended with a 31-3 loss to Delaware Valley in the D2/4-6A title game.
“Last year we lost to Donegal at home Week 8 and we had to go to Dallas,” Brennan said. “We were probably a gutsier football team Week 9 at Dallas last year because our backs were against the wall. I think we have a very similar situation this week going in.”
Hazleton Area enters off a 21-20 loss to Wyoming Valley West where it had an extra point blocked midway through the fourth quarter. The defense was unable to get Valley West’s offense off the field over the final six minutes.
Brennan, though, believes his team has overcome the heartbreaking loss and was pleased with the response displayed at a practice to start the week.
“The attitude, the energy, (Tuesday) was a great practice,” Brennan said. “There were times we’d reel after a loss like that and wouldn’t dig ourselves out. I feel we dug ourselves out under really difficult practice conditions. We feel like we’ll get right back on it.”
Dallas has built methodically under Mannello. Known as a fanatic for weight room training, he drilled the importance of strength and speed as stepping stones for success.
It was a laborious process, especially for the current group of juniors. Many of them started as freshmen in a 2-9 season and took some tremendous beatings on the field — 42-0, 48-0, 42-10 — and were shut out four times. The team improved to 7-4 last season and has won seven of its last nine.
And more improvement is expected from the Mountaineers despite handling its first two opponents.
“That’s week by week,” Mannello said. “Strength-wise and overall team speed-wise, we can see that developing. This is the fastest group we’ve had on both sides of the football and special teams. Getting it to where the goals are, those are every week. It’s one week at a time. You evaluate that part at the end of the season.
“But where we are strength-wise and speed-wise, this is a good place compared to where we started out here.”
Two juniors stand out when measuring the current success — third-year starting quarterback Mike Starbuck and running back Lenny Kelley. Starbuck leads the entire WVC with seven TD passes. Kelley has 201 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.
While the junior class has been a focus, Mannello emphasized the contribution of the seniors, who he feels give the Mountaineers a strong blend of talent. The statistics back that claim as Dallas’ top three tacklers — defensive back Christian Motley, linebacker Sean Cuba and defensive end Matt Ferrara — are all in their final seasons.
Dallas’ main concern about Hazleton Area is the same as every other opponent the Cougars will play. Mannello rattled them off — quarterback, running back, wideout.
Senior quarterback Sparky Wolk is a three-year starter and has additional big-game experience on the basketball court. He was the point guard on a hoops team that was a win away from playing for the PIAA Class 6A state championship. Senior running back Damon Horton is well on his way to a 1,000-yard season with 270 yards through two games.
Senior receiver David Smith is a tick behind last year’s pace when he caught 40 passes for 608 yards and five TDs. But he and fellow senior Jacob Hunsinger form a dangerous duo, which is even more effective because Horton is a quality pass catcher out of the backfield.
Berwick (2-0) at Williamsport (1-1)
7 p.m. Friday
The Coaches: Berwick’s Frank Sheptock (20-8, 3rd year); Williamsport’s Chuck Crews (37-41, 8th year)
Last Meeting: Williamsport 32-27 in 2017
All-Time Series: Berwick leads 22-9
Scouting Berwick: Berwick has outscored its opponents 80-0. The defense was expected to be ahead of the offense early in the season and that’s held true. Opponents have 26 yards rushing and 0.4 yards per carry. The offense, headed by new starters QB Alex Force and RB Owen Shoemaker, is coming around.
Scouting Williamsport: Star RB Treyson Potts didn’t dress for the 38-0 loss to Altoona, and Crews declined to say why after the game. Even minus Potts, this offense shouldn’t be getting shut out because it’s deep in talent. The defense, which was a concern in the preseason, needs to pick up the pace.
What To Expect: Berwick won’t shut out the Millionaires, but should win by a couple TDs.
Coughlin (0-2) at Nanticoke Area (1-1)
7 p.m. Friday
The Coaches: Coughlin’s Ciro Cinti (71-65, 13th year); Nanticoke Area’s Ron Bruza (34-50, 9th year)
Last Meeting: Coughlin 49-7 in 2007
All-Time Series: Coughlin leads 45-29-1
Scouting Coughlin: Graduation and low numbers have been a recipe for an 0-2 start, including a 42-14 loss to Wyoming Area. It could have been worse if Wyoming Area hadn’t pulled in the reins up 42-0 at halftime. Opponents have been running on Coughlin so successfully that passing hasn’t really been needed.
Scouting Nanticoke Area: QB Colby Butczynski threw for a career-high 314 yards and three TDs in a 53-31 victory over Tunkhannock. RB Joe Ammons had another 100-yard game, easing concerns about the running game coming into the season. The defensive numbers have been acceptable.
What To Expect: A game that could go either way.
Crestwood (1-1) at Wyoming Valley West (2-0)
7 p.m. Friday
The Coaches: Crestwood’s Greg Myers (81-73, 14th year); WVW’s Pat Keating (78-30, 10th year)
Last Meeting: Valley West 39-7 in 2017
All-Time Series: Valley West leads 10-1
Scouting Crestwood: After a strong showing in the opener, Crestwood’s run game couldn’t gain any traction in a 32-12 loss to Dallas. WR Brandon Nieminski, though, had a big game with seven catches for 106 yards and a TD. The defense forced a couple turnovers, making it five in two games.
Scouting WVW: Not only did the Spartans blocked an extra point midway through the fourth quarter in their 21-20 win vs. Hazleton Area, the offense was able to run out the clock. RB Carson Canavan leads the WVC in rushing, filling a key void. The defense, though, is looking for its first turnover.
What To Expect: Pretty much a game like last year.
Hanover Area (0-2) at GAR (1-1)
7 p.m. Friday
The Coaches: Hanover Area’s Mike McCree (6-26, 4th year); GAR’s Paul Wiedlich Jr. (53-39, 9th year)
Last Meeting: GAR 30-13 in 2017
All-Time Series: GAR leads 55-29-5
Scouting Hanover Area: The Hawkeyes had 40 yards of offense in a 42-0 loss to Lake-Lehman. Nothing has clicked on that side of the ball as Hanover Area has scored six points so far. The defense also has a handful of issues, mainly trying to stop the run. The rest of September looks tough as well.
Scouting GAR: As expected, GAR took apart Holy Redeemer 43-0. RB Justice Lomas had a huge game with 144 rushing yards. Malachai Williams also had a big game. The defense surrendered just 22 yards, but an outmanned Redeemer team isn’t a good measuring stick.
What To Expect: GAR’s speed will play a big factor in the outcome.
Hazleton Area (1-1) at Dallas (2-0)
7 p.m. Friday
The Coaches: Hazleton Area’s Mike Brennan (129-91, 17th year); Dallas’ Rich Mannello (17-18, 4th year)
Last Meeting: Hazleton Area 16-13 in 2017
All-Time Series: Hazleton Area leads 4-2
Scouting Hazleton Area: Hazleton Area had an extra point blocked midway through the fourth quarter in its 21-20 loss to Wyoming Valley West. The Cougars couldn’t make a stop and WVW was able to run out the clock. The defense gave up 318 rushing yards, more than three times as much in the 2017 game.
Scouting Dallas: The Mountaineers seize control early in its 32-12 victory vs. Crestwood. The run defense has been stout, allowing just 3.0 yards per carry. It did a fine job against Hazleton Area in last year’s contest. The running game as been impressive as well.
What To Expect: Like last year’s game, this one can go either way.
Holy Redeemer (0-2) at Mahanoy Area (0-2)
7 p.m. Friday
The Coaches: Redeemer’s Dwayne Downing (27-45, 8th year); Mahanoy Area’s Dave Holman (32-36, 7th year)
Last Meeting: Mahanoy Area 42-0 in 2017
All-Time Series: Mahanoy Area leads 2-0
Scouting Redeemer: The Royals had just 22 yards in their 43-0 loss to GAR. The team has always had issues running the ball, but without a dependable passing game the offense has gone stagnant. There wasn’t much going in a 14-12 loss to Holy Cross, which ended the Crusaders’ 25-game losing streak.
Scouting Mahanoy Area: After a solid defensive effort in a 26-7 loss to Tri-Valley, the unit was trampled by Tamaqua in a 35-0 loss. The offense hasn’t done much in either game, although this is a good opportunity to change those results. Kind of an odd start for a team with so many veterans.
What To Expect: Mahanoy Area will get things straightened out in a big way.
Meyers (1-1) at Lake-Lehman (1-1)
7 p.m. Friday
The Coaches: Meyers’ Jeff Labatch (20-16, 4th year); Lake-Lehman’s Jerry Gilsky (58-35, 9th year)
Last Meeting: Lehman 30-23 in 2017
All-Time Series: Meyers leads 28-21
Scouting Meyers: The Mohawks had three 100-yard rushers – Kevin Dessoye, Darrian Tyson and Nazir Dunell – in a 53-14 win vs. Northwest. All three bring different running styles. The victory also helped soften the overtime loss Week 1 to Riverside. After a rough time in the opener, the defense played much better.
Scouting Lake-Lehman: The defense held Hanover Area to 8 yards rushing – and 44 yards total – in a 42-0 victory. Casey Kaminski is off the a strong start with two receiving TDs, a kick return TD and an interception. Plenty of guys have been getting their hands on the ball in the running game.
What To Expect: A close game with Lehman having a very slight edge.
Northwest (0-2) at Wyoming Area (2-0)
7 p.m. Friday
The Coaches: Northwest’s Lon Hazlet (106-100, 20th year); Wyoming Area’s Randy Spencer (51-49, 10th year)
Last Meeting: Northwest 55-13 in 2013
All-Time Series: Wyoming Area leads 3-1
Scouting Northwest: The Rangers were down 19-14 at halftime against Meyers and lost 53-14. The defense fell apart in the final two quarters as Meyers finished with three 100-yard rushers and allowed 517 rushing yards. The offense is a work in progress with little returning from last season’s 8-3 club.
Scouting Wyoming Area: The running game was a sore spot last season, but so far so good. The Warriors spread the ball around and have rushed for 520 yards, nearly 300 more than through two games last year. The defense has been very stingy and has an excellent chance for a third straight strong performance.
What To Expect: Wyoming Area to dominate a young Northwest team.
Tunkhannock (0-2) at Pittston Area (1-1)
7 p.m. Friday
The Coaches: Tunkhannock’s Mike Marabell (0-2, 1st year); Pittston Area’s Nick Barbieri (7-6, 2nd year)
Last Meeting: Pittston Area 36-20 2017
All-Time Series: Pittston Area leads 23-14-1
Scouting Tunkhannock: New coach but same problem so far. The defense has been shaky vs. the run and pass as the Tigers have surrendered 53 points in each of their first two games. The offense has shown the ability to move the ball and score, but doesn’t have enough firepower to get involved in track meets.
Scouting Pittston Area: Running the ball and stopping the run have been two big issues thus far. The offense has rushed for 112 yards, 1.5 yards per carry, in two games. The run defense has surrendered 512 yards and 6.6 per tote. This could be a good game to straighten that out.
What To Expect: It’s the Patriots’ home opener and they won’t disappoint.
Reach John Erzar at 570-991-6394 or on Twitter @TLJohnErzar