By Matt Popchock
If you want to know what kind of player California senior quarterback T.D. Conway has blossomed into, look no further than his initials.
He threw 25 of those in 2010, with one coming in a Class A First Round playoff loss to Rochester that spoiled a shutout bid by the second-seeded Rams, while the other 24 came during a record-setting regular season that saw him earn a first team spot on the all-conference squad.
T.D. Conway led the classification and finished fourth in the WPIAL with 1,785 passing yards during the regular campaign, breaking school records with both his single-season TD and yardage (1,906) totals as California ended up 6-2 in the Tri-County South Conference to claim the number three playoff spot, and 6-4 overall.
Conway is back and is arguably the most gifted player in the Tri-County South, but do the Trojans have enough returning talent on the rest of the field to step forward and surpass Monessen and Beth-Center, who not only finished one and two, respectively, in the conference last year, but humbled he and his mates in consecutive weeks?
Each of those three teams were separated by just one game in the 2010 regular season standings, and in 2011, California may be, once again, so close, yet so far away…kind of like T.D. Conway’s older brother, Dakota Conway.
Dakota was T.D.’s primary target last season; he ranked third in Class A and seventh in the WPIAL entering the postseason with 772 yards on 47 catches, with 15 of those going for scores. This fall he’ll begin playing at the “other” California–California University of PA, that is–uniting him with the boys’ father, Mike Conway, who is the Vulcans’ defensive coordinator.
For this offense, which ranked seventh in Class A (but third behind Monessen and Beth-Center) with 29 points per game, to continue progressing, accuracy must be the name of the younger Conway’s game. T.D. completed just 48.8% of his attempts as a junior, and, with a reworked receiving corps, it should be interesting to see whether that progress is slow or steady.
Jordan Pocky and Josh Boothe, who worked well when Dakota was too well covered, have also graduated. Senior tailback Dylan Hunter caught 12 balls for 180 yards last year, while also running for 369 yards and a touchdown, and averaging over six yards a carry. The receiving yards don’t sound like much, but it’s more than any of the Trojans’ returnees had, so, if anything, California may throw out of the backfield more.
Head coach Brady Barbero will always be quick to rave about his quarterback, but when you couple all this with the fact that the remaining receivers are five sophomores, including Dylan’s brother Austin, and two juniors, we may see power football return to California. Besides, Barbero has also talked publicly about wanting to see more balance.
Senior running back Skyler Dickinson can help after rushing for 322 yards and three TD’s as a junior, averaging over six yards a pop just like Hunter. Junior lineman Boyd Stinnett, a 2010 first team All-Tri County South honoree, will try to clear a path for those two, but it won’t be easy with tight end Pocky and fellow all-conference lineman Josh Jenkins having moved on.
But what’s really keeping the Trojans from crossing the line separating pretenders from contenders might be their defense, which yielded over 21 points per game and let Monessen and Beth-Center light them up for a combined 80 in two games.
A familiar face has come to the program for a second tour of duty. New defensive coordinator Jeff Lowden will try to work some magic this year after working with former Peters Township head coach Nick Milchovich and helping guide the Indians to a rare Quad-A playoff berth in 2010. Chances are, however, the success of California’s defense in 2011 will depend much more on the durability of its team leaders, not to mention their ability to learn from last year’s in-conference failures.
Stinnett contributed on the defensive line with 27 tackles (12 solo) in limited action last season. Dickinson did the same with eight of California’s 15 sacks and a team-best ten pass deflections. Dylan Hunter shared the team lead in solo tackles with 28, and finished with 62 total. Hunter shared that lead, among others, with fellow linebacker John Granato, who led the Trojans with 65 total tackles as a junior.
Hunter is athletic enough that we can expect him to see playing time at safety as well, which isn’t a bad idea. The front of that base 4-4 defense is capable of being stronger, and it needs to be, but it’s also imperative the secondary be sharper, because the top teams in this conference will try to air it out.
Barbero fancies his Trojans as a challenger for the Tri-County South crown. They are similar to Monessen, last year’s champion, in the sense that they have some experience on both sides of the ball, but don’t have as much depth at the skill positions. Beth-Center seems to have more raw talent coming back than most of the teams in the conference, so this may be the Bulldogs’ year, and if it is, the Greyhounds still won’t be far behind. A number of the teams California beat last year to reach the postseason have significant graduation losses to overcome before they can think about progressing.
So for the Trojans, which still look like a playoff team even without one half of the Conways, the most realistic goal may be to stay a head above the rest, as opposed to being a head above the best.
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)