Af­ter 6-win sea­son, Tigers ready to take next step

Cecil Whig - - SPORTS - By KEVIN PHILLIPS

Spe­cial to the Whig

— Ris­ing Sun en­ters the 2016 foot­ball sea­son look­ing to build off of a suc­cess­ful 2015 cam­paign in which it won its fi­nal five games en route to a 6-4 record and a sec­ond place finish in the UCBAC Susque­hanna Divi­sion.

The Tigers be­lieve that they have the tal­ent on both sides of the ball to im­prove on last year’s break­through cam­paign and reach the play­offs for the first time since the 2006 sea­son.

“I think we’re def­i­nitely go­ing to im­prove on 6-4. I think we’re def­i­nitely go­ing to be in the play­offs. I think we’re go­ing to be more of a com­ing at you team now,” senior line­man Cur­tis Cox said. “We got the pass­ing game down. The run­ning game has al­ways been strong, and we’re just go­ing to pound it down their throats.”

Ris­ing Sun re­turns more than half of its starters from last year’s team, giving the squad con­fi­dence that it will be able to con­tinue its up­ward trajectory.

Tigers head coach Rich Opp be­lieves one ad­van­tage of hav­ing an ex­pe­ri­enced team is that the coach­ing staff does not have to spend ex­tra time teach­ing the play­ers the fun­da­men­tals, but in­stead they can touch up on a few things while fo­cus­ing on adding new wrin­kles to their schemes.

NORTH EAST

“The line­men are bet­ter this year. They know their block­ing rules. It’s re­view. Last year, it was

semi-new. I think we’re go­ing to be able to run the ball and pass the ball,” Opp said. “We have a vet­eran de­fense. We’ll be able to do more schem­ing ear­lier. They’re more re­cep­tive to their key reads ear­lier. We had a hand­ful of sopho­mores play­ing both sides of the ball last year. They’re com­ing back as vet­er­ans.”

While Ris­ing Sun re­turns sev­eral play­ers to an of­fense that scored 25.2 points per game, it did grad­u­ate valu- able skill po­si­tion play­ers in Eli­jah Erhart, Wy­att Grif­fith (All-County), Noah Juer­gens (All-County) and Jack Stewart (All-County). Quar­ter­back Nate McCul­lough, who passed for 1,347 yards and 14 touch­downs last sea­son en route to first team All-County hon­ors, be­lieves that there are sev­eral play­ers ready to step up and fill those shoes.

“I think Joe [Jones] is just as ath­letic as Noah [Juer­gens]. He’s the same type of player,” McCul­lough said. “We’ve plugged in [Cameron] Billings and [Ryan] Leonard at re­ceiver, so I think they’re go­ing to look good too. I think Austin Newby is go­ing to be as good, if not bet­ter, than Eli­jah [Erhart] was last year.”

On the de­fen­sive side of the ball, Ris­ing Sun re­turns an in­tel­li­gent unit that looks to con­tinue the way it played down the stretch last sea­son when it gave up less than 10 points a game over its fi­nal five con­tests.

Opp noted that the Tigers en­tered pre­sea­son camp with far more con­fi­dence than they did last Au­gust thanks to the way they fin­ished up last year’s cam­paign com­pared to 2014 when they went 0-10.

“I think when we came into camp there was a be­lief right from the get go in what we were do­ing. They were fo­cused. You could see in their eyes and body lan­guage they were lis­ten­ing very, very well to our coach­ing,” Opp said.

That con­fi­dence is ev­i­dent through­out the team. Jones, who moves to slot re­ceiver this year af­ter spend­ing last sea­son as a run­ning back, be­lieves that the Tigers are ready to take the next step and be­come a play­off contender.

“I feel like we’re do­ing bet- ter this year and will be bet­ter than 6-4. We’re out here striv­ing and work­ing hard. We’re go­ing to con­tinue to do that,” Jones said.

If Ris­ing Sun wants to reach the play­offs, it can­not af­ford to lose its first three games of the sea­son like it did last year. The Tigers are con­fi­dent that they will get off to a stronger start.

Ris­ing Sun plays non-con­fer­ence foe South­ern and a pair of Ch­e­sa­peake Divi­sion op­po­nents in C.M. Wright and Fall­ston to open the year.

“Weeks 1, 2 and 3 killed us last year, and we came out of the gates slow. We had too much of what we had the the year be­fore last,” McCul­lough said. “We need to put it to­gether for the first three weeks, and we need some team lead­ers to step up and ful­fill those roles.”

Newby, who is play­ing tight end, agreed.

“We came out a lit­tle bit slow last year. We lost the first three games,” he said. “I don’t think that’s go­ing to hap­pen this year. I think we’ll be okay.”

Fol­low the 2016 foot­ball sea­son on Twit­ter: @UCBACFoot­ball

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