PERRYVILLE — The Perryville football team began the previous two seasons with one-sided non-conference wins over Pikesville.
Not this year.
The Panthers will be thrown into the mix Week 1 as they host Havre de Grace – one of their fiercest rivals and toughest opponents on the schedule.
“It gets real, real quick,” Perryville coach Chris Johnson said. “No offense to Pikesville, but we’ve got to be ready to rock right away. We can’t have excuses of youth, or a slow start or anything like that. That’ll be a big game for both teams. I think it’ll be a good crowd and hopefully it’s good weather.”
Perryville last won the annual ‘Susky Bowl’ in 2014, but this game will mean more than the regular-season rivalry trophy typically represents. The Panthers squandered a fourth-quarter lead when the two teams met in the 1A East Region Championship last season, letting a trip to the state semifinals slip away.
The players know exactly who their first game is against, and the intensity since the first day of practice has reflected it.
“I really don’t need to remind them what’s coming. They know that we’re playing a really good team the first week of the year,” Johnson said. “They’ve had our number the last three or four years, and the kids would like to win that game if at all possible. We’re going to go out and prepare the right way, and hopefully things fall our way.”
Perryville’s appearance in the region final last season was its first since 2012. Tyler Nasuta, who returns after starting at quarterback as a junior, said advancing in the postseason with a road win over Cambridge-South Dorchester only made the Panthers hungry for more.
“It just makes you hungrier. Having it just makes you want it again,” he said. “It’s like an addiction. You want to win more. Having that experience is just different, it’s an unreal thing that not everybody gets to experience. I wish everybody could because it’s amazing.”
Perryville had lost to Cambridge-South Dorchester the last two times it reached the postseason. Having several key players back with a playoff win under their belts has changed the expectations.
“I think that changed the mentality big time. I think, the fact the kids know we had the Havre de Grace game won but a couple things here and there changed the outcome, they have very high expectations,” Johnson said. “They expect for this team to take the next step. But obviously, you can only do that one practice at a time. You can’t look ahead right now, we’re just looking at the first game. We just want to continue to learn every day, but we are starting to focus on our first game already.”
The Panthers return a large core of last year’s playoff team, led by Nasuta and All-County defensive back Phoenix Phillips.
“We have Tyler Nasuta back at starting quarterback. We obviously have very high expectations. He’s looked really good in practice. Emarion [Hampton] (honorable mention) will be starting at tailback this year. He was at wing last year. He started in the defensive backfield, too, last year. Khaleil [Mitchell] is back. He was starting at the end of the year last year as our fullback. He looks really good right now and is also working at linebacker,” Johnson said. “We have Alex Reynolds back, we’re probably going to be working him at some wing and starting inside linebacker. Phoenix Phillips will be back, he was one of our best defensive players. Skyler Skrapka last year had a hurt shoulder, and I expect him to really help out at tight end. We have Rob Wagner at tight end and outside linebacker, where he played last year and did a really nice job. Braden Yadlosky, at receiver and defensive back, is returning.
“We’ve got some nice young kids, too, on the offensive and defensive line. Mark Bowen didn’t play last year, he’s playing this year. He looks good. Joe Crockett, who started at center last year, is playing really well on both sides of the ball and may end up being a two-way starter. We have Aiden Allen, who has not been a full-go yet because he had Lisfranc. We’re not rushing him. We’re going to make sure that he strengthens that so that we don’t have an injury that will keep him out longer.”
Allen, a major addition along the offensive line as a sophomore last fall, did lower body workouts on his own throughout practice to work on regaining his leg strength.
A key addition for Perryville is on its coaching staff, where Sean Sandora joins as defensive coordinator.
Sandora guided Dundalk to the 2015 3A state championship game and spent 2018 as the head coach of Archbishop Curley. He and Johnson both played college football at Salisbury.
“He brings an aggressive style,” Johnson said. “He doesn’t like sitting back.”
Johnson said staying healthy will be a major key for the Panthers this season. He has no questions regarding his team’s work ethic.
“The kids have a really good attitude. They’re working really hard,” he said. “They’re focused, they listen, they want to be good. They really want to be good, so they’re fun to coach because of that. It makes it a lot more fun. I don’t have to yell because the effort is always there. It’s all about just constructive criticism, coaching on the fly, and getting these guys better.”
Beyond the attitudes and work ethic, Nasuta noted how advanced this year’s team was when it began practice.
“I think we’re a lot further ahead of the game than we were last year,” he said. “We were getting our plays installed in the first and second week, which is crazy because last year we were just working on technique still in the second week. So, I think we’ve come a really long way.”
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