Throughout the 2000s, most associated Williamsport with explosive offenses. Defense? Not so much.
There were times when the Millionaires resembled a fast-paced basketball team, scoring lots of points but also surrendering many. That image started changing two years ago when the Millionaires allowed just 39 points through their first five games before injuries ravaged the roster.
It continued last year when Williamsport shut out two opponents and never let a team score more than 18 points in any of its six victories. That defense formed the backbone for a successful team which went 6-2 and reached its first district final since 2016.
And while the offense could be potent this season, Williamsport may again be identified as a defensive menace eager to squeeze the life from opposing offenses. The defense has dramatically transformed itself and is a major reason expectations are so high for 2021 with all but one starter returning.
It’s all about the personnel and them buying in,” Williamsport coach Chuck Crews said. “We have a great defensive staff and the scheme wasn’t the question. It was just putting kids in the position where they could help the team best.”
Williamsport has made the pieces fit the last two years and the defensive puzzle could be completed this season with so many quality players returning. Add in some exciting younger players and the Millionaires have all the ingredients they hope can create a championship formula. Williamsport started last year 5-0 and doubled its win total before Altoona defeated it, 28-14, in the District 2-6 Class 6A championship.
“Our current theme is kind of one where we let the opportunity for a gold medal slip through our fingers last year,” Crews said. “We fell short against Altoona and didn’t have enough in the tank to get over the hump. We feel like there’s unfinished business heading into this season and we’re excited.”
The defensive line provides reason to be excited. Although it lost all-state end Nassir Jones, three of the area’s premier linemen return with seniors Avery Campbell, Charles Crews and Dade Splain all three-year starters. Campbell is tough off the edge and made opponents pay for double teaming Jones the last two years. When Campbell was hurt late in the season, Crews moved from inside to end and also became a matchup problem. Splain helps make the line go and his ability to handle the middle, occupy blockers and penetrate played a major role in Williamsport being so stingy against the run. Connor Adkins, Joel Feleppa, Austin Best and Nariq Burks also could make a good impact, providing production and depth.
Williamsport is even more experienced at linebacker where every starter returns, including the team’s top two tacklers from last year: Nasir Hennigan and Sebastian Robinson. Riley Bower also enjoyed a strong season and the defense receives a huge boost with Lajear Whaley returning. Whaley developed into an excellent linebacker as a sophomore but was sidelined with an injury most of last year. His combination of speed and power gives the linebacking unit an added boost and Frankie Morrone also could see time at linebacker.
Keith Freeman anchors an experienced secondary which returns four starters, including DJ Green, Roman Morrone and Damir Sams-Glover, all who produced quality seasons a year ago. Freeman earned first team Wyoming Valley Conference honors, Green returned an interception for a touchdown and Morrone had some big tackle games. Sams-Glover is an active player and Nasir Williams, Santino White, Yahzir Slaughter, Kylan Mims and Devon Harris also could play key roles.
As stingy as Williamsport could be defensively, it could be equally entertaining offensively. Quarterback Frankie Morrone returns after topping 1,000 yards, Hennigan led the team in rushing and Freeman developed into an excellent receiver who also can run the ball when called upon. Hennigan ran for 373 yards and could form a potent tandem with Whaley who was limited to three carries, but who gained 20 yards and scored a touchdown on those carries. Sams-Glover also ran for a touchdown and both he and Williams could also see some carries.
Morrone flourished in his first full year starting and threw for 1,161 yards and 14 touchdowns. Morrone threw a touchdown pass in every Williamsport victory and also completed 62% of his passes. He will have some dangerous receivers at his disposal, including Freeman who can beat a defense deep and gain many yards after the catch. Green and White could enjoy breakthrough seasons and players like Malakai Puckey, Dom Diabelko, Ben Smith, Nyjir Dixon and Jamaire Harden are eager to show what they can do at the varsity level.
Williamsport’s offensive line can help everything go and returns five players who started at least one game last fall. Crews, Splain and Feleppa are three-year starters and Adkins and Best also have starting experience. blake Forker, Blake Butler and Dakoda Hamilton also likely will see action. The line is experienced, but also stronger than a year ago with most players hitting the weights hard. That could make a big impact as Williamsport tries becoming more physical up front in 2021.
Just as important as Williamsport’s talent and experience is its bond. Many of these players have competed together since their Pop Warner days and many have expressed how much that chemistry helped it last year and throughout the offseason. Nobody is afraid to work here. Crews and the coaches will do their best to motivate their players all season, but the good part of them, is they can focus even more on strategy because the players do a lot of that on their own.
“This whole senior class has been a group of hard workers since they were freshmen, and the juniors and sophomores are falling right into line,” Crews said. “From my perspective, we’re using that district final loss as fuel, but they are going to work hard regardless.”
On this team, the defense never rests. Neither does anyone else.
The goal is not to be labeled a defensive team or an offensive team. Williamsport simply wants to be a great team, period.