Liberty football coach Larry Luthe noticed something at the Lions' rain-drenched practice on Tuesday.
Sluggish weather can create one of two things — a good practice or a bad one. Luthe said it was one of his varsity team's best that day, despite the weather. Credit this year's senior class who has already started to raise the bar for this year's crop.
"They've been great leaders," Luthe said. "They've been on time; they've been showing the younger kids how to do things and take care of everything they're expected to. Most importantly, they're showing great energy in practice and when things are down, they're pushing each other to try and build their own set of values."
The Lions had their best season in program history in 2016. They went undefeated in county play and topped the regular season with a 38-0 shutout of crosstown rival Century for their first outright county title since 2000, good for a 9-2 record (5-0 county).
"I think you want to win every game and obviously Century is that rivalry game but it's such a community and you play everybody," Luthe said. "Everybody's trying to win all the time so I don't think there's so much of a target because even if we weren't county champions, we'd want to beat everybody we played anyways. I just think that's the mentality because most of these kids know each other or grow up playing with each other so it's that community and everybody wants to be the king of their community."
Luthe cited inexperience at the quarterback and linebacker positions, spots that were held in place by Ben Agostino, Spencer Kirin and Corey Luthe last year. The trio earned Times first-team all-county honors — Agostino threw for 1,527 yards and 13 touchdowns while Kirin led on the receiving end, catching 26 passes for 369 yards and six scores.
Corey Luthe was second on the Lions with 50.5 tackles and added two interceptions.
Look for senior Nolan Karfonta to pick up starting quarterback duties this season for the Lions' spread offense, a role he has been preparing dutifully for, under Agostino's guidance.
"I look forward to stepping into Ben's role and he taught me a lot last year and I just want to go off of what he taught me," Karfonta said.
The offensive and defensive lines should have a similar physicality to last year's and Luthe said the return of seniors Noah Rohrer and Blaine Roach, including the addition of sophomore Michael Spitz, will even out the Lions' running backs.
Senior Christian O’Hern and junior Nick Henderson should be expected to join the rotation at running back and linebacker as well.
“I’m really excited to play with everyone on the team,” Karfonta said. “I’m playing with some of my best friends, Nick Loppatto at wide receiver, Noah Rohrer and Blaine Roach at running back and I just think it will be a good connection.”
Also returning to the lineup are senior linemen Zach Morris and Josh Ruehl, who helped block for a team that rushed for 1,967 yards and 29 touchdowns last year. Morris, a two-time first-team all-countian, and Ruehl were helped on defense by all-countians Tyler Bowling and Michael Phillips, both of whom have graduated.
Don’t expect the Lions to change too much in either formation on offense or defense. If anything, Luthe said, the defensive front will show more of a 4-2 style rather than 3-4 this season.
“We’re excited,” Luthe said. “We feel we have a lot of parts and a good mix of experience and with the younger guys. We’re hopeful that if we can gel together as a team then our big goal is to be a better team next week than we were this week so we’ll keep that mentality for the next 10 weeks and wherever things fall, they fall.”