Allegany, Fort Hill are leaders of the pack

Based on recent history, it's Allegany's turn.

However, defending region champion Fort Hill will have something to say about that.

Since 2005, the first year Fort Hill and Allegany were classified as 1A schools together, these Cumberland rivals have alternated region titles in football, with Allegany winning in 2005 and 2007, Fort Hill returning the favor in 2006 and 2008.

Allegany won the Class 1A state title in 2005, and the past three years a Cumberland school has finished as the state runner-up to Dunbar.

This year, the Cumberland schools are again both considered Class 1A state title contenders.

Fort Hill returns nine starters from last year's 11-2 state-runner-up squad, and Allegany brings back 12 starters from a 10-2 team that finished as region runner-up to Fort Hill.

"It's funny how things turn," Fort Hill coach Todd Appel said. "We have all of these guys back, and now we'll have to work harder every day [to remain on top]."

Beyond Allegany and Fort Hill, Mountain Ridge -- the only other public school in Allegany County -- is a legitimate Class 1A top-10 program as well. The Miners have been unlucky, going 7-3 each of the past two seasons, but were outpointed for a playoff spot both times in 1A West, the strongest of the state's 1A football regions.

Fort Hill starts the season as the favorite in Western Maryland, but it is by no means a lock.

The Sentinels graduated all but one lineman starter on both sides of the ball, but the team is stocked with skill players and quality defensive ends and linebackers.

Devin Lee, the team's best all-around athlete, likely will shift from receiver to quarterback for his senior season. Fort Hill's wing-T offense is based on production from the fullback position, and the Sentinels have two quality options in Dakota Welsh and Garrett Dolly. Sam Walker, the halfback, figures to factor prominently into the team's offensive plans, too. Appel, who is in his second year as head coach, said the key will be building an offensive line.

"We have big kids. We have strong kids," he said. "But not one of those lineman are preseason-determined starters. I'm really not sure who will rise to the top and start for us."

Fort Hill's strength will rest on the defensive side of the ball. Defensive end Colton Sibley had a stellar performance in last year's state final, a game in which Fort Hill looked like it was going to upset Dunbar, only to fall in the closing minute, 20-19, on a late touchdown and two-point conversion. Glen Vincent is projected as the other starting defensive end. Welsh and Dolly will anchor the linebackers, and Lee and Walker will see time in the secondary.

Allegany has won at least 10 games in three of the last four seasons, and the Campers are gearing up for another run at a state playoff appearance.

Seniors Dustin Wharton, J.D. Hook and Melvin Tyson were all sophomore starters on Allegany's 2007 state runner-up squad. Wharton, Hook and Trevor Jessie are projected as the top runners in Allegany's wing-T offense. Either Demetrius Taylor or Drew O'Neil will start at quarterback, but either way, both will be on the field for the Campers at some point.

Like Fort Hill, Allegany finds itself looking for replacements on the offensive line.

"We're pretty good skill-wise," coach Tom Preaskorn said. "The question is, can we replace [lineman] Andrew Shively, [tight end] Ryan Kane and [lineman] Justin Hymes. If we can fill some line and the seniors provide the leadership we need, it should be a good year."

Wharton and Hook will be the team's key defensive players at linebacker.

Allegany also returns Small School All-State place-kicker John Carpenter.

Mountain Ridge, in its second year in the division, is the only Class 1A team to post a winning record each of the last two seasons and not make the playoffs. The school, the product of a merger between Beall and Westmar, should be in the playoff hunt this year with four starters returning on each side of the ball.

The Miners run the wishbone offense, and the key runners will be fullback Austin Teets, halfback Keinan Harper and quarterback Ryan Delaney. Delaney takes over for graduated Matt Farris, who led Mountain Ridge to 14 wins between 2007 and 2008. Although coach Roy DeVore likes to run the ball, he feels Delaney may give the team a better passing attack than it had in recent years. A better passing attack will come in handy with 6-foot-3 receiver Russell Knieriem, who poses match-up problems for most opponents, as a main target.

Mountain Ridge has another weapon in place-kicker Cody Hovatter. The senior is being recruited by West Virginia University.

The Miners have a challenging start to the 2009 season, opening with Jefferson (Shenendoah Junction, W.Va.) and Hedgesville (W.Va.) before facing Allegany and perennial West Virginia Class A state title contender Wheeling Central Catholic.

Northern Garrett's playoff fortunes might be determined the first week of the season. The Huskies open with Washington County's Smithsburg in a rare 1A West non-league meeting. The winner will have an inside track at one of the region's four playoff berths. Northern Garrett returns four offensive and five defensive starters from last year's 3-7 team. But Phil Carr has a reason to be excited: The school's junior varsity team went undefeated last year.

"We've got some size and we have better depth," Carr said.

Northern's lineup features a pair of third-year starters in two-way lineman Tyler Opel and linebacker Adam Moranduzzo, who had more than 100 tackles last season.

Northern remains an option team, and the key to its offense will be junior quarterback Jake Bosley.

Southern Garrett, at one time an annual playoff contender, has fallen on tough times recently. The Rams have mustered only 14 wins over the past seven seasons. Steve Savage starts his second season as the program's head coach and has the talented Scheffel brothers (Bubba and Brutus) returning. The Scheffel brothers are both wrestling state champions. Ryan Bennett is projected as the team's top defensive player.