Football Preview | Fort Hill looks to continue winning ways with new-look roster

Aug. 31—CUMBERLAND — At the end of every season, Fort Hill loses a host of productive seniors to graduation, and by the next fall, the Sentinels find their replacements and keep the train rolling.

Fort Hill was victorious again over Mountain Ridge in the Class 1A championship game last season in Annapolis to finish 13-1, downing its county rival, 16-14, on a last-second field goal by Quinn Cohen.

The Sentinels graduated 3,517 rushing yards and 48 touchdowns from that title-winning squad — the ninth in school history — namely their three-headed monster in the backfield Mikey Allen, Tavin Willis and Tanner Wertz and starting quarterback Anthony Burns.

Fort Hill has seven players it's looking at to fill the shoes vacated in the backfield and the secondary, but the Sentinels have done it before, and they'll do it again.

They do have reigning Defensive Player of the Year Carter Hess back for his senior season, and he's primed for his best season to date.

Despite all the new faces, Fort Hill has its sights on an eighth state championship in 10 seasons.

"We lost a lot of seniors, and we have some really young guys coming in to take a lot of spots," Fort Hill head coach Zack Alkire said. "They're gonna take some work, but they've been working really hard. They've been showing up all summer."

The Sentinels are 27-2 under Alkire and enter his fourth season riding an eight-game winning streak.

The 2022 squad was marked by its exceptional speed at skill positions, some of the fastest in the school's history, with most of them playing football at the next level.

Allen inked a scholarship with Division 1 Southern Utah to team up with former Frostburg State head coach DeLane Fitzgerald. He captured area Offensive Player of the Year honors after racking up 1,751 all-purpose yards. He had 87 carries for 945 yards and 13 touchdowns, 14 catches for 240 yards and three scores, 483 return yards and one TD and four interceptions or 83 yards and two touchdowns.

Willis (1,030 yards, 17 touchdowns) is spending a year at prep school in Lawrenceville in New Jersey and earned multiple offers from service academies and Ivy League schools over the summer.

Split end and All-Area defensive back Tony Palmisano, the first two-time winner of Defensive Player of the Game in Homecoming history, is suiting up for Frostburg State this fall.

Wertz is the lone senior skill position player on last year's Fort Hill team to not play at the next level, but it's not for a lack of production after rushing for 1,007 yards and 10 touchdowns.

"You could rely on those guys," Alkire said. "Same thing in the secondary. Those guys, we knew we could get man formation every time and they're going to lock you up. We're going to use our defensive line to get pressure on the quarterback and we'll be fine. We'll just go straight man.

"We've got to be a little better with our concepts this year. We can't just throw these guys out in man this year. They've got to learn some zone concepts too. We just have to be better coaches."

The 2022 Sentinels were known more as a home-run offense and not as a physically imposing team that could bully teams into submission, but expect that to change this year.

Alkire said that optional workout attendance was at 97% over the summer, and the Sentinels' preseason was finally back to its pre-COVID standards. The results have been obvious.

"Just ratcheting up the intensity level again has been huge," Alkire said. "Our kids are noticeably larger than they were in the past."

Fort Hill had its weight room time cut to 45 minutes in recent years, but its players have been willing to stay after school to supplement the time loss.

The Sentinels brought back an old competition started by Todd Appel, where players are divided into teams based on 40 times and compete in the weight room to win pizza and wings. That wasn't possible with the post-COVID restrictions.

"This year, we've really worked towards getting back to what we would do in the past," Alkire said. "It was tough at first because those kids aren't used to seeing that. Most of the program hadn't been there before COVID. ... They never got to really experience what a real offseason should be like until this year."

It would've been understanding if Fort Hill started to become complacent with state championships from 1975, 1997, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2018, 2021 and 2022 lining the walls — but that's not the case.

The sense of urgency to keep the winning ways going is still there.

"Even though we've won a couple, there is still a lot of pressure to keep that going," Alkire said. "That's the expectation here, that every season should end in a championship. It's not just the outside community, that's our expectation too.

"But you've got to be able to work for it. It's not something that happens just because of who we are."

With all that said, returning to Annapolis is far from a guarantee.

The Sentinels will turn to a new quarterback in senior Deshaun Brown (6-foot-1, 187 pounds), who began his career at Allegany and beat out senior Gavin Carney (6-3, 181) for the spot. Brown was a starter on the Fort Hill basketball team that advanced to the state semifinals but didn't play football.

He'll be tasked with replacing Burns, who completed 35 of 61 passes for 681 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions last year.

"Deshaun, with his athleticism he moves really well," Alkire said. "I thought that he might struggle with the Wing-T system. ... He's really surprised us with the way he's been able to get in and out of the huddle, run our offense and not make mistakes.

"He throws a great deep ball. He needs to work on his reads."

With Brown's athletic ability under center, Fort Hill will also line up out of the shotgun and run some read-option plays.

"We're still going to try to spread it out a little bit," Alkire said. "We want to be able to get these guys on tape doing things outside of the Wing-T. ... We want to win games and win championships, but we also want them to go to the next level."

How can Fort Hill replicate Allen, Willis and Wertz in the backfield? It has a healthy competition.

Junior Jabril Daniels (6-0, 185) will most likely be lined up at fullback and get the brunt of the carries. He emerged during Fort Hill's playoff run last season to rush for 555 yards and 11 touchdowns on 72 carries.

"He's got a big plate in front of him (playing both ways), and hopefully he's able to withstand that," Alkire said.

Senior Steven Spencer (5-11, 175) will also be a starter in the backfield once he gets healthy, but he was held out of both of the Sentinels' scrimmages.

Junior Tristan Ross (6-0, 160) provides a home-run threat in the backfield. He broke Dylan Clay's 200-meter and Ty Johnson's 100-meter sophomore school records last year on the track. He's still learning the ins and outs of the Wing-T after moving from Glen Burnie during his sophomore season but will be key for Fort Hill down the stretch.

Sophomores Braelyn Younger (6-0, 190), Noah House (6-1, 175) and freshman Carson Bender (6-0, 170) will also get a good number of carries, especially if Spencer isn't ready to go Week 1 against Northern.

"I think that we have seven running backs now that I feel very confident with right now," Alkire said. "There aren't really any leaders. There is very little separation between one and seven. So when one's not getting the job done, then you're going to go to the next one. If he's not getting it done, we'll go to the next one.

"You're going to do things the way we want you to do it. When you're not blocking hard, when you're not focused, when you're not lining up right, when you're not doing things correctly, you're going to sit until you figure it out. Once you figure it out, we'll give you another chance."

Senior Landon Sensabaugh (6-1, 160), Carney and senior Cam'ron Davis (6-0, 165) will play split end, with Sensabaugh the leader in the clubhouse entering game week. Junior Wyatt Ranker (5-10, 140) is also a name to watch going forward.

Senior Bryson Metz (6-1, 200), an All-Area first-team linebacker last year, returns at tight end.

"Last year, I thought he had great hands, but for whatever reason he dropped a lot of balls," Alkire said. "I think we're putting him in a better position to catch the football with routes that are conducive to him."

Alkire said he and offensive coordinator Ritchie Shook have made it a point of emphasis this season to throw the ball more.

"I know I say that every year, but it's a priority since that field goal went through in Annapolis," he said. "We need to throw the ball more because if we don't throw the ball more, we're going to keep seeing defenses like Mountain Ridge's that just load the box up and stop what we do."

Fort Hill returns three starters up front.

Senior Brayden Sines (6-1, 260) is back at left tackle, senior Logan Vanmeter (5-11, 215) returns at right guard and Hess (6-1, 286) is again the right tackle.

Senior Noah Twigg (6-0, 240) is the likely starter at center, and either senior Camron Banks (6-2, 250) or senior Riley Williams (6-1, 205) will get the nod Week 1.

"Our offensive line is going to be our strength," Alkire said. "We're coming along there. We know that we can count on those three (returners). They're all super smart kids. They're the strongest kids in our program. ... We know that they're going to be great team leaders."

Fort Hill also called up a trio of sophomores because it has no junior offensive linemen in the program. The Sentinels had the luxury of doing so because it had 52 players on their junior varsity squad.

Those guys who will contribute next season and in years to come are sophomores Kyle Miller (5-10, 160), Austin Zembower (6-1, 245) and Aiden Warnick (5-10, 194).

Fort Hill's defense was its calling card last season, holding opponents to just 7.8 points and 135.9 yards per game.

The Sentinels were able to rely on the man-to-man coverage abilities of Allen, Willis and Palmisano, allowing them to play without a safety and get more pressure on opposing teams' ball carriers.

With those guys gone, Fort Hill's strength will be its front eight personnel.

Hess, who is committed to Division 1 Fordham, anchors the defensive line. He had 152 tackles (62 solo), 22 for loss, five sacks, one interception, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and a touchdown last year.

"I don't want to scare anybody, but the Carter Hess that we've seen so far this year is better than the Carter Hess that we saw last year," Alkire said.

Senior Cooper Silber (6-3, 190) and junior Chevy Perkins (6-1, 210) are the defensive ends. Silber had 66 tackles and Perkins made 85.5 stops and tallied a team-high 6.5 sacks.

Williams, junior Nick Willison (5-11, 180), senior Jaylan Atkinson (6-0, 185), Vanmeter, Banks and senior Jayce Santmyire (6-1, 180) will rotate at the three-technique.

Metz is back at inside linebacker, where he accumulated 145 tackles (52 solo), adding 12 for loss, two sacks, an interception, two forced fumbles and two touchdowns in 2022.

"He was everywhere last year," Alkire said. "He's really worked on his eyes this year. He's a little more focused this year. He's worked on his pass coverage. ... He's doing a great job leading."

Atkinson (53.5 tackles) is the other inside linebacker, and Spencer (79.5 tackles) and Daniels (58.5) will be the outside backers.

Senior Akhir Taylor (5-9, 136) and Younger will start at cornerback, with Sensabaugh, Ranker and senior Braylin Rhodes also possible at the position.

Spencer and Daniels are also athletic enough to play at cornerback if necessary.

Younger was slated to start at free safety before moving down to cornerback. Sensabaugh, sophomore Noah House (6-1, 175) and Bender are the likely candidates to take over that spot.

Silber will take care of the kicking and punting duties this year. He was expected to start last season before he was hampered by a hip injury and Cohen took over that role.

Silber has hit from 50 in practice and Alkire said he feels confident using him from 45 yards.

After Fort Hill opens at home against Northern on Saturday night, the Sentinels host Calvin Coolidge of Washington, D.C., are at Southern Garrett, Hollidaysburg (Pennsylvania), and Briar Woods (Virginia), host Mountain Ridge, Wadsworth (Ohio) and New Oxford (Pennsylvania) before ending the season with Allegany in Homecoming.

Alex Rychwalski is a sports reporter at the Cumberland Times-News. Follow him on Twitter @arychwal.