LEBANON – A pandemic, social unrest, a looming election. While scholastic sports can provide a certain amount of distraction from the world around us, student-athletes do not live in a bubble.
We are embarking on a high-school football season like none we have ever seen before, one in which change is the norm and uncertainty will play a huge role. In such times, the qualities of leadership, level-headness and experience usually prevail.
The teams which best deal with the circumstances that make this such an unprecedented year will be the ones which enjoy the most success. In that vein, few local squads are as equipped to handle them as the Lebanon Cedars.
As the 2020 season unfolds, the Cedars will be faced with all of those peripherial issues, with a brand new head coach at the helm. But Lebanon is senior-laden, it returns its entire starting offensive line and it features dynamic senior quarterback Isaiah Rodriguez.
“The truth of the matter is, if one kid gets sick, it could affect a whole lot of things,” said new head man Frank Isenberg, the former Hershey head coach, who served as the Cedars’ defensive coordinator last year. “It could take just one player, and we’re shut down. We’re harping on wearing the masks. There are some real issues we haven’t dealt with before. On the academic side, we’re on a hybrid schedule. There are a lot of challenges going on.
“We’ve just got to make sure we’re communicating,” continued Isenberg. “The best part is, when we’re out here (on the practice field), we don’t think a lot about it. It gives you a break to do something sort of normal.”
With the presence of 20-plus seniors, in many ways, the Cedars have been pointing to this year for quite some time. Lebanon is athletic and seasoned up-front, with Jaeden Deitzler, Thomas Hershey, Matt Carvajal, Synsier Gonzalez and Camren Eberhart.
“They’re a very close group. It’s something I haven’t seen here since the Mark Pyles group,” said Isenberg. “They’ve all been playing football together for a long time. They’ve set the tone, especially in the weight room. The experience is a good thing from a morale standpoint. They know what it takes. Getting through that grind can build a culture.
“It all comes back to how close they are,” Isenberg continued. “It’s helpful. They’re able to talk to me about their concerns. They come to me. They get that vibe that things need to be a certain way.”
That group up front should open running lanes and provide Rodriguez time to throw. The 6-4 Rodriguez, who entertains aspirations of competing on the next level, is coming off a junior campaign in which he completed 173 of 302 pass attempts for 2,157 yards and 18 touchdowns.
Half of those touchdown tosses went to speedy receiver Alex Rufe, who hauled in 74 aerials for 1,096 yards. While Rufe will certainly be his go-to guy agaom, Rodriguez will look to spread it around a little more, to guys like Skylar Sattizahn, Kaden Harbaugh, Michael Johnson and Matt Brown.
“The thing about ‘Mohawk’ (Rodriguez) is that he’s a three-year starter,” said Isenberg. “His experience is a great thing to have. He’s put in a lot of work. From a leadership standpoint, he’s been outstanding. He’s changed physically. He’s put on 15 to 20 pounds this year. He’s taking everything seriously and he wants to win.
“I’ve always tried to push being consistent and getting out of the gate fast,” added Isenberg. “These seniors have had success all the way through. It seems like we make mistakes early, so I’m stressing attention to details and starting fast.”
Last season under Gerry Yonchiuk, Lebanon went 7-4 overall and 6-3 in Section Three of the Lancaster-Lebanon League. The Cedars, who are working with a roster total in the low 40s, return eight starters on offense from that squad, and nine on defense.
“We’re a playoff team coming off a win,” said Isenberg of a 36-14 triumph over Reading in the Eastern Conference playoffs. “The expectations are high. But those expectations aren’t just mine, they’re the players’ too. It’s definitely a different year, but our kids are excited to play football. The kids know me well, and that helps.
“The kids want to win a section title, which has never been done here,” Isenberg added. “For me personally, the goal is to be consistent, come out here and work, and be competitive every snap. I think that’s just how our whole Lebanon community is, a group of hard-working people.”
Lebanon’s seven-game regular season will remain fluid throughout. The Cedars will certainly face their share of challenges, both on the field and off.
“There are a lot of things going on, for sure,” said Isenberg. “From a football standpoint, we have a veteran group. It’s a little bit easier from an experience standpoint. The health concerns that are going on in the world are crazy. We just want to make sure everybody’s safe.
“I’m a blue-collar guy,” Eisenberg concluded. “I like the grind and putting work in. If you put the work in, you’re going to get the result. You’re going to get what you want at the end.”
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