Just hours after the Fox Chapel football team began what it hopes is a return to the WPIAL 5A playoffs with the start of official preseason practices, Mother Nature stepped in and altered the Foxes’ plans.
Heavy rain forced the team to hold Monday afternoon’s workout in the high school gym.
But as senior wide receiver Cole Waxter put it, practice was business as usual despite the location change.
“We had the same intensity in the gym,” said Waxter, the lone offensive starter back from last year’s 6-5 squad that gave 5A finalist and No. 1 seed Penn-Trafford all it could handle before a 28-21 quarterfinal loss.
“We went straight at it like we were outside on the field. We had to change our shoes. That’s about it. The expectations from the coaches were the same.
“(Head) coach (Tom) Loughran always says that every minute of every practice is a chance to get better, and we can’t waste any time. Our practice time before the season is limited. We have to take advantage of the time we’re together.”
Waxter and the Fox Chapel coaches both expect a jump in Waxter’s impact on both sides of the ball this year.
He was the leading receiver last year in the team’s mainly run-first offense with the 1-2 punch of quarterback Nick Gizzo and tailback Micah Morris.
Both Gizzo and Morris graduated, and Waxter is an elder statesmen of an offensive unit that is expected to have more balance with the run and the pass.
That offense will be manned under center by senior Shane Susnak.
“Those second-string kids last year did a great job,” Waxter said. “They waited for their opportunity, and it’s here for them. I’ve seen all of them grow up and get so much better over the last couple of years. This team has a lot of confidence.”
Waxter caught 23 passes for 406 yards and three touchdowns in 2017 after hauling in 14 for 227 yards and two TDs as a sophomore. He added 12 carries for 117 yards last year and tallied a pair of scores on reverse plays. He said he loves when those special plays are called.
“You could see Cole line up in the backfield or take a direct snap (this season), but that’s not something that will be his primary concern,” Loughran said. “But he’s a great weapon for us, and we want to get him the ball to make plays as much as we can. He’s ready to help the team no matter what we want him to do.”
Helping the team for Waxter also will come in the form of a starting role in the secondary. His time on defense was limited to a backup role on the dept chart last year.
“I’m ready to play and make an impact,” Waxter said. “If something doesn’t work on offense, I know I will have the chance on defense to make a play and get us the ball back.”
Waxter’s speed also was utilized on kickoffs as he averaged 22.3 yards – 312 yards total – on 14 returns.
“Cole is someone we’re building our offense and defense around,” Loughran said. “We talked to him about him assuming more of a leadership role. That’s something we’ve talked about with all the seniors. We’ve put a lot on his shoulders as we head into the season, and he’s accepted that role.
“He’s not a rah, rah kid that’s a yeller or a screamer. He really leads by example. He goes out and does his job. He will say something if it’s needed, but he’s the kind of kid who will go on the field, put his work in and do the best he can.”
The off-season work, Waxter said, was crucial for him and the entire team. It served the team well after it barely missed the playoffs in 2016 despite finishing the season on a five-game winning streak.
“Every day after school, we came into the weight room and put the time in to get stronger,” he said. “We did a lot of extra work after regular workouts ended. We wanted to get everything clicking, especially for the younger kids who are new starters.”
Waxter said he’s excited for the start of the season, and it begins with a Week Zero game Aug. 24 at Baldwin. After that, conference foe North Hills pays a visit to Fox Chapel, followed by a home game against Penn Hills.
The Foxes hope to be one of the 16 teams from 5A standing when the postseason begins.
“We have great teams like Mars and Penn Hills entering the conference, and there are no easy games,” Waxter said. “We’re ready for the challenge. We understand what it will take to get back to the playoffs and go even further.”
Michael Love is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Michael at 412-388-5825, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @MLove_Trib.