With rebuilding season in the past, Fox Chapel aims for relevance

Craig Meyer, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, cmeyer@post-gazette.com., August 18, 2019

Tom Loughran, proudly and by his own admission, is an optimist, choosing to see whatever shreds of positivity he can, rather than the negatives, however obvious or onerous they may be.

It was a worldview that was challenged at times last season, when his young Fox Chapel team that returned only three of a possible 22 starters trudged to a 2-8 record. Loughran may be optimistic, but he isn’t naïve – what he and his players endured in 2018 was difficult.

With those wounds, however, comes the healing process and with the end of that process comes the hope of what is next. Right now, that’s where the Foxes find themselves.

Fox Chapel enters the 2019 season under decidedly different conditions than it did last year. If that season was a rebuild, this one, Loughran and his players hope, will be a re-emergence.

“Our belief is that if we coach kids up right and they buy into what we’re talking about and buy into the way they’re being coached, they’ll have success,” Loughran said. “That’s what we preach to our kids. Good things are going to happen and bad things are going to happen. When the bad things happen, you need to stay persistent and keep grinding. When the good things happen, it’s the same message – stay persistent, keep grinding. Don’t think you made it because something good happened and don’t think you’re not going to make it because something bad happened.”


Last season’s struggles, understandable as they were given the team’s inexperience, veered from what had been a multi-year ascent for the Foxes. Only two years after finishing 1-8, Fox Chapel posted a 6-5 record in 2017, its first winning mark in more than a decade.

This year, the Foxes are better positioned to get back to their winning ways than they were last year to maintain them. They return seven starters from an offense that languished last season, averaging only 13.8 points per game, but that unit figures to be improved with time.

The biggest and likely most important piece, quarterback Shane Susnak, returns after a junior season in which the 5-foot-11 signal-caller threw for 1,128 yards and eight touchdowns (to six interceptions) while completing 58.4 percent of his passes. There’s experience and production behind Susnak, as well, with senior running back Sam Brown returning after leading the team with eight touchdowns last season.

“The fact they’ve been in the program three years and they’re both two-year starters now, they understand the offense and what we’re trying to accomplish offensively,” Loughran said. “They understand what their role is in that and what they need to do for us to be successful. We’re not making any wholesale changes philosophically in terms of how we’re running our offense.”

Although Fox Chapel graduated three of its top four receivers from 2018, it brings back four of five starters on the offensive line, a collection of players Loughran said “make the offense go.” Ryan Billings – a 6-foot-4, 265-pound senior – headlines the group, but sophomore Caleb Kulikowski, junior Thomas Golembiewski and senior Eddie Farrell also help make the line as formidable as any position group.

Defensively, Fox Chapel doesn’t have nearly as much coming back, with only three starters – a defensive lineman, linebacker and defensive back – still on the roster. However, given that the Foxes allowed 36.5 points per game last season, including a combined 152 points in the final three games, something resembling a makeover could prove to be beneficial.

“Experience is good only if it’s a good experience, right?” Loughran said. “Young guys are good as long as they’re good young guys.”

Improvement won’t be as simple as merely bringing back players who are a year older than they were this time 12 months ago, regardless of what they learned or how they grew. A rise in the standings can’t be assumed with defending Class 5A state champion Penn Hills, consistent playoff participants Mars and North Hills, as well as a handful of other improved programs in the Northern Conference. Outside the conference, the Foxes play Peters Township and Upper St. Clair, which went 10-3 and 8-3, respectively, last season.

While it’s unclear just how high Fox Chapel can climb and exactly how many more wins it can collect, the Foxes should, at the very least, be able to do both.

“We didn’t have a great year last year,” Loughran said. “Our kids know that. We’re coming back this year with a stick-to-it attitude and true grit. We’ll push on and try to get better.”

Coach: Tom Loughran

Years at school: 5

2018 record: 2-8

WPIAL playoff appearances: 11

Returning starters: Offense 7, Defense 3

Key returners: Shane Susnak (5-11, 175, Sr., QB), Sam Brown (6-1, 200, Sr., RB), Ryan Billings (6-4, 265, Sr., OL)

Keys to success: Find playmakers on a defense that replaces eight starters after struggling last season. Reliable wide receivers need to emerge after multiple graduations.

 

Schedule

Aug. 23 at Peters Township* 7
Aug. 30 at North Hills 7:30
Sept. 6 at Penn Hills 7
Sept. 13 Kiski Area 7
Sept. 20 at Hampton 7
Sept. 27 at Upper St. Clair* 7:30
Oct. 4 Connellsville* 7
Oct. 11 at Mars 7
Oct. 18 Armstrong 7
Oct. 25 Shaler 7

*Non-conference game