Few teams could top the Cinderella story of Avon Grove last spring.
Coming off a 9-10 season in 2012, not much was expected of the Red Devils and their young, talented lineup.
There was one problem to that statement. Someone forgot to tell head coach Eric Jackson and his team.
Led by Ches-Mont first team selections Tanner Peck, Matt King, Beau Kush, Danny Norris and Will Schreiner, Avon Grove had a season for the ages. The Red Devils clinched a share of the Ches-Mont League title and won the District 1 championship before falling to Conestoga in the PIAA semifinals to finish with a 21-4 record.
The expectations have changed exponentially for Avon Grove. As the 2014 season begins, the Red Devils are not a team on the rise, but the team to beat in the Ches-Mont League and District 1. Based on the talent returning, they deserve that title.
"We talked about all the things we could accomplish this season, but are going to play for each other,' Jackson said. "We earned the target on our back, but are just trying to keep getting better.'
Peck, a Penn state commit, is back to lead the Avon Grove attack while Kush, a North Carolina commit, returns for his sophomore campaign at midfield. Norris, a Lehigh commit, anchors the defense while Schreiner, a Penn State commit, returns in goal.
"We're pretty well balanced and strong all over the field,' Jackson said. "It's a pretty good combination to have.'
The Red Devils are primed for a return trip to the state playoffs and are contenders for their first PIAA championship. With all the hype surrounding West Grove, Jackson is keeping things in perspective.
"We just want to put ourselves in the best situation possible,' Jackson said. "We are just trying to get better one day, one practice, and one game at a time.'
While Avon Grove is the favorite to win the Ches-Mont, the Red Devils were part of a four way tie with Bishop Shanahan, Great Valley and Downingtown East for the league title in 2013.
In other words, the league is wide open if Avon Grove stumbles out of the gate.
Shanahan has the opportunity to strike first as the Eagles have plenty of Division I talent returning on its roster with John Mehok, Ryan McNulty, Dylan Alderman and many others.
The Eagles clinched a share of their first Ches-Mont title last year and are the biggest threat to beat Avon Grove. They also have never advanced past the second round of the District 1 playoffs, which could change this year.
Great Valley will also be in the mix with Ches-Mont MVP Greg Merrill returning for his senior season. Merrill had a league-high 62 goals in 2013 and is the front-runner for league MVP honors once again.
Downingtown East lost Brandyn O'Connell and his league-leading 104 points to graduation, but still are a contender with Ian Riehl and Kyle Tucker returning.
Downingtown West and Kennett lost plenty of seniors from 2013, but the young teams are expected to improve as the season goes on and compete for a district playoff spot.
Kennett head coach Sean Tischler is one of three new head coaches in the Ches-Mont along with Noel Berger (Unionville) and Tommy Hannum (West Chester Rustin). Berger is looking to take a young Indians squad back into contention while Hannum seeks to build upon the other Rustin athletic programs and turn the Golden Knights into a winner.
As those three schools have new head coaches, Paul Stankewicz returns to West Chester Henderson for his 32nd season with the Warriors. Henderson is young, but boats one of the top defenses in the league led by Jack Twohig.
Chris Karagillian, a St. John's commit, looks to lead West Chester East to a league win and perhaps more. The Vikings could be a team to watch as the season goes on.
As the Ches-Mont remains one of the toughest leagues in the state, Conestoga remains a state power.
The Pioneers have vengeance on their mind after falling to La Salle College Prep in the PIAA championship last season after winning three consecutive state titles. They are in contention for their fourth championship in five years with Jake Scott and Matt Schlicher leading a dominant attack.
Malvern Prep is a favorite to win the Inter-Ac title with Greg Pelton, a Duke commit, leading a strong defense.
The 2014 season should be another strong one for the area teams and hopefully there is another state champion crowned in Hershey this June.