CANONSBURG – You might not recognize Canon-McMillan’s Memorial Stadium these days.

The Big Macs’ cramped home-team locker room that was located in the school district’s administration building behind one end zone has been replaced by a spacious facility under the grandstand opposite the pressbox side of the field. There you will find a modern trainer’s room, team meeting room and a coaches office large enough to comfortably accommodate a large Class 6A staff.

It’s all part of a multi-million dollar renovation project that tears down the old. Mike Evans and his coaching staff, meanwhile, are trying to build something new.

You can call it dreaming, but Evans and Canon-McMillan want to become WPIAL playoff regulars. The Big Macs had a taste of the postseason last year, when they went 4-6 and grabbed the final playoff berth before losing to Mt. Lebanon, 38-31, in a wild opening round game.

That’s a good starting point for a program that has missed the postseason more times than it has made it. Evans, however, knows there is much more to his building project.

“We finished sixth out of nine (Class 6A) teams. They don’t give you a plaque for that,” he said. “They’re not putting a banner on the wall for that. You have to win something. … We know we can’t depend on the teams that finished above us to get worse. We have to get better.”

If Canon-McMillan returns to the playoffs this year, then that will mean many players who were relegated to casual roles last season have flourished and become major contributors. The Big Macs lost some talented and productive players who could prove to be very difficult to replace.

Among those who are gone are versatile two-way standout Drew Engel, who caught 38 passes for 530 yards and 12 touchdowns last season; defensive lineman Davey Cooper, who had 11 quarterback sacks and 29 tackles for losses last year; and steady lineman Riley Noble, plus a whole lot more.

“We lost our top four running backs, we lost our top three receivers,” Evans points out. “We have nobody who took a handoff and only two who have caught a pass.”

What Canon-McMillan does have is six returning starters on offense, five on defense and some promising young players.

One of the most experienced players is quarterback Jonathan Quinque, one of only nine seniors on the roster. Quinque is a three-year starter and completed 59 percent of his passes last year when he threw for 1,353 yards and 11 touchdowns. Quinque’s best game was in the playoffs, when he completed 21 of 24 passes for 257 yards and three touchdowns.

“He’s started 15 or 16 games and makes good reads,” Evans said. “In the past, he’s always had to battle for his job. He’s good in the pocket and a tough kid. This year, we might have to throw it to run it.”

That’s because of the inexperience in the backfield, where 1,100-yard rusher Josh O’Hare left a big void. The Big Macs will go with a backfield-by-committee approach, utilizing sophomore Ryan Angott and juniors David Mowod and Isaiah Chandler. Evans also said he has to get junior Dane Matuscin on the field somewhere, possibly in the backfield.

“Angott is really talented, Chandler is a quick kid, Mowod can really move. Those three are going to battle it out,” Evans said. “Matuscin was moved from wide receiver and we’re going to see what he can do. I think he’s a natural running back. We’re really young at that spot but I believe we’re really good. We’ll have to mix it up with those guys.”

Evans said the biggest development of the summer passing camps was receiver Blake Joseph, a senior with 4.58 speed.

“He had 15 catches last year but he’s been phenomenal so far,” Evans said. “If 7-on-7s are any indication, he could be the real deal.”

The Big Macs also return two tight ends, junior Connor McMahon and junior Jonathan Hartley.

Up front, senior guards Austin Smith (5-11, 240) and Gio Ramos (6-1, 275) are back, as is junior tackle Austin Mankey (6-3, 255).

The Big Macs’ defense must improve on last year, when it yielded an average of 29.5 points per game.

“Every year we’ve gotten a little better on defense,” Evans said. “There were times last year when we were good defensively.”

Ramos, McMahon, senior Colton Irwin (6-1, 210) and senior Evan Miller (6-0, 205) have starting experience on the line, and Joseph returns in the secondary.

In the past, Canon-McMillan has opted not to play in Week Zero but will this year, opening at Class 4A power Thomas Jefferson before playing Aug. 30 against Mt. Lebanon.

“I wanted a Week Zero game,” Ebans said. “Mt. Lebanon is playing Gateway, one of the best teams in the WPIAL, that week. I didn’t want us to be sitting around. Everyone says the biggest improvement a team makes is between its first and second games. I didn’t think we would get ready for Mt. Lebanon by scrimmaging.”

While the number and quality of players Canon-McMillan lost from last year’s team has the Big Macs playing catch-up in the WPIAL’s only Class 6A conference, Evans is optimistic about the program’s future. He believes a sturdy foundation is being built.

“I think about doing things people don’t expect us to do,” he said. “Everyone is saying Canon-McMillan lost everything. I want to get back to the playoffs. Some other teams in our conference don’t rebuild, they reload. We’re trying to reload with younger guys. It’s going to be fun for them because there’s a lot of opportunity.”

Sports Editor

Since 1986, Chris Dugan has been covering local sports for the Observer-Reporter, and named sports editor in 2006. Before joining the O-R, he was sports editor at the Democrat-Messenger, and a former member of the Baseball Writers Association of America.

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