After focusing on his teaching career and the health-related issues of family members in recent years, Jeff Hollenbach says the timing was right for a return to the sideline.

Then came the call from Pennridge principal Thomas Creeden, inquiring about his interest in returning for a second stint as the school's football coach.

"I thought to myself, 'This would be nice. It would get me thinking about something else,' " Hollenbach said. "And I only wanted to coach at Pennridge. I didn't want to go anywhere else."

Friday night, when the Rams kick off the 2013 campaign against District 11's Emmaus, Hollenbach, 60, officially will end an eight-year coaching break. "It's been demanding, but very enjoyable so far," he said during training camp.

Hollenbach, a math teacher at Pennridge for 30-plus years, guided the squad to a 73-25 record and a share of five Suburban One League conference championships from 1997 to 2004.

He decided to step away, in part, for the opportunity to watch his son, Sam, who quarterbacked the Rams in 2000 and 2001, play at the University of Maryland.

About three years ago, Hollenbach's world turned when his wife, Libby, was diagnosed with myeloma, a cancer of the blood cells. "Fortunately, she's in pretty good health now," he said. "She's stable."

Hollenbach also worries about his father, Bud. The 88-year-old battles thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (TTP), a disorder that causes blood clots to form in small blood vessels around the body.

So directing the Rams on Friday nights serves as a diversion.

"I think it's the best deal in sports, being on the sideline and being involved," Hollenbach said.

Hollenbach replaced Randy Cuthbert, who left after eight seasons to take the top job at Emmaus. That adds drama to Friday night's contest at historic Poppy Yoder Field.

Cuthbert, wanting less fanfare in his Green Hornets debut, tried to set up a different opponent out of the gate.

"I totally understand where Randy is coming from on that," Hollenbach said. "But nothing panned out, as far as scheduling goes, that was agreeable to both parties involved."

Pennridge, coming off a 12-2 season and trip to the PIAA District 1 Class AAAA semifinals, was hit fairly hard by graduation. "I think we have the potential to be good, but we'll have to grow up real quick," Hollenbach said.

Rising junior. The stock of Archbishop Wood junior Ryan Bates, a 6-foot-5, 285-pound offensive lineman, is rapidly growing.

Bates, a rock-solid tackle, has scholarship offers from Georgia Tech, Maryland, Penn State, and Virginia, among others. He doubles as a defensive tackle.

"He's so athletic," Vikings seventh-year boss Steve Devlin said. "He's probably the most athletic lineman I've ever coached."

Student of the game. Garnet Valley coach Mike Ricci said Christian Portale, a 6-4, 210-pound senior and first-year starter behind center, has been coming to the team's QB meetings since he was in the sixth grade.

"He knows our [triple-option] offense inside and out," said Ricci, entering his 27th season in charge of the Jaguars.

Strong bloodlines. The father of St. Joseph's Prep freshman lineman Jackson Evans, Patt, starred at Strath Haven (Class of 1987) and the University of Minnesota, and spent time in the NFL with the Dallas Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings. He was a 6-6, 270-pound tight end. Jackson Evans is a 6-4, 250-pound center.

Patt Evans' father, Mike, played center for the Eagles from 1968 to '73.

Crystal ball. Here's our predictions of the playoff qualifiers in District's 1's top two enrollment classifications, in order of seeding:

AAAA (16): Coatesville, Garnet Valley, Neshaminy, Spring-Ford, Downingtown East, Ridley, North Penn, West Chester Rustin, Plymouth Whitemarsh, Pennsbury, Perkiomen Valley, Abington, Haverford High, Pennridge, Downingtown West, Central Bucks South.

AAA (eight): Pottsgrove, Interboro, Academy Park, Springfield (Delco), Upper Moreland, West Chester Henderson, Strath Haven, Glen Mills.

Here are our picks to claim district titles:

District 1 AAAA, Coatesville; District 1 AAA, Interboro; District 1-12 AA subregional, Imhotep Charter; District 1-12 A subregional, Bristol.

Finally, the state champions: AAAA, Woodland Hills over Coatesville; AAA, Archbishop Wood over Thomas Jefferson; AA, Imhotep Charter over Aliquippa; A, Clairton over Southern Columbia.

Contact Rick O'Brien at