BACK ON TRACK: Wildcats rebound in playoffs
HOMER CITY — Homer-Center worked out the kinks and got back on track, but most importantly, the Wildcats advanced to the district semifinals.
Second-seeded Homer-Center trounced seventh-seeded Juniata Valley, 42-6, in a District 6 Class A quarterfinal football game Friday night at Memorial Field, winning in its first home playoff game in five years. The Wildcats couldn’t have looked much better in doing so.
The Homer-Center defense, cut down to size in a loss at Portage in the regular-season finale last week, rebounded with a dominating effort, holding Juniata Valley to 39 rushing yards and 128 yards overall — 54 of which came on a late-third-quarter touchdown pass when the game had already been decided.
The offense followed suit, rolling up 346 yards, including 285 rushing. Mike Newhouse, who was injured on the first series last week, returned with a knee brace to pass the 1,000-yard mark for the season with 77 yards on eight carries. Already a 1,000-yard rusher, Ean Lee gained 144 yards on 10 carries, including a 59-yard run on the second play of the second half to give the Wildcats a commanding 35-0 lead.
“It feels amazing,” Newhouse said. “There’s no better feeling in the world to me, so far yet. I haven’t experienced one. I love the game, and it feels good to win at home. There’s nothing else like it.”
The Wildcats gave up season highs in points (35) and rushing yards (259) last week. They fine-tuned things this week, which paid immediate dividends.
“We practiced defense a lot more this week,” linebacker/running back Matt McAdoo said. “We really concentrated on coverage, and we just showed it.”
“We had to cover better. We got a little bit of pressure, too, but this is a dangerous quarterback,” Homer-Center coach Greg Page said of Juniata Valley’s Caleb Taylor. “He’s an athlete and he can roll out. He can buy himself some time. I felt like we covered better. I felt like we got a little more physical with their receivers, too, coming off the line or coming into their patterns. You can get a good shot on them before the ball is thrown, and at times we were doing that. We were a little more active in the secondary.”
A 1,600-yard passer, Taylor finished 6 of 17 for 89 yards, again, with a lot of that coming on the TD pass to Jesse Claar. A 1,200-yard rusher, Claar had 31 yards on nine carries.
“Their linebackers flowed to the ball a lot better than we thought they were going to,” said Don MacEachern, Juniata Valley’s acting head coach in the absence of Mike Smith, who was recently suspended. “Looking at the film, I think Portage must’ve taken their linebackers out of the game, because their linebackers read a lot more than what they did tonight. Tonight they brought more blitzing than we were expecting. That kind of threw us off a little bit, but overall they’re just a good team.”
Lucas Monko stopped Claar for a loss on fourth-and-1 in the first quarter, setting up Homer-Center’s first scoring drive, and McAdoo had sacks on consecutive plays in the third quarter.
“I just read the play differently,” McAdoo said. “I just did what I could, just concentrated a little more. Last week I kind of played off. I never had any tackles for loss, I don’t think, but this week I saw what was going on and I reacted a lot better.”
That was especially big with Newhouse playing mostly just offense. He and McAdoo ran for one touchdown each. Lee and Aaron Berezansky had two apiece.
“It started up front with the push we got with our seven guys and, of course, our backs,” Page said. “Our line, I’ll give them all the credit in the world. They’re a great group of guys. They work hard and they hate losing. They just work hard and open the holes, and that allows us to hit the holes hard and run well.”
Juniata Valley stayed close early, trailing just 7-0 after the first quarter.
After a three-and-out, the Hornets recovered a Homer-Center fumble on a punt return, and Taylor picked off a Berezansky pass late in the quarter, but Juniata Valley couldn’t take advantage of the favorable field position on either occasion.
The Wildcats then pulled away with 20 points in the second quarter, and Lee’s touchdown early in the third quarter and the following two-point conversion put the mercy rule into effect.
“These guys have some goals, and this is the first one,” Page said. “We thought it was going to be a tough battle. One way or another, next week we’re playing a top-notch team.”
The winner of tonight’s game between No. 6 Bishop Carroll and No. 3 Bellwood-Antis will travel to Homer City next weekend. Bellwood-Antis, the defending district champion, defeated Juniata Valley, 48-35, in Week 4.
“Their coach asked me after the game, ‘How do we match up with Bellwood?’” MacEachern said. “I said, ‘I think you’ll beat them. I really do.’ I think this line is better than Bellwood’s line. The team’s backs run hard. The only thing that Bellwood might have going for them is Bellwood passes better and passes a little more often, but (Homer-Center) didn’t even have to pass tonight.”
“You talk about Carroll with the legacy they’ve had in D6 recently, and Coach (John) Hayes at Bellwood has a tremendous program,” Page said. “It’s got to be the envy of the small-school programs in this part of the state. Whoever it is, we have a tall task, but we have a group of guys and a group of coaches that are going to work as hard as they can to be as prepared as we can and try to get another win.”