H.S. FOOTBALL: Comets get back on track
KENWOOD — Last week’s loss didn’t just cost Penns Manor the Heritage Conference title, and it didn’t just leave a bad taste in the Comets’ mouths. If Friday’s smaller-than-usual home crowd at Pat Corrigan Field was any indication, it also put a dent in Penns Manor’s fan base, and the Comets were determined to give their fans a reason to believe again.
Senior quarterback Lucas Kowalski eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for the season, the Comets racked up 379 rushing yards, and their area-best defense regained its form in a 35-8 win over Keystone in a non-conference football game Friday.
“We wanted to not only establish the defense, but get the bitter taste out of our mouth,” senior two-way lineman Luke Ruddock said. “That loss not only hurt, but as you can see, it hit the community, too. We didn’t have nearly as many people tonight. We lost a lot of believers. We wanted to get them back before the playoffs. But I think we definitely showed ourselves this week that we’re the real deal.”
Ruddock and the rest of Penns Manor’s offensive linemen wanted to get in on the fun, too.
Having paved the way for one of the area’s best rushing attacks all season, and having just helped Kowalski reach the 1,000-yard mark, it was a reward coach Bill Packer couldn’t deny them.
Senior two-way lineman John Stupic got his first three career carries and scored a touchdown, Ruddock also got to tote the ball, and Penns Manor ran roughshod over the District 9-affiliated Panthers.
“I had to get in on it,” said a smiling Ruddock, who had one carry for 7 yards. “That’s our gift. That’s our present for doing our hard work up front all year, for the last three years, four years in my case. That’s what we get our senior year, I guess.”
“Those guys ask you all the time about getting to play,” Packer said. “I tried to get them a couple carries so they can keep things going and keep things exciting a little bit. Once or twice is OK to do that, but I said, ‘I don’t want to get anybody hurt here now, either.’ We took a chance. But that’s their reward for the job they do a little bit. And they were excited about it.”
Kowalski ran for a game-high 119 yards and a touchdown, Bailey Mumau added 88 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and Ethan Marshall chipped in 86 yards and another score as the Heritage Conference’s top offense got back on track with the postseason looming.
“Those guys, they’re physical up front,” Kowalski said of his offensive line. “They like to move bodies around, and they did that tonight.”
Penns Manor racked up 23 first downs and didn’t punt on offense while holding the Panthers (1-9) to 82 total yards and minus-28 rushing yards. The Comets sacked Keystone quarterback Austin Chambers nine times for a loss of 76 yards.
Junior Brandon Alter’s one-armed sack was the highlight of the sack party, and he was in on three sacks. Linebacker Mitch Hamilton was also in on three sacks, and seven Penns Manor players recorded at least a half-sack.
“Our line is top of the line,” Alter said. “We’re the No. 1 defense in the conference, so that’s what we expect out of our line.”
“That defensive line, just a great job putting pressure on that quarterback,” Packer said. “They didn’t give him time to throw, and they do a good job every week. That was the key to it all, I think, because when they were able to throw, they were completing passes. That’s another area we have to work on, but the defensive line really stepped it up and did a nice job.”
Marshall had a 3-yard touchdown run in the first quarter to open the scoring, and the Comets scored twice in the final 68 seconds of the first half to take a 21-0 halftime lead.
Kowalski scored on a 2-yard run with 1:08 to play to cap a dominant 13-play drive. On Keystone’s next possession, Penns Manor sacked Chambers three times, including on fourth down, and took over at the Keystone 26-yard line with 20 seconds to play in the half.
Mumau’s first score — a 21-yarder — came with 13.7 seconds remaining on a hook-and-ladder play. Nathan Dumm caught a 5-yard pass and pitched it to Mumau on a perfectly timed play, and Mumau raced down the left sideline untouched to help the Comets take a 21-0 halftime lead.
Mumau added a 34-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, and the bruising 235-pound Stupic closed the scoring with a 4-yard run late in the third quarter for a 35-0 lead.
A little-known commodity outside of the Penns Manor locker room entering the season, Kowalski had the unenviable task of following Danny Ferens, the area’s all-time leader in rushing yards and total offense.
Not only has Kowalski held his own this year, he’s almost made fans forget about Ferens.
“He’s a good athlete, and we were hoping that he could do the job that he did, but I’ll tell you what, he really stepped it up,” Packer said. “To take the place of Danny Ferens, we didn’t miss a beat. We knew he had the potential, but he really stepped it up and worked hard, and we’re proud of him for it.”
Kowalski rushed for 98 yards in the first half, and he reached the 1,000-yard mark on his only second-half run, a 21-yard scamper in the third quarter, to become the fourth player in the area to reach 1,000 on the year.
“It means a lot,” Kowalski said. ‘I’ve got to give a shout-out to my line. I wouldn’t have gotten it without those guys up front, lead blocking for me every play.”
“That’s an accomplishment for every lineman,” Ruddock said. “That means you’re doing your job and the rest of your fellow linemen are doing their jobs, too.”
But all wasn’t rosy in Friday’s win.
Mumau fumbled the ball just short of crossing the goal line in the first quarter, and the Comets had five more penalties to add to their area-high penalty yardage total. Penns Manor is the lone area school with more than 600 penalty yards on the season.
“I think we came out a little flat in the first half,” Packer said. “I wasn’t real happy with the way we started out. We had a big run and a fumble again. Penalties hurt us again. And when you go in the playoffs, you’re not going to be able to do those things. We have things to fix up.”
Penns Manor ended the regular season at 9-1 and will wait to find out which seed it will receive in the District 6 Class A playoffs, which begin next week.
“We knew even with a win, we weren’t going to get the No. 1 seed,” Packer said. “We couldn’t get ahead of Homer anyway, even if they lost. We’re looking to hopefully get No. 2.”