HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL: Homer-Center, Penns Manor relish underdog roles
For a pair of touted heavyweights heading into a bout for the Heritage Conference championship Friday, Penns Manor and Homer-Center are taking on the underdog roles surprisingly well.
Both football teams, at 8-0 overall and 7-0 in the conference, have legitimate claims to being favored — or not. Naturally, the coaches have chosen to take their teams down the path that best motivates their players.
“I’d say it’s fairly even,” Homer-Center coach Greg Page said. “I’d give the nod to them as being favorites just because of their recent past.”
“We like to play that role,” Penns Manor coach Bill Packer said. “We really play a lot better when these kids know that they have something to prove, and they relish that underdog role.”
Penns Manor is the defending champion and also won the title in 2010, but this year’s team is different from those previous champions — quarterback Danny Ferens, the area’s all-time leading rusher and the most decorated player in program history, graduated last spring. With that in mind, Penns Manor was picked to finish fifth in the conference in a preseason poll of Gazette staffers — something the Comets haven’t forgotten.
“I like being predicted as the underdogs, because it gives us more of an ambition, more determination to help us push and do better, especially coming back and being defending conference champions,” Penns Manor senior running back Louie Tate said.
“It’s real nice, especially after being ranked fifth in the conference preseason, and just coming out and working hard and playing another good team like Homer-Center.”
“Credit to them for proving a lot of people wrong,” Homer-Center junior quarterback Aaron Berezansky said. “They came on strong this year, but that’s not going to change anything for us.”
Meanwhile, Homer-Center, while not a unanimous favorite around the area to win the title, was on the tips of everyone’s tongues in preseason conversation — and the Wildcats’ performance has kept them on people’s minds all season.
Homer-Center also hasn’t been to the playoffs in three years and suffered the school’s first winless season in 2011.
“Everybody thought we could be good this year,” Page said, “but they’ve been champs for a couple years out of the last several, so it’s probably a situation where both of those forces clash.”
“We try to tell them both ways,” Packer said. “As far as we’re concerned, we’re still the Heritage champions until someone knocks us off, but in another way it’s a new year, a new team, and now we feel that we are considered the underdogs going into this game.”
Perhaps Homer-Center senior offensive tackle Luke Monko summed it up best:
“I don’t really pay too much attention to that stuff,” he said. “Anybody can win on any given Friday night.”
EXPERIENCE FACTOR: Penns Manor is used to the hype. Five of the Comets’ starters have been part of big-time games, regular-season and playoffs, for a few years and know what to expect.
For Homer-Center, Friday’s game will be the biggest in the careers of just about everyone wearing the black and white.
“It helps us tremendously, knowing what it’s like to win a big game, knowing what it’s like to be in a big game,” Penns Manor senior guard Luke Ruddock, a four-year starter, said. “It’s definitely on our side.”
In addition to winning conference titles in 2010 and 2012, the Comets have been to the playoffs every year their current players have been on varsity, and each year since 2007, including a District 6 Class A championship and a run to the state semifinals in 2011 that a smattering of the current players were part of.
Homer-Center, meanwhile, hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2010.
“This will be the biggest game I’ve played in my entire life, along with all the other guys on the team,” said Berezansky, a three-year starter who took over in 2011.
The Wildcats’ current seniors were in ninth grade the last time the team went to the playoffs.
“(Cody) Miller, (Mike) Newhouse and (Jim) Bence were freshmen on our team that went to the district quarterfinals and lost to Bishop Carroll,” Page said. “They all played significant time, so they have that experience. Fortunately for us, with this kind of setup, everybody tends to be a little more comfortable at home.”
“I remember being one of the smaller kids on the team,” said Miller, now a 227-pound right tackle. “I had to come up with Stephen Nymick’s injury and Zak Harvey moving to quarterback from tight end, and I got bumped out to tight end and had to start there.
“The biggest thing (about a big game), you’ve just got to keep focus and get your calls in as fast as you can, because if you’re out there stumbling and bumbling, they’re just going to run over your face.”
Homer-Center, of course, does have plenty of game experience to match Penns Manor’s, even if it hasn’t come so much in the highest-pressure situations.
“The way I look at it, we had six offensive and six defensive players to replace from last year, so we’re really going around five guys that have a lot of the experience with that,” Packer said. “The other guys have seen it and been part of it but haven’t played in a game like that, so I look at it as we have five of them that have the experience of playing in a game like this. I believe that helps, definitely. We built the program around those kids. We built this season around those five kids, and I really believe they’re going to step up and do a great job for us. I look at it as five kids have the experience, and not the whole 11 on each side of the ball, and then you look at Homer’s side — a lot of kids coming back from last year.”
GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY: It doesn’t always work out this way — it rarely does. But that’s what makes a one-game championship so special.
“It’s every little kid’s dream,” Miller said. “I’ve been hoping for this ever since I came up to varsity my ninth-grade year, to be able to play for the Heritage Conference and especially playing Penns Manor.”
These two schools met in Week 9 in 1962, Penns Manor at 8-0 and Laura Lamar, Homer-Center’s predecessor, at 7-0-1, and Laura Lamar scored a 14-0 victory.
Not too many people involved with this Friday’s game have been part of anything like that, though.
“For me, personally, it’s been a long time,” Page said. “Early in my Laurel Valley days when we won a few championships, it was a neat feeling. You feel like you have a greater purpose going through the week. There’s a lot of pride and support, and it’s one of those things where you really want to put your best foot forward.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever been part of that,” Packer said. “There have been times when we’ve had to have other teams win a game or someone else lose a game, but as far as to go down and both teams be undefeated and play the ninth week, to play for that championship, I’ve never been part of that. For the Heritage to set up that way, it’s just something else how that worked out. It’s exciting, and the kids from both teams are going to really play hard. It’s great for the fans and both communities. It’s going to be an exciting atmosphere. What else can you ask for than to play in a game like this?”
AIMING FOR A FIRST: As successful as Homer-Center has been over the years, it has not won a single one of the 13 Heritage Conference football championships awarded since the league’s formation in 2000.
This hasn’t been forgotten around Homer City.
“We haven’t,” Page said. “This is its 14th season of existence for football. (Penns Manor) has won a couple, we haven’t. We’ve come kind of close a few times. This is probably as close as we’ve been. So that’s definitely a goal. Our kids are hungry. I’m sure theirs are, too. Winning never gets old in my mind, and it’s one of those things where, when it comes down to this, that really would make it that much sweeter if we could get it.”