HOMER CITY — It had been a long time since Memorial Field rocked the way it did Friday night.
And Homer-Center had never won a Heritage Conference championship — until Friday night.
The Wildcats responded when threatened and pulled away for a 41-21 victory over Penns Manor, claiming their first Heritage Conference football title in a battle of unbeaten teams in front of approximately 3,000 fans.
“This just feels so great right now,” Homer-Center junior quarterback Aaron Berezansky said as the celebration carried on around the conference championship plaque. “We came out and we proved something tonight.”
“I’m lost for words,” junior running back Ean Lee said. “There’s too much emotion coming at me right now.”
Homer-Center has come a long way in a couple years since suffering the program’s only winless season two years ago. From there, things built up to one great celebration Friday night, with the Wildcats defeating the defending conference champs in a showdown for the title.
“We all brought it here together,” Homer-Center coach Greg Page said. “It starts with our players, who two years ago went through what nobody wants to go through if you ever play sports.”
“It was a great journey, even though we started from the bottom,” senior running back Mike Newhouse said. “We worked our way up. It was motivation. We never quit. We came out, we worked hard and got here, and I’m loving it. … We’ve always dreamed of this moment, and starting off a little rough and rocky like that definitely makes you appreciate it a little more.”
Of course, the 2013 version of Homer-Center football is a pretty good team, one that took an early lead on Penns Manor and, once that edge disappeared, marched right back downfield and took control of the game.
After falling behind 14-0 early, Penns Manor knotted the score at 21 with just under seven minutes to play in the third quarter. That’s when the Wildcats took control, going on a 15-play, 70-yard scoring drive that featured a 9-yard fourth-down strike from Berezansky to Matt McAdoo and a 9-yard touchdown pass from Berezansky to Lee.
“Aaron made a great read,” Lee said of the screen pass. “He threw the ball perfectly. I managed to slip by the defender and get in. I definitely wasn’t scared that we were going to lose.”
“I was definitely worried,” Page said, “but, true to our form, we came right back down and answered.”
From that point, Homer-Center piled on, leaving no doubt as to who was champion, scoring twice on Berezansky runs and controlling possession, thanks in part to Penns Manor turnovers.
The Comets turned the ball over four times, three on fumbles and one on an interception.
“We shot ourselves in the foot so many times,” Penns Manor coach Bill Packer said. “Turnovers — you can’t turn the ball over against a good football team like this, and when you fumble the ball and give one up for a touchdown, you put yourself in a hole. We came back, but then we didn’t keep our heads together and fumbled again.”
The fumbles led to Homer-Center scores, one directly, when Anthony Caruso scooped up a fumble and ran 74 yards to put the Wildcats up 14-0 early in the second quarter.
Another fumble led to the Wildcats’ first score, a 16-yard run by McAdoo.
Trailing by two scores, Penns Manor still had a glimmer of hope until Cody Miller hit Lucas Kowalski, forcing the ball to bounce free. Newhouse quickly grabbed it to put the game away.
“Those plays are key,” Page said. “When we pick up a fumble and run it back to go up two scores, that kind of sets the momentum. When you get a pick like we did at the end or pick up a fumble when it was a two-score game there in the fourth quarter, those kinds of things are key to try to keep them away from getting the momentum.”
For a while, Penns Manor did have the momentum, though.
Kowalski hit Bailey Mumau on a slant for a 12-yard touchdown pass, and Louie Tate scored from 4 yards to pull the Comets within one score, 21-13, going into the half. Stephen Dumm’s 1-yard plunge and the subsequent two-point conversion tied the game at 21 with 6:58 left in the third quarter.
“Even going at halftime only being down eight, for as bad as we played in that first quarter, we felt we were all right,” Packer said. “We came back to tie it up and, I don’t know, they moved the ball on us and we made too many mistakes.”
Neither of the physically bruising teams beat up significantly on the other, but Lee easily led all rushers with 115 yards on 13 carries as the Wildcats gradually took a physical edge.
“We embraced it,” Newhouse said. “We’d almost rather have a tough battle. They’re a tough team and we battled, and it was a good game. It made it more interesting and more fun, and we love that kind of stuff.”
Penns Manor stayed in the game on Kowalski’s 9 of 15 passing for 105 yards.
“We can throw the ball at times,” Packer said. “We just haven’t had to. Tonight we had to throw the ball a little bit. We weren’t moving the ball well enough all the time on the ground. … We have some nice receivers and Lucas can throw it.”
The atmosphere was a fitting backdrop for the Wildcats’ historic night. Fans from both schools turned out in droves, despite a severe late-October chill, to pack the bleachers and surround the field on foot, two- and three-deep in some standing areas.
“Definitely the biggest crowd I’m sure all of us guys have played in our entire lives, and it was a lot of fun,” Berezansky said.
“It gets you more pumped up than anything,” Newhouse said. “It gets you wild. It gets you ready to go. It’s crazy. There’s no other way to say it: It’s crazy.”
Of course, the unique setup — two unbeaten teams converging in the final week of conference play — made for enough excitement on its own. The defending champion Comets put up an admirable fight, especially considering they were retooling after the loss of Danny Ferens, the area’s all-time leading rusher, to graduation.
Homer-Center had lost its last five meetings, over four years, with the Comets.
“What we accomplished tonight over such great champions as Penns Manor, I can’t say enough about our guys,” Page said. “That’s out of respect for them. We hadn’t beaten them in quite some time, and that does make it feel a little better because of the respect we have for them.”
The teams entered the night tied for the top spot in the District 6 Class A rankings, an honor the Wildcats also took from the Comets. Homer-Center still must go on the road and beat Portage (7-1) in a non-conference game next week in order to lock up home-field advantage until the district championship game.
Penns Manor welcomes Keystone (1-8) next week to tune up for its playoff run.
“We’ve just got to put this behind us,” Packer said. “We know that we have to play well and win next week to get a home game for sure and have a good seed in the playoffs. They know what we have to play for.”