HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL: Wildcats jump into title hunt
HOMER CITY — Maybe the high school should be called by its former name, Laura Lamar, or better yet, the name before that, Homer City.
The Homer-Center Wildcats are, after all, among the most old-school football teams you’ll find in these parts.
Why is that?
Unlike most high schools in Indiana County, Homer-Center is located right on the edge of the borough of Homer City. The football field is tucked into the middle of a residential area, and some fans can sit on their porches to watch a game. The light standards are probably taller than any building in town. On game nights, it’s tradition for the team to exit its locker room a block away and make a trek down an alley to the field.
The Wildcats’ uniforms aren’t fancy: plain black and white, with no logo or stripe on the black helmet — think Penn State in black and white. Convert one of today’s color photos to black and white and set it beside one from the pre-color ages of 50 years ago and you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.
But mostly, Homer-Center is old school because of the way the Wildcats have played football in most of the team’s 90 years of existence. Again, there’s nothing fancy there. It’s power football. Don’t expect to see the spread or any other flavor-of-the-week offense, and the defense’s mentality is to not give an inch let alone a yard.
And because of the way the Wildcats play, their players have always been known as tough kids. The fans expect it, and opponents expect it when they line up opposite a Homer-Center team.
That style goes back a long way, to the Buff Fanella, Ron Kolman and Rick Foust eras. Look at the scores from the Wildcats’ two victories in District 6 championship games: 9-6 and 3-0. That’s about as old school as it gets.
That style is carried on today by Greg Page, another old-school coach who grew up playing for and coaching under another old-school guy, his father, Jerry, at Laurel Valley, a school that no longer exists. When Page took over at Homer-Center seven years ago, it was a perfect fit, and he brought along the principles of his father’s multiple-I offense.
Opposing coaches used to say Jerry Page had only six plays in his playbook, but his teams executed so well that they were hard to stop. They’d pound the ball at the defense with the same old but reliable running plays, patiently getting 3 or 4 yards a crack, and then all of the sudden break one for 60 yards. Or, even though they didn’t pass much, they’d eventually hit a 60-yarder or two off play-action.
“We do pass more than five times a game,” Page said. “It’s pretty obvious what I’ve taken from my dad, but I think it goes back to Kolman and Fanella with the toughness thing and grit and certainly the Foust era and not letting them score. That leads to toughness, and that’s the physical part of football. When you run the ball — and that’s what we do and try to control the clock — our kids really like that. The flash and fancy formations, we do a little bit of that, and that’s fun football, but it comes down to trying to impose your will on the other team on both sides of the ball. The kids feel like that makes them tougher.”
The players do like that style, and they respond to it.
“We usually yell at Coach if he makes us pass,” Mike Newhouse, a senior running back/linebacker, said. “We like running up the field. That’s what we like. That’s what we get into.”
Having played and coached against Homer-Center through the years, Page was well aware of Homer-Center’s reputation for old-school toughness.
“When I was at Laurel Valley we always had that thought about Homer,” he said, “and then I got here, and it’s been a longstanding thing that everybody expects the kids to come out and bust their humps. They do expect that mentality from the football teams. That’s one of the things the kids take pride in.
“By the same token it’s a challenge to the kids that we need to get a championship out of it and take it to that next level. We’ve been knocking on the door, but we haven’t kicked it in. The community expects a winner, they expect the kids to go out and knock people around, and that’s what we’re after.”
This season might represent the Wildcats’ best shot at a title. Two years removed from the only winless season in school history and coming off a 6-4 season, Homer-Center returns seven starters on offense and six on defense. The offensive line is intact from last season, anchored by senior tackles Cody Miller and Lucas Monko, and quarterback Aaron Berezansky, though only a junior, has 19 varsity games as a starter under his belt.
“On paper we have some kids returning, some guys that played on the front line on both sides of the ball for three years now,” Page said. “But again, that’s a paper thing. You can look at it and say we’re more experienced than this line at another school, but that doesn’t guarantee you success, although our kids have taken a lot pride and took it upon themselves to get bigger and stronger.
“As leaders up front, the linemen seem to have a real good perspective on things. They know they have to keep getting better or somebody else is going to catch you and give you a battle. And there were a couple lines last year that really handed it to us, and they have one or two of those kids back, too. The kids know that, they know what’s ahead, and they know they have to get better every day.”
In the only two preseason polls conducted in the Heritage Conference, Homer-Center is picked either first or second. Ask around, and it’s apparent the Wildcats, along with Ligonier Valley and Blairsville, are considered one of the teams to beat this season. But there are a handful of teams in the conference that can upset a cart loaded with high expectations.
“I’ll be honest, that’s nice to hear,” Page said, “and everybody probably wants to hear that about their team, but there’s so much work to do, and I’m realistic because there are teams year in and year out that are always good and always solid, and this year is no exception. … We have a lot of kids back, but so do a lot of other teams. When it comes down to it, that’s nice to hear, but it doesn’t mean anything. Like any level, you have to go out on the field and prove it. We have to do that, and there’s no room for error, because in this conference it’s pretty good football week in and week out.”
Berezanky started as a freshman and understandably struggled. Last season he progressed markedly, completing 45 of 86 passes for 719 yards and throwing five touchdown passes and five interceptions.
“From his freshman to sophomore year he made some great strides,” Page said, “and we were a lot better as a team last year, which helps. He manages our offense. He’s not a straight drop-back kind of kid, but the things we ask him to do, it was just easier last year than his freshman year so he has more confidence and experienced guys around him. He’s not going to be asked to carry the team, but with his ability and athleticism we have some options.”
“The first year, of course, there were the nerves,” Berezansky said. “Last year was a huge step in experience, and just being out there and playing, I progressed a lot, along with the whole team.”
The rest of the backfield consists of Newhouse at fullback, Ean Lee at tailback and Anthony Caruso at swingback, with Matt McAdoo in reserve. Kolby Skultety is a wide receiver.
Guards Bill Grozanick and Tom Rura, center Shawn Steffee and tight end Jim Bence join Miller and Monko on the offensive line.
Newhouse anchors the defense at outside linebacker, with Skultety on the other side and Grozanick on the inside.
Steffee and Monko form the interior of the line, and Bence and Miller are on the ends. Logan Bellman and Brian Gearhart are expected to rotate in on the line.
In the secondary, Berezanky and Lee are on the corners, and the safeties are McAdoo and Caruso. Josh Sasala, Matt Cook, Brandon Hummel and John Ireland are expected to see time in the secondary.
Offensively, expect the Wildcats to stick with the reliable plays Page got from his father.
“It was more than six plays,” he said, “but when you get into a game and run the old reliable because you’ve had success and that’s what the kids repped most, that’s what you stick with. We’re gradually opening some things up. Five years ago we set a school record for points in a season, so we did open things up a little bit because we had the personnel to do that. This year we might be able to do some of that as well.
“The old standards and safer bets on offense might not yield high rewards as far as quick scores and a lot of points, but they’ll keep you in the football game. Having said that, I do feel like we’re opening things up a little more, and we’ll do that as long as we’re executing those types of formations and schemes. If not, then obviously we’ll get back to the old reliable.”