HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL: PURCHASE LINE 40, CONEMAUGH VALLEY 0 -- Red Dragons secure non-losing season
JOHNSTOWN — On a cold, dreary day, Grant Syster and the Purchase Line Red Dragons couldn’t have shined brighter.
Syster ran for more than 300 yards, setting a school record, and Purchase Line finished its season at .500, its best mark since 2008, with a 40-0 victory over Conemaugh Valley on Saturday afternoon at Thomas Yewcic Field.
“It’s not really a personal thing,” said Syster, the junior running back who gained 302 yards on 35 carries for the school’s first 300-plus-yard single-game performance in its history. “We did it as a team. I can’t go anywhere without my fullback, without all my linemen in front of me. We really jelled together as a unit. I learned to read their blocks. They learned how to jell as a unit on the line. They came together great this year.”
Syster’s performance highlighted the team’s overall improvement. The Dragons won four of their final five games this season to finish at 5-5.
“We didn’t believe that we were as bad as everybody expected us to be,” Purchase Line coach Brandon Overdorff said. “We really kept getting better and you could see that. Each game that progressed, we kept working hard, kept getting better, and I think once we got into that middle part of the schedule where it was a little softer, it started to show and it helped us build some confidence once we got a couple wins under our belt. We just played really well in all three phases of the game the last five games of the year.”
Syster ran for two of Purchase Line’s six touchdowns on the day, but had a major hand in setting up all of them. The 5-foot-10, 187-pounder gained 182 yards on 23 carries in the first half alone, adding 120 yards on 12 second-half carries. The Red Dragons picked up 23 rushing first downs and ran for 378 yards total, while holding Conemaugh Valley to 41 yards rushing and 51 yards overall.
Syster finished as the area’s leading rusher through the regular season, with 1,593 yards on 226 carries. He shouldered a major load for the Red Dragons all season, just as Josh Huey did for last year’s team in Overdorff’s first year.
“We’re an I-formation football team, and that means we think we’ve got a pretty good running back,” Overdorff said. “If we didn’t think that, we’d be running the wing-T and have three backs. That dictates that our I-back gets a lot of carries.
“He deserves (the record), because he was one of our kids that was a leader in the weight room. I pushed him really hard and he responded right after the season last year. We expected big things from him, and he gave it to us. He can’t do that alone. Our kids up front really matured, also. … We’ll look at that record as a team record, but he’s one of our leaders and he deserves it.”
Purchase Line loses just five seniors and should continue to progress under Overdorff, who took over in 2012. Still, the Dragons’ victory Saturday was about steps Purchase Line made over this season. For a program that went through winless seasons as recently as 2009 and 2010, getting as many wins as losses is at least somewhat of an accomplishment.
“It’s not where you want to be,” Overdorff said. “You want to be in the playoffs. As a competitor, you want to win every football game, but as a coach you’ve got to look at where you’re coming from, where you’ve been. We haven’t had a lot of success at Purchase Line.
“We’re getting better and that’s the big thing. We’ve got some kids that are really working hard and have some talent, so it’s progression, and that’s what it means to me, but for the kids it’s huge.”
Freshman Hunter Rice gained 60 yards on 18 carries and scored two touchdowns. Zack Bartlebaugh and quarterback Alec Sunderlin scored the Dragons’ other touchdowns Saturday.
Purchase Line outmatched Conemaugh Valley physically, something the Red Dragons found themselves on the wrong end of for the better part of the last five years and also something Purchase Line fought through to get to better days.
“You’d like to be able to think that, but I know from experience that it doesn’t necessarily happen,” Conemaugh Valley coach Tom Marshall said of his program’s struggles. “If the young guys can get their butts kicked and next year come back, a lot of times that doesn’t help them, especially week after week. That gets discouraging to the kids. … In an ideal world, we hope that they’ll take the lessons they learned this year and they’ll come back next year and they’ll be the older, bigger guys.”
That’s how Purchase Line got to .500, and the Red Dragons are poised to work just as hard to reach bigger goals.
“We’re starting to come around, but we need to get back in the weight room and start working for the next season, because it’s coming fast,” Syster said.