HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL: DISTRICT 6 CLASS A PLAYOFFS -- Homer-Center, Penns Manor ready to get back to the grind
It’s been an up-and-down few weeks for the Heritage Conference’s top two teams.
Homer-Center and Penns Manor have gone through a roller coaster of emotions in the past month. Now both teams are on a clean slate, playing host to District 6 Class A playoff games this weekend.
Homer-Center (9-1), the No. 2 seed, welcomes No. 7 Juniata Valley (6-4) at 7 p.m. Friday. No. 4 Penns Manor (9-1) has a date with No. 5 Bishop Guilfoyle (8-2) at 7 p.m. Saturday.
The Wildcats were on top of the world — and the conference — two weeks ago, when they defeated Penns Manor, 41-21, in a de facto Heritage Conference championship game in Homer City. Homer-Center followed that up with a lackluster 35-19 non-conference loss at Portage last week, coughing up the top seed in the playoffs.
“It is a balance you strive for,” Homer-Center coach Greg Page said. “There’s that question. Week 9 was a tremendous thing for us, and the kids and the community were on a high, but then you have to get ready to play a solid football team in Portage, and to their credit, Portage came out and played the better game Friday night. There’s no question about that. That is the roller coaster of it all. Now we have to bounce back and we’re going to have to find a way to get back to the level of play that we need to, because it’s the playoffs. At this point, you have to be prepared.”
That includes having a few reserves at the ready, particularly at running back and linebacker. Senior starter Mike Newhouse suffered an apparent left knee injury on the first series last week and did not return. Homer-Center is preparing for a variety of scenarios regarding Newhouse, who, along with Ean Lee, helped give the Wildcats the area’s second-best rushing offense, behind Penns Manor.
“We don’t know everything yet, the whole extent of it, but it’s looking like there is a possibility he may play,” Page said. “I’m probably just going to leave it at that. We’ve gotten him looked at, and hopefully he’s going to be able to give us something Friday night.”
Homer-Center knows it will be without tight end/defensive end Kolby Skultety, who was ejected after being assessed a personal foul penalty in last week’s game and received an automatic one-game suspension. It’s the second time Skultety was ejected this season.
The Wildcats will face a balanced Juniata Valley offense. While the Hornets might lack some of the top-end talent Portage threw at the Wildcats last week, they have the tools to produce an offensive scheme similar to the multi-faceted one that tore through the Homer-Center defense. Juniata Valley has a 1,000-yard passer in Caleb Taylor and a 1,000-yard rusher in fullback Jesse Claar.
“For us it’s a matter of getting everybody caught up to speed with what they do and making sure everybody’s fundamentally prepared at this time of year,” Page said. “You kind of know what your schemes are going to be on both sides of the ball. You just have to try to fine-tune it and emphasize to your kids that it’s playoff time; you’re going to be playing a good team regardless.
“We didn’t make enough good plays defensively last week. At times we played well. For us, it’s about alignment, reacting and playing your position. We can’t have guys trying to play somebody else’s position. So far as defending the run and the pass, if we get lined up and we read our key, we have enough good people on the defensive side of the ball that we should be able to play decent defense.”
That’s one of several things Homer-Center can take as a good thing to come from the loss.
“Nobody likes to lose, and it did happen, but if it was going to happen, a lot of those times in that situation, it does help you to refocus,” Page said. “It helps you to realize some of your weaknesses, things that you did wrong or didn’t accomplish, and if that can be a positive for us to take a look at ourselves and come out with a better purpose, that is the right time (for a loss).”
Penns Manor started its stretch run with a 31-29 victory at Ligonier Valley on a last-second touchdown pass to complete a 91-yard, 33-seconds drive led by backup quarterback Clayton Stupic in Week 7. Two weeks later, the Comets had their reality check, losing the hyped-up conference showdown. They responded with a 35-8 victory over Keystone at home last week.
It’s been a wild year overall for the Comets, who were at a crossroads after the graduation of quarterback Danny Ferens, the area’s all-time leading rusher who led the school one step shy of the state championship game in 2011.
“We didn’t know what to feel,” Penns Manor coach Bill Packer said of going into the season. “We had a lot of holes to fill. These young kids have responded and the older ones have stepped up. Being 9-1, I really wasn’t expecting that, but it’s really been a nice surprise for us. We were hoping we could get seven, eight or nine wins, because we felt like we had some good kids that we could build around.”
After a particularly crazy four weeks, the Comets find themselves back where they’ve been the past three Novembers — playing a home playoff game. For a home team, though, they’ve drawn one of the toughest matchups in Bishop Guilfoyle, which has won eight in a row, including all seven that quarterback Brandon Chadbourn (759 rushing yards) has started.
“They could be the best team in this,” Packer said. “We feel, if we can get by this game, we might have a good shot to keep going.
“The quarterback is the key to their offense. He runs the ball a lot. He’s quick and he’s tough to stop. They block the edge real well. He tries to get to the corner and, from what I’ve seen on film, he’s been getting there and picking up big yardage for them.”
That sounds awfully familiar to Penns Manor. After the dynamic Ferens ran roughshod for four years, Lucas Kowalski came into his own as a senior, running for 1,012 yards and quarterbacking the area’s top rushing offense.
“We’re trying to get the defensive ends and the outside ’backers to get the edge and try and turn that quarterback in, and hopefully we get flow from the inside ’backers, but we’re going to have to contain that kid,” Packer said of Chadbourn. “If we can keep him in the pocket, we feel pretty good about that, but they have a lot of weapons.”
Penns Manor has been knocked off at home by parochial schools in two of the last three years. This is, of course, a different team, led by linemen John Stupic, Luke Ruddock, Stephen Dumm and Brandon Alter, who were around for that experience but look for a different outcome.
“Some of these guys have been in big games like that,” Packer said. “They tend to know how to go out and be more relaxed. They know not only if you get behind that you can still come back and win the game, but not to get too excited and just go out and do the job. … I’d still rather play at home, no matter what.”