No high school football team turns down the underdog label. The us-against-the-world mentality is too inviting to coaches, motivating young men to band together.
But Homer-Center also wants some respect, not to be pushed over simply by the name value of Steelton-Highspire, its historically successful opponent in Saturday’s PIAA Class A quarterfinal game at Hersheypark Stadium.
“It goes with some of the things we noticed during the district playoffs,” Homer-Center coach Greg Page said. “I believe we were considered underdogs against Bishop Carroll and Bishop Guilfoyle, even though we were the higher seed. It’s just the way it goes sometimes.
“We’re fine with that. We don’t resent that type of role. It is what it is, and people are going to talk and compare, and in this situation, I’m sure (Steelton-Highspire) is feeling very good about themselves. They haven’t lost on the field. They won the D3 championship for the first time in five seasons, so they’re excited.”
Steelton-Highspire boasts 10 District 3 titles, and most recently claimed one last Saturday in a 26-7 win over York Catholic. The Steamrollers won state championships in 2007 and 2008 and are the last team to hold the PIAA Class A title other than Clairton, which is out of the state field this year, having lost in the WPIAL playoffs.
The Steamrollers’ only loss this season came in a double-forfeit imposed after a brawl during their Week 6 game at Susquenita.
They boast one of the best defenses in the state, having allowed just 76 points on the season, the third-lowest total in the PIAA.
“We know they have a quality program,” Page said. “They are athletic and they’re very aggressive defensively, so for us it’s going to come down to making sure we try to play our game and stay disciplined on both sides of the ball and on special teams, trying to contain a few of those guys. We know we’re in for a dogfight. At this point in the game, you get into the state level and there are eight teams left. You’ve got to strap it on against anybody.”
“I hope we are (underdogs),” Homer-Center senior guard Cody Miller said, “because I love coming from behind and making that big upset that everybody goes crazy over.”
That’s, of course, what the Wildcats did last week, getting two touchdowns and a safety in the final 3:40 to overcome a 12-8 deficit and beat Bishop Guilfoyle, 22-12, for Homer-Center’s first District 6 Class A title since 1994.
Coming back to earth and getting to work after the school’s biggest, and perhaps most dramatic, victory in 19 years might be a problem for some. It isn’t for the Wildcats, whose only loss came in similar circumstances, at Portage in the regular-season finale following a euphoric victory over Penns Manor to claim their first Heritage Conference championship. Since then, Homer-Center has shown an excellent response to two playoff wins.
“You definitely have to take time and take it all in and enjoy it, but at the same time, you’ve definitely got to get back to work,” senior tackle Luke Monko said. “As soon as the game was over, we knew we had to get ready for the next one. When we found out who it was, it was like, OK, and we prepared for them like we would any other team.”
“We had that weekend to celebrate,” Miller said, “but as soon as Monday rolled around we had to get our heads out of the sky and go back to work.”
The Wildcats, who have two 1,000-yard rushers in Ean Lee and Mike Newhouse, have that work cut out. Steelton-Highspire has held opponents to minus-70, minus-18, six, 13, 25 and 41 yards rushing in six of its games this season and allows just 65.4 per game.
“From the film we’ve watched so far, we see they have a lot of speed and they like to get around the edge,” Miller said. “As a lineman, I can’t really speak for the running backs as much, but we just take our steps as we do every other week and make sure we get a hat on a hat and drive them back as far as we can.”
“They’re very aggressive and, being athletic, they try to bring people up to the line of scrimmage,” Page said. “They’re in a 4-front quite a bit and they like to stay busy with their linebackers and try to put pressure on you right up the gut. They like to play man-to-man in the secondary. They feel like they have the people to do that. So, for us, combating that has to be something that we’ve done all season, and that’s just go right at people.”