SCA Again: Beast of the East
Written by: Billy Splain on Sunday, December 4th, 2016
Written by: Dave Fegley
Tigers headed back to Hershey
Not many people, if any at all, outside of the Southern Columbia football program thought it was fathomable to make a return trip to Chocolate Town. After all, the Tigers graduated 26 seniors including 10 starters on the defensive side of the football, and they have almost double the amount of freshmen (11) on the roster as seniors (6). Now, the 15-0 defending state champions will ride a 31 game winning streak into trying to win a record 8th state championship.
Ligonier Valley came into Alumni Stadium at Bald Eagle High School riding a perfect 14-0 record and the best season in school history. The Rams hadn’t ever won a District VI championship, yet alone a state playoff game, before this season. Their defense came in giving up on average less than five points per game and they posted eight shutouts. “They had a lot of quick players and we knew that our defense had to step up in a big way. They have done a great job the past two weeks for us,” said Southern coach Jim Roth. The Tigers mounted a 24-7 halftime lead in the victory.
The Tigers won the toss and chose to receive the opening kickoff. They used a 13-play drive to go 69 yards to open up the scoring. Gaige Garcia finished the job with a seven yard run to put SCA up 7-0. “I think our whole team came out with more heart and desire. We’ve been battle tested and we were determined,” Garcia said. That touchdown would be the only scoring in the opening quarter.
Thomas Manley recovered a fumble early in the second quarter on a bobbled snap from Ram quarterback Collin Smith. The Tigers would drive down the field and Elijah Hoffman kicked a 25-yard field goal to extend the lead to 10-0. “We have a lot of first year starters including our kicker. It takes contributions from everyone to get to this point and we have gotten it,” Roth said.
Smith, who will most certainly be an all-state selection, answered right back after his mistake with a 50-yard touchdown run to make the score 10-7. “He has been our leader all season. I can’t say enough about how this senior class has elevated the program to another level. We just ran into an outstanding football program,” Ligonier Valley coach Roger Beitel said. The senior finished his senior season with mind-boggling numbers and is headed to West Virginia next fall to play football for the Mountaineers. He finished his final season with over 3,000 yards passing and just under 1,000 rushing to go along with 64 offensive touchdowns (42 passing & 22 rushing).
On the other sideline, Hunter Thomas has elevated his play to an even higher level than his junior season that ended with an all-state selection. The senior captain, although extremely effective, was frustrated with his regular season that was hindered by injury. “Missing those games after my knee surgery really took my heart out of my body it seemed. I was worried and upset that I wouldn’t be coming back, but fortunately I was able to work myself back to 100%,” said Thomas. He scored on 33-yard run with 5:20 left in the first half to put Southern Columbia up 17-7 after catching a pass on the previous play for a first down.
After forcing a 3-and-out, the Tigers traveled 51 yards to score with 25 seconds left in the half to make the score 24-7 at the break. It marked the first time the Rams gave up more than 20 in a game all season yet alone a half. “It was very Important. It gave us a huge advantage and we held them off for the rest of the game and came out with the win,” said lineman Oak Six about the halftime lead. At that point though, the Tigers knew that the game was far from over.
Ligonier Valley didn’t waste much time scoring to start the second half. Aaron Tutino got behind the Tiger secondary and Smith found him for a 57-yard strike. Aaron Sheeder added a two-point conversion to make the score 24-15. “Our guys came out and didn’t quit. They battled until the final play,” said Beitel.
Thomas scored on an eight yard jaunt on the next possession to make the score 31-15 with 5:32 left in the third quarter. Tutino was was able to get behind Southern all-state corner Cam Young for the second series in a row for a 44-yard completion from Smith. After getting tackled at the one, Smith finished the drive off himself on the next play. The Rams couldn’t convert on the two-point try so the teams entered the final quarter with the Tigers in front 31-21.
Smith, who was the only player on the LV squad to carry the football, scored for the third time on the ground just 51 seconds into the final quarter and after another missed two-point conversion, the Rams trailed by a slim margin of 31-27. The final 11 minutes were filled with lots of drama and the deciding factor would come down to if Southern’s offense could control the clock and if the defense could come up with pivotal stops.
Southern quarterback Stone Hollenbach, who finished 6 for 12 in the game, missed an open receiver on third down of the next Tiger drive giving the ball back to Ligonier Valley with a chance to take the lead. “They had the momentum at that point and our defense needed to come up big,” Roth said. Anthony Scicchitano hit Smith on the second play of the Rams drive forcing an errant pass from Smith that was intercepted by Julian Fleming. “I knew pressuring their quarterback was going to be big in this game. That pass he got flustered back there and it set up the pick for Julian,” said Scicchitano.
Give credit to the Rams defense as they forced another punt for the Tigers to give them the ball back with 5:46 left to play still down by just four points. After an Andrew Bell sack and a holding penalty, Smith threw an incompletion on 4th and 24 to give SCA the ball back with 4:11 to play. “We obviously have a lot of younger players this season and new starters, but we just all believed in the dream. There was no way we were going to let them win that game after the work we’ve put in,” senior Garrett Henry said.
Ligonier Valley burned all three timeouts earlier in the half, so the Tigers had an opportunity to run the clock out with a couple of first downs. Although Thomas and Garcia both topped the century mark on the ground, Roth decided to put the ball in the hands of his fullback to pick up the final first down and he converted. “I wasn’t thinking if I picked up the first down that we would win, but once I picked it up then it hit me. It’s definitely a great feeling for our team to make it back to the state championship,” said Nic Fetterman who picked up four first downs on carries throughout the game including the final one.
Southern Columbia’s state record of now 15 Eastern Championships will put them up against Steel Valley in the PIAA Class AA State Championship. The Tigers and Ironmen will kickoff next Saturday at 11:00 am in Hershey Park Stadium. The WPIAL champs will be Southern’s toughest opponent since 2011 when they took on Clairton with Tyler Boyd for the Class A title in Hershey. “We will be ready. There’s no questions about it,” Thomas said. The Ironmen will be the first PIAA team ever to play in the state final by winning in Mercy Rule fashion every single game along the way. Unfortunately for the Ironmen, they have to now get the job done against state’s winningest program since the state championship games were implemented in 1988.
SCA: 7-17-7-0 = 31
LV: 0-7-14-6 = 27
SOUTHERN COLUMBIA (15-0)
Hunter Thomas 24-192, 2 TDs; Gaige Garcia 22-117, 2 TDs; Nic Fetterman 18-52; Julian Fleming 2-11; Stone Hollenbach 1-11
Stone Hollenbach 6-12-0, 55 yds
Can Young 2-21; Gaige Garcia 2-5; Julian Fleming 1-13; Hunter Thomas 1-16
1st DOWNS: 24
Collin Smith 12-123, 3 TDs
Collin Smith 10-27-1, 212 yds, TD
Aaron Tutino 2-120, TD; Trent Stewart 5-44; Trent Hepner 2-42; Jackson Daugherty 1-6
1st DOWNS: 14
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