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The Ruby Review: 2015 Mid-Season Mega-Post!!!

As promised, ladies and gentlemen, here it is: the Mid-Season Mega-Post! This rather large entry in the Ruby Review features:

  • Highlights from four games, plus
  • A review of District 11’s unbeaten teams!

So, let’s get down to it!

West Scranton 20, North Pocono 6

Thursday, September 24th featured some surprise football, as the matchup between the West Scranton Invaders and the North Pocono Trojans was moved up a day to avoid the impending strike in the Scranton School District. The Invaders came into the game 1-2, although their losses had been against tough Coughlin and Dunmore squads by a combined five points, and the home Trojans were 3-0, although they hadn’t really been tested.

The Invaders tested them early and often on this night, however, scoring on their first drive of each half, and West Scranton’s spread offense, combined with a stingy D, proved enough to secure a sound victory in Moscow, PA. Returning from an early-season injury, Sophomore RB Andre Chollette carried the ball 22 times for nearly 150 yards, and Senior QB Matt Gaul put up an even 100 yards on nine completions to five different receivers. For most of the night, Gaul and Chollette had ample time in the backfield thanks to the stellar play of the Invaders’ offensive line; in high school, you don’t always see much difference between pass blocking and run blocking, so the West Scranton line’s real commitment to the different techniques required for each stood out nicely.

This game could have gotten ugly had it not been for North Pocono’s standout linebackers, Junior Ben Dial and Sophomore Brett Butler. With Chollette routinely bursting into the second level, it was up to the duo of underclassmen to stop him there and get the defense off the field. The North Pocono offense, which had averaged just over 35 points per game, had a lot of trouble moving the football consistently. Alternating between Senior QB Luke Fetter and Freshman QB Donny Blaine, the Trojans put up 164 yards, 61 of which came on their scoring drive to end the third quarter. Not wanting to go into the final frame down 20-0, speedy Senior RB Matt Kelly burst through the line and scampered 18 yards for the score as time wound down. West Scranton had trouble icing the game – their first two possessions of the fourth quarter resulted in a great interception in the endzone by Sophomore Corner Michael Kowalski and a fumble – but the Trojans were unable to generate anything, fumbling and going three and out to give the Invaders the ball for good.

Unsung Heroes

For the Trojans, a clear standout was 6’2”, 275 lb. Junior Tackle Matt Slagus. When North Pocono found running room, it was often behind Slagus, who routinely occupied two West Scranton defensive linemen. My game notes are also replete with references such as “BIG hit, bear-hug, N77”, meaning that Slagus made a significant impression on both sides of the ball.

For the Invaders, an honorable mention goes to Junior Punter Keyshawn Johnson – who solidified West Scranton’s field position all night and did so with a great football name – but the ultimate honors belong to Senior Tight End Dillon Hart. When you see a tall, skinny TE, your first thought is that he was just a little too big to be a receiver, so they stuck him closer to the offensive line. This was not the case with Hart. Although he was definitely a presence in the passing game, snagging a tough catch over the middle for 25 yards, Hart stood out mainly for his blocking effort; leveraging his 6’6”, 215 lb. frame to set up the Invaders’ inside draws, Hart clearly enjoyed engaging with defenders, pushing through the block until the whistle blew.

Montoursville 42, Jersey Shore 25

I hadn’t planned on being in Montoursville for this one, but one thing led to another and I ended up making the trip into the sunset down Route 118 for a District 4 matchup between the undefeated Bulldogs of Jersey Shore and the one-loss Warriors of Montoursville. A rollicking affair that was closer than the final score indicated – indeed, the margin was 20-19 at the end of the third quarter! – this game went a long way towards deciding exactly how the AA and AAA levels of D4 will shake out.

Jersey Shore, coming off what was possibly their greatest campaign in school history, replaced a lot of talent and had managed to win its first three games convincingly. Known over the past few seasons for an extremely up-tempo offense, the Bulldogs knocked it up a notch for this one, running what was almost certainly the quickest hurry-up I’ve ever seen at the high school level.

The incredible tempo of Jersey Shore’s offense translated into some big plays for Jersey Shore, but it also resulted in some big plays for Montoursville. On Jersey Shore’s second drive of the game, Senior QB Travis Bradley placed a beautiful ball down the sidelines for Senior Wideout Cole Eisworth, who gained 35 yards on the play and gave the Bulldogs a first-and-goal at the 10. On the very next play, however, Warriors Junior CB Nolan Ott read the offense, jumped Bradley’s pass in the flat, and raced 94 yards for the pick-six, igniting an enthusiastic Montoursville crowd that kept the stadium rocking most of the night. Jersey Shore quickly shook it off, however, and by the middle of the second quarter Sophomore WR Kevin Titus had two long scores, one a 33-yarder from Bradley and another a 48-yarder from workhorse RB Levi Lorson on a tricky halfback pass.

By the end of the half, however, Montoursville had regained the lead with a touchdown in each of the three phases of play. After the defensive score in the first, it was time for the Warriors’ special teams to shine: punting from midfield, the Warriors took advantage when Jersey Shore’s return man fumbled the punt into the endzone and snagged the 14-13 lead on the PAT. And with 2:02 left in the half, the Warriors finally scored one the traditional way, as Senior Fullback Ben Cerney took an inside sweep 33 yards.

In the second half, Jersey Shore struck first, closing down the third quarter with a 1 yard run by Senior RB Bryce Charles, but Montoursville’s Junior QB Brycen Mussina shrugged off some earlier struggles and picked apart the Bulldogs defense for two quick scores to put things out of reach. After Senior RB Keith Batkowski’s defiant 19-yard run gave the Warriors a 42-19 advantage, Jersey Shore’s back-up QB, Sophomore Elijah Shemory, found Titus for the latter’s third score of the night, this one a 51-yard catch-and-run past a fallen safety.

Ultimately, Jersey Shore’s offense will be a bit of a headache for any defensive coordinator to deal with, but Montoursville showed that a solid front seven – Montoursville’s was led by standout Senior D-Lineman Jacob Bogenrief – can force this team to go downfield, which will allow an opportunistic pass defense to take advantage.

Unsung Heroes

For Jersey Shore, I’m going to go a little unconventional here and give the recognition to the starting halfback, Levi Lorson. Lorson ran for 83 yards on 28 carries, but he worked incredibly hard for the yards he got, running over and over with very little rest after each tackle. He averages 29 carries per game, but I saw no signs that the workload was wearing him down.

For Montoursville, there are a lot of ways I could go with this, but the true definition of unsung hero was demonstrated by Senior RB/LB Aidan Plants. In a game full of big plays and momentum swings, Plants didn’t have a huge return or long run, but was a role player in every facet of the game and provided consistent contribution for a Warriors squad that occasionally struggled to keep momentum.

Scranton Prep 13, North Pocono 6

Week 5 started on the first day of October with another Thursday night game involving North Pocono. Unlike Week 4’s contest, this one had been scheduled for Thursday night, and was an away game for the Trojans. Just like in Week 4, though, a squad from Scranton managed a win over North Pocono in a defensive battle.

For Scranton Prep, this game was extremely important; coming off a heartbreaking 14-13 loss to rival Scranton, the Cavaliers, long assumed to be a playoff lock in an otherwise-jam-packed AAA race, needed a win to ensure that they stayed on track for the postseason. When I arrived at Scranton Memorial Stadium, the rain was falling, the wind was blowing, and the umbrellas and blankets were out; just in time for football, though, the skies cleared and a vivid double rainbow stretched from beyond one end zone to the other. And, you know what? That’s what going to these football games is like for me: I can be having a tough week, not feeling great, things getting stormy, but when the weekend rolls around I get a smile on my face, and the clouds break just in time for kick-off. But, I digress!

Coming into this contest, I knew that Scranton Prep was known for its offensive line, and the unit didn’t disappoint. Led by Seniors Thor Balavage and Corey Christian, the unit helped the Cavaliers grind out 200 rushing yards on a whopping 48 carries. As you might have guessed, the story of the game was Scranton Prep ball control; I could hardly believe that this was the same school that aired it out for so many quick scores last year. That’s not to say the Scranton Prep passing game was under-utilized; in fact, athletic Junior QB Jake Ryan was 11 for 25 passing, and would’ve had 17 or 18 completions had the wet weather not caused a number of drops and slips by would-be receivers. Both aspects of the offense were put to good use on the first drive of the game, as Scranton Prep took 14 plays to go 76 yards in 5:48 and score the game’s opening touchdown on a Kevin Holmes grab, one of the Senior WR’s six receptions.

Soon after kickoff, the rain and wind came back with a vengeance, and both offenses had trouble moving the ball in the tough conditions for most of the first half. North Pocono finally broke through with 40 seconds to go in the second frame, as Donny Blaine found Timmy Blaine with an absolutely perfect fade to the back corner of the end zone. As I noted above, North Pocono had been rotating QBs, but Blaine’s 5-for-6 performance on this drive may have won him the starting job once and for all: the Freshman QB got the lion’s share of the snaps in the second half and finished 7 for 14 for 83 yards. The Trojans missed the extra point, and Scranton Prep went into halftime with a 7-6 margin.

After North Pocono took a minute to go three-and-out to open the second half, Scranton Prep went on another long scoring drive that sapped any remaining momentum the visitors had. The Cavaliers, who punted midway through the drive but were bailed out by a roughing penalty, ended up going 68 yards on 16 plays to get some breathing room with 3 minutes to go in the third. Tall Senior TE Chris O’Brien made his only catch of the night for the score, finding space in the flat to haul in an easy five-yard touchdown. A fumbled snap on the PAT kept the margin at 13-6.

North Pocono nearly closed the gap towards the end of the third quarter; after Michael Kowalski’s punt return set the Trojans up with good field position, they drove to the Cavaliers’ 7-yard line but were stopped on fourth down by solid defense from Junior CB Mario Giannone.

After that close call, though Scranton Prep hunkered down and battered ahead on the strength of their offensive line and talented running back trio of Tyler Stafursky, Justin Weckel, and Ricky Morgan. In the final 13:15, Scranton Prep held the ball for a whopping 11:17 compared to just 1:58 for the Trojans, and the Cavaliers walked off with a gritty 13-6 victory.

Unsung Heroes

For North Pocono, the unsung hero title goes to the Running Backs and Fullbacks. “Come on, Joe,” you’re thinking, “surely the offensive backfield isn’t unsung!” I respond: normally not, but what I want to give them credit for is their exceptional pass blocking. Scranton Prep’s defensive line – composed of mostly the same standouts as the offensive line – was certainly a force to be reckoned with, often overmatching the Trojans’ line off the snap. But the Cavaliers’ D-Line would’ve been much more effective had it not been for the efforts of the Trojans’ offensive backfield, the members of which routinely stepped up and threw their bodies into blocks that gave QBs Blaine and Fetter just enough time to get the ball off.

For Scranton Prep, the clear standout for me was Junior Guard/Defensive Tackle Max Borgia. With Balavage at 6’2”, 240 and Christian 6’4”, 270, it’s occasionally easy to miss 5’8” Borgia, but he made himself extremely visible on both sides of the ball by repeatedly overpowering larger opponents, pushing blockers into the backfield and keeping the Trojans’ D-Line contained. Props also to Junior LB Kyler McAllister, who demonstrated a particular knack for shedding blockers.

Selinsgrove 17, Berwick 14

This Friday night matchup was an incredibly important game for both of these squads. This contest represented perhaps the first real measuring stick for the undefeated Seals, whereas Berwick needed to bounce back after a 34-6 drubbing at the hands of Wyoming Valley West in Week 4. Having written about both of these teams at length – and, as importantly, being a Selinsgrove alumni – I decided to leave my notebook at home and take this one in as a fan.

Although the atmosphere was rather subdued at the beginning of the chilly, rainy night, this one turned into a really fantastic match. Scoring 10 points quickly, the Seals looked like they might run away with things early, but Coach Curry is a master at adjusting on the fly; Berwick started pulling their guards and fullbacks and running inside sweeps at an alarming rate, and Selinsgrove had trouble stopping the Bulldogs’ RBs before they got 5 or 10 yards. The Seals took a 10-7 lead into the half, but Berwick soon made it 14-10.

As time dwindled in the fourth quarter, the Bulldogs, who had already extended a previous drive by going for 4th-and-1 on their own 20, attempted a short fourth down conversion near their own 40 but were stopped. The Seals, knowing this would be their last shot, pushed the ball down inside the red zone, and, on 4th-and-3 from Berwick’s 5 yard line, standout RB Juvon Batts punched it in with 1:19 to go to put the Seals up 17-14. A fumble on Berwick’s second play after the kickoff sealed an extremely close victory.

Although this brief write-up might be a little lacking, rest assured that the game wasn’t: I just needed a night to not worry about stats and strategy and minutiae but just soak in the big picture and take in the atmosphere at one of the greatest fields in the state as two of the greatest teams in the state (one by consensus, another by my own opinion) clashed with a ton on the line.

Week 5 Undefeated Watch

Having covered District 2 in Week 3 and District 4 in Week 4, I now turn my watchful gaze to District 11’s undefeated squads. D11 has forty-six teams (compared to D2’s thirty-seven and D4’s thirty-three), so I figured I’d save them for last and let a few early overachievers weed themselves out. The real story here might be a few of the teams that aren’t on the undefeated squad, as powerhouses Bethlehem Catholic, Easton, and Stroudsburg all suffered early upsets and each sit at 4-1.

District 11

Bethlehem Freedom – Just 2-8 two seasons ago, the Patriots reversed that record last year in the regular season en route to a 9-3 campaign, and have started even strong this year, defeating difficult Nazareth and Allentown Central Catholic squads. This team absolutely needs to start 7-0, as they end their season with a downright brutal stretch: @ Parkland, vs. Easton, @ Liberty.

Jim Thorpe – Last season, the Olympians started 7-0 but lost their last three contests and ended up missing the playoffs. This year’s bunch is out to prove that it’s a different season, and have done so by putting up much larger margins of victory than they had to this point last year. 2014’s record might have been deceiving, but so far 2015’s is not. Like Freedom, though, Jim Thorpe will need to maximize its early successes; its last two games are @ Blue Mountain and @ Lehighton, squads which have gone a combined 9-1 so far.

Lehighton – Speaking of Lehighton, the Indians, who stole that final playoff spot from the Olympians last year, are hoping to navigate back through a crowded D11 AAA field. Led by RB Wyatt Clements, Lehighton is coming off a 7-6 victory over Governor Mifflin and faces another test this week against Marian Catholic. If they pass that test, Jim Thorpe will likely represent their only stumbling block to 10-0.

Notre Dame – The Crusaders were winless last season, scoring single digits in half of their games and surpassing 20 points just once (a 42-21 loss against Palisades). What a difference a year makes. In this campaign, Notre Dame has completely reversed its fortunes, not only snagging the victory in each matchup but doing it with a high-powered offense that has hit 30 in all five contests. Winnable games remaining on the schedule give Notre Dame a great shot to sail into the playoffs with momentum.

Parkland – Currently ranked as the #2 AAAA school in all of Pennsylvania by PA Football News, Parkland has met the lofty expectations surrounding them. Last year’s District 2/4/11 winner, the Trojans returned star QB Devante Cross and WR Kenny Yeboah, which has allowed them to average nearly 44 points per game thus far. A difficult stretch looms, with games at Liberty and Easton and home against Freedom, but Parkland will be the clear favorite in all of them, and figures to be the East’s best shot to unseat St. Joe’s Prep as PIAA Champions.

Saucon Valley – Ruby Review favorite Saucon Valley entered the season with high hopes, having returned the bulk of its starting lineup from last year’s 10-2 campaign. So far, so good. Although it hasn’t always been pretty – the Panthers have allowed double digits each game – Saucon Valley avenged its only regular season loss from last year, defeating Northwestern Lehigh by a 27-21 margin in Week 5. The Panthers will need to keep focused on each game in front of them, but if all goes according to plan they’ll be looking to take down perennial power Bethlehem Catholic in the D11 AAA finals.

Thanks for reading, everybody! I could keep going, but I don’t want to give you too much in one week… have to keep you coming back for more! Unfortunately, I didn’t get to the Wallenpaupack @ Abington Heights contest this past week; the weather moved the game from Saturday to Sunday, and I had a prior commitment. Come back next week for an update on the playoff races in Districts 2, 4, and 11, as well as game updates. Where will I be this weekend? Come back next week to find out!

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