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Written by: Dave Fegley on Saturday, November 7th, 2020
For Pennsylvania’s most successful high school football program, Southern Columbia, the only thing that can add to their legacy at this point is sheer numbers. After Friday’s District 4 championship victory over South Williamsport, the two main numbers are 5 and 28. The Tigers #5 (Gavin Garcia) moved into the #5 spot on the school’s all-time rushing list. The win was the 28th district championship, adding to a state record, and also the 28th consecutive win for SCA in Mercy Rule fashion.
When the clock hit zero to finish out Southern Columbia’s 49-14 victory over South Williamsport in the District 4 Class 2A, it looked like just any other game. No jumping around, no cheering, no yelling, and no signs of any final satisfaction. “I said to the team after the game, I know you guys don’t look at it as a big deal, but there was a time where there were big celebrations for winning a district title. Obviously, your goals are higher than that. It’s a stepping-stone for them,” Southern head coach Jim Roth said. “As coaches, we probably appreciate it more. The players we have right now haven’t experienced anything other than winning a district title. We have enough old-timers on the staff that have been through it all.”
Who can blame the players however for quite frankly not really caring that they added another title to their overfilled trophy case? Last season the Tigers became the first Pennsylvania program to win 10 PIAA championships, they have made it to the state final 18 times, won countless other titles, and the seniors on the roster haven’t ever lost a game. In fact, the 28th District 4 gold that Southern captured on Friday came during their 28th consecutive Mercy Rule win dating back to the 2018 season.
Southern’s Gavin Garcia cemented his place in the program’s history book during the Tigers championship. The junior that wears #5, moved into the #5 spot on the school’s all-time rushing list in the convincing win. If not for a long punt return being called back due to a penalty, the returning all-state running back would have had 5 touchdowns as well. “It is definitely a great feeling, but most importantly we are heading to the state quarterfinals,” said Garcia who finished with 171 yards and 4 touchdowns on just six first half carries. “To be near the top of Southern’s rushing list is an honor. Growing up as a water boy watching some great players before me, I just wanted to be a part of this great program.”
After Wade Kerstetter recovered a fumble to open the game, Garcia wasted no time by scoring on his first carry of the night. On the second play of Southern’s opening drive, Garcia carried the pigskin 40 yards to open the scoring. “He is an outstanding running back. There really isn’t any way of saying it,” said SCA head coach Jim Roth. “He was great his first two years, but this year as the focal point of our offense, he has found a way to take his game to the next level.” He now trails just his brother, Gaige (8,232 yards), Henry Hynoski (7,165 yards), Jerry Marks (7,075 yards), and Ricco Rosini (6,413 yards) in the state’s most prolific rushing attack of all-time.
Fellow backfield mate Wes Barnes put the Tigers up 14-0 with 5:47 left in the opening quarter on a 55-yard run on the second play of SCA’s second drive. “Switching from halfback to fullback this year was a big transition, but I am definitely starting to feel more confident in my new position. The better we run the ball, we hope it continues to improve our passing game which will take some defenders out of the box,” Barnes said. On the next drive, after Barnes took a 36-yard screen pass to the four while running over a South Williamsport linebacker in the process, Garcia scored on the next play to give the state’s top ranked team a 21-0 lead after the first quarter.
After a fourth consecutive three-and-out forced by Southern’s defense to start the game, Garcia extended the lead on a 26-yard jaunt. The other back in the Tigers three-headed monster backfield put the game into the Mercy Rule. Braeden Wisloski scored on a short one-yard plunge to make the score 35-0 with 6:47 remining in the half after a blocked punt by Derek Berlitz. With 1:26 left before halftime, Garcia took his final carry of the championship 76 yards for another touchdown. On the run that put the Tigers up 42-0, he passed Jay Drumheller (4,111 yards) to crack the top five. “Southern Columbia has one of the greatest programs in the country. Hats off to them because they do everything so well and it is why they always win,” said Mounties head coach Chris Eiswerth.
By that point, any other sports program in the school, the district, or the state for that matter, would have been calling the local fire departments to coordinate a parade to honor the champions, but not for a football program that has won more PIAA championships than any other school in the commonwealth. “We came into the season with the winning mentality of expecting to win a district title, and even with all the great players that we lost last year, that mentality hasn’t changed this year,” said SCA senior Tim Witcoskie. “The ultimate goal is to get our fire truck ride after our final game in Hershey and that’s what we are shooting for again.” The win for the Tigers marked a remarkable 28th district crown, all of which have been won in the last 30 years.
In the second half, Southern’s starting offense got one final series in Tiger Stadium for the year. Barnes finished it off with a 2-yard run to make the score 49-0 with 7:55 left in the third. The final series for the Tiger defense was another three-and-out. “If our defense continues to play at this high of a level, we will be in a good position going forward. Our kickoff coverage has been excellent too, so that gives the defense some momentum heading onto the field,” Roth said. Southern’s offense compiled a season-high of 436 rushing yards while the starting defense limited the Mounties to just two first downs and less than three yards per carry.
The Mounties starting unit was able to score twice in the final quarter against the Tigers reserve unit. Senior Zach Miller, who went over 1,000 yards rushing on the season, scored on runs of 8 and 5 yards over the final six minutes of the contest. “I am really proud of the way our team continued to fight all season to get back to the title game,” Eiswerth said. “With COVID forcing us to miss games and practices, getting over those hurdles will guide us going into next year.”
The only question mark for Southern Columbia remains the passing game, and that is something that Roth attributes to a couple of different factors. “We just haven’t been able to get anything clicking through the air this year so far, but we are confident that we can. At times we have missed some throws, and there have also been breakdowns in our pass blocking on occasions. This is Liam Klebon’s first year as a starter, so every rep helps and his confidence will continue to build hopefully,” said Roth. “With how strong our running game has been, and the leads we get on teams, we aren’t looking to throw the ball late in games.”
The 57th consecutive win for Southern, which is the second longest in the United States currently, sets up a matchup next week against District 6 champion Richland. The Tigers defeated the Rams last season in the PIAA Eastern Final giving the underdog a chance at revenge. “We knew in the offseason that there was a chance that we would meet up with them again,” said linebacker Wade Kerstetter. “They have a lot of starters back, so we need to be prepared and come out playing hard from the get-go.” The location of the game could be Mansion Park, which is a stadium in Altoona that a lot of die-hard Tiger fans are familiar with. It is the venue where Southern won their first of a now record 10 PIAA championships back in 1994.
Southern Columbia 49, South Williamsport 14
SW — SCA
First downs: 8 — 16
Rushes-yards: 32-155 — 30-436
Passing yards: 91 — 55
Total yards: 246 — 491
Passing (C-A-I): 8-14-2 — 3-7-1
Penalties: 2-15 — 7-55
Fumbles/lost: 3-1 — 1-1
SOUTH WILL (5-2): 0-0-0-14 — 14
SOUTHERN (9-0): 21-21-7-0 — 49
SC — Gavin Garcia, 40-yard run (Isaac Carter kick)
SC — Wes Barnes, 55-yard run (Isaac Carter kick)
SC — Gavin Garcia, 4-yard run (Isaac Carter kick)
SC — Gavin Garcia, 26-yard run (Isaac Carter kick)
SC — Braeden Wisloski, 1-yard run (Isaac Carter kick)
SC — Gavin Garcia, 76-yard run (Isaac Carter kick)
SC — Wes Barnes, 2-yard run (Isaac Carter kick)
SW — Zack Miller, 8-yard run (Isaac Carter kick)
SW — Zack Miller, 5-yard run (Isaac Carter kick)
RUSHING: SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT — Zack Miller 19-133, 2 TD’s; Lane Lusk 9-31; Clayton Swarthout 2-0; Landon Lorson 2-(-9). SOUTHERN — Gavin Garcia 6-171, 4 TD’s; Wes Barnes 6-122, 2 TD’s; Braeden Wisloski 3-19, TD; Liam Klebon 1-15; Connor Gallagher 5-61; Matt Masala 4-22; Brandon Gedman 1-18; Trevor Yorks 4-8.
PASSING: SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT — Landon Lorson 8-14-2, 91 yds. SOUTHERN — Liam Klebon 3-7-1, 55 yds.
RECEIVING: SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT — Grant Bachman 3-61; Chantz McCloskey 3-25; Zack Miller 1-4; Cam Greenaway 1-1. SOUTHERN — Wes Barnes 1-36; Jake Davis 1-15; Jake Toczylousky 1-4.
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