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Written by: Dave Fegley on Friday, December 4th, 2020
Jim Roth watched the final seconds tick off the Hersheypark Stadium scoreboard last Saturday as droplets ran off his hat and jacket. It was the 11th time that the veteran coach of Southern Columbia was dowsed with a state championship bath, but this was the most historic. He stood soaked and was able to soak in the fact that he was now the winningest coach in the history of Pennsylvania football. “It says a lot about the program and the longevity of not just yourself as the head coach, but your assistants as well,” said the new king of wins. “I have a lot of assistants that have been with me for many, many years and the kids have kept the tradition.”
He has officially moved ahead of former Berwick legend George Curry who passed away in 2016. Curry finished his career with 455 wins. “I got to become closer friends with George later in his career and I respected the heck out of him,” said Roth. “I learned a lot from him, not necessarily the x’s and o’s of the game, but how to run a successful program when dealing with young athletes. Just to be in this category with him is very humbling.”
Andy Mills has been the defensive coordinator for Roth since the first year in 1984. In addition, to all the winning in the state playoffs, their dominance in District 4 is sometimes overlooked. The Tigers have captured 28 of the past 30 district crowns. Being the head coach, the final decisions on offense, defense, and special teams’ rests with Jim. Throughout the week in practice, we run our opponents plays against all the defenses we have in our system. Based on our practice, as a staff we can see and discuss what we feel would put the players in the best position to be successful,” Mills said. “So, based on that, during the game I have a pretty good idea of what we’re going to do. Obviously during the game, if there are any things we need to do differently or stress, Jim will let me know.” Mike Johnston, John Marks, and Al Cihocki are three additional coaches that have been with Roth for an average of nearly three decades as well.
After losing all but two starters on both sides of the ball from last year’s record-setting championship squad, the Tigers won their fourth consecutive PIAA Class 2A Championship with a 42-14 win over Wilmington. It was the fifth state title in the past six years, and the third in the past four years over the Greyhounds. The Greyhounds are the first opponent that the Tigers have defeated three times in the state final. Rochester, who the Tigers had a rivalry going with around the turn of the century, is the other opponent that Roth’s program has defeated twice to win the Pennsylvania gold. “We have a community that really backs the program with families that are very supportive to allow these student-athletes to do what they need to do to be successful year-in and year-out,” said Roth.
It was only fitting that Roth’s 456th win came inside the stadium that he has coached in more than anyone else. Southern has played in a record 19 PIAA championship games, and 16 of them have been hosted inside of Hersheypark Stadium. The first three times that his Tigers made it to the final, the games were played at Mansion Park in Altoona including their first gold in 1994. The following ten of Southern Columbia’s 11 PIAA Championships, which are the most in the Keystone State’s history, have been won in Chocolate Town.
Before Roth got to Southern, things weren’t running as smoothly as you would think. In fact, less than a decade prior to his arrival, the Tigers had a streak of 27 consecutive losses. Fast-forward to the present day, and the Tigers will head into next season riding a 60-game winning streak. The current streak that SCA is on is the second longest in the state’s history and currently the second longest in the United States of America.
Southern Columbia’s dominant offense has drawn most of the spotlight over the years, and it is obvious as to why. Last year, Julian Fleming and Gaige Garcia became the state’s all-time leaders in receiving and rushing touchdowns, respectively. Garcia also broke the record for most total touchdowns in a career, and Fleming has Pennsylvania’s record for career receiving yards. Rewind to the Tigers streak of five state titles in a row from 2002-2006, and Henry Hynoski was at the top of the list of the best fullbacks to come through the Keystone State. Plenty of other guys like Ricco Rosini became household names across the commonwealth during their time as Tigers. However, the saying goes that defense wins championships.
To get that defense playing at a championship level, with Mills calling the plays, Roth and company spend hours upon hours watching film and critiquing. They dissect everything in all facets of the game from an offensive guard pulling at a better angle, to a linebacker taking the correct drop-step on a pass, to fundamental tackling on a kickoff. “As you know, it’s been our philosophy at Southern to have as many one-way players as possible. I think that after we lost to Steel Valley in 2016, as a unit we had some really good players that had more of a defensive mindset. This began with some of the players from 2017 to this current team,” said Mills. “In 2015, we tweaked our defense and started to run some defenses that we ran in the 90’s. We simplified things which resulted in playing faster and more aggressive as a unit. I think this went a long way in changing the mindset of the defense.”
Roth hasn’t allowed this historical achievement overlook what his team has accomplished, and he has made sure to thank those that have supported him including Curry’s immediate family. “I really appreciated George’s family reaching out to me recently to offer their congratulations. Lastly, I want to add how impressed I was with how much he did for high school football around the state. That went unnoticed to some people because of how fierce of a competitor he was on a game day, but once the game was over he’d doing anything for any high school coach or program,” said Southern’s 37-year head coach.
Although Southern will replace some valuable pieces on both sides of the ball this year because of graduation, the impact doesn’t appear to be as drastic as what they lost a year ago. “I am happy to enjoy this record for a little bit for our program, but it isn’t something that I will really think about,” Roth said. “I will have more time to reflect on my coaching career when I retire. Until then, the priority will continue to be consistency.” Sorry to the rest of Class 2A, but Southern Columbia will head into the 2021 season, barring any unfortunate injuries (knock on wood), as the favorites to become Pennsylvania’s only football program with a dozen state titles. Who knows, they might find another record to set along the way.
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