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Written by: Dave Fegley on Friday, December 3rd, 2021
It was the third consecutive season that Southern Columbia and Richland battled it out in the PIAA Class 2A playoffs, and it was the third straight time that the Tigers beat the Rams.
In 2019, Southern’s once-in-a-lifetime team handled Richland at Selinsgrove. Last year, the Tigers pulled away in the second half at Mansion Park in Altoona. On Friday night, Southern got the chance to play a rare home state playoff game, and they dominated their opponent, scoring 41-unanswered points, on their way to a 62-20 victory.
“Coming in, the focus was trying to keep their offense from making big plays through the air. They had all of their receivers back along with their quarterback,” Southern head coach Jim Roth said. “I have to give our defense credit from keeping them from converting on any long passes. We were able to score offensively, and our defense played very well.”
Just 20 seconds in, Southern senior Gavin Garcia raced 57 yards to put the Tigers in front 7-0. On the ensuing kickoff, Richland’s Griffin Larue fumbled the ball forward and it squirted out of bounds near midfield keeping the possession with the Rams.
Kellan Stahl finished off an 8-play, 52-yard drive as the senior quarterback carried it in from four yards out to tie the game.
Stahl would add a second touchdown on a one-yard keeper with less than a minute remaining in the first half, but before that point the four-time defending PIAA Class 2A champions scored 41 unanswered points to give the Tigers a commanding 48-14 advantage at the break.
“Things just kind of snowballed against us. I am proud of our team for having another great year, but we couldn’t find ways to stop their offense,” said Richland head coach Brandon Bailey. “This wasn’t the way we wanted the season to end, but you have to give Southern the credit. They were the better team in this game.”
Garcia gave Southern the lead for good with 5:29 left in the first quarter when the halfback split two tackle attempts and dashed 17 yards.
With less than a minute still left in the opening quarter, the Tigers tacked on two more touchdowns. After senior Connor Gallagher intercepted Stahl, junior Wes Barnes finished off a drive from two yards out to make the score 21-7.
On the ensuing kickoff, Larue fumbled again. This time Gallagher was in position to recover the football. On the very next play, sophomore Blake Wise found Garcia in the back right corner of the end zone. That 25-yard strike with 36 seconds left in the first, gave Southern a 28-7 lead.
“To be able to do what we did tonight against a very good team, I think it opened our eyes even more to show us just how dominant we can be when we play well as a team. Jumping out to that big lead gave us the momentum and we just kept at it,” said Garcia.
Early in the second quarter, the Tigers would once again score twice in less than a minute. Garcia added to his career touchdown total, after moving into second all-time in state history last week, with a 26-yard scamper to extend the lead to 35-7 with 9:24 remaining in the half.
Just 48 seconds later, his brother, sophomore Garrett Garcia, recovered a Stahl fumble and returned it seven yards to make it a 41-7 score.
After the Tiger defense forced a three-and-out, senior Jake Rose returned a punt deep into Richland territory. From there, Gavin Garcia showed his best Barry Sanders impression, as the illusionist juked three tackle attempts, scoring from 11 yards out to give Southern a 48-7 lead against a Ram team that was ranked No.1 in the MaxPreps state rankings coming in.
“We were kind of surprised with just how well it played out. It was an amazing game for us. From offense to defense, and even special teams, I don’t think we cold have had a better performance,” senior center Gabe Leffler said.
With 4:19 remaining in the third, Gavin Garcia put the game into the Mercy Rule on a five-yard plunge to make the margin 55-14 as the Kent State recruit capped off his six-touchdown performance.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, junior Braeden Wisloski finished off his impressive night with a 56-yard dash down the Southern sidelines to make the score 62-14 and allow the Tiger starters to enjoy the rest of the game from the sidelines on Jim Roth Field.
Gavin Garcia finished with 210 rushing yards, and is now up to 138 career touchdowns, trailing just his older brother Gaige (159) in Keystone State history. Wisloski added 161 rushing yards of his own as the Tigers finished with nearly 500 yards of offense.
I’ve never seen better holes than what I had tonight. The offensive line played out of their minds. They came out ready to play and they pushed kids around like nothing,” said Wisloski.
Southern will now take on Northern Lehigh, a 48-24 winner over West Catholic, in the Class 2A Eastern Final.
“We don’t know anything about them at this point, but to make it this far, they have to be a quality team. We can enjoy this win, and we will get back to work as the players definitely seem to be playing there best football at the right time in the season,” said Roth.
The semifinal matchup against the Bulldogs will be held in Lehighton. The Tiger coaching staff is familiar with that venue after beating an ultra-talented Neumann-Goretti squad in the stadium during the 2017 postseason. Ironically, there was a connection that made national news for an accomplishment between a former Tiger and Saint linebacker earlier this week.
For more information on an article featuring SCA grad Cal Haladay, read below the box score in this article.
Richland (11-3) 7 – 7 – 0 – 6 — 20
Southern Columbia (12-1) 28 – 20 – 7 – 7 — 62
S — Gavin Garcia 57 run (Issac Carter kick), 11:40
R — Kellan Stahl 4 run (Noah Ritko kick), 7:41
S — Gav. Garcia 17 run (Carter kick), 5:29
S — Wes Barnes 2 run (Carter kick), 0:54
S — Gav. Garcia 25 pass from Blake Wise (Carter kick), 0:36
S — Gav. Garcia 26 run (Carter kick), 9:24
S — Garrett Garcia 7 fumble return (no attempt), 8:36
S — Gav. Garcia 11 run (Carter kick), 4:08
R — Stahl 1 run (Ritko kick), 0:34
S — Gav. Garcia 5 run (Carter kick), 4:19
S — Braeden Wisloski 56 run (Carter kick), 11:48
R — Lanigan McCulty 5 run (conversion failed), 4:20
RHD — SCA
First downs: 19 – 21
Rushing-yds: 29-125 – 33-427
Passing: 16-34-1 – 3-4-0
Passing yds: 186 – 56
Total yds: 311 – 483
Fumbles-lost: 5-2 – 1-0
Penalties-yds: 1-5 – 5-31
RUSHING: Southern — Gavin Garcia, 12-210, 5 TD’s; Braeden Wisloski, 12-161, TD; Wes Barnes, 8-53, TD; Trevor Yorks 1-3. Richland — Kellan Stahl 11-39, 2 TD’s; Sam Penna 3-36; Easton Robertson 4-22; Grayden Lewis 9-20; Lanigan McCulty 1-5, TD; Draveyn Plachy 1-3.
PASSING: Southern — Blake Wise 3-4-0, 56 yds, TD. Richland — Kellan Stahl 14-27-1, 163 yds; Sam Penna 2-7-0, 23 yds.
RECEIVING: Southern — Gavin Garcia 2-43, TD; Wes Barnes 1-13. Richland — Griffin Larue 8-98; Sam Penna 3-31; Demont Johnson 2-26; Luke Feichtel 2-23; Grayden Lewis 1-8.
There have been some astonishing players that have put on the pads and helmet for Southern Columbia’s football team on defense. As the saying goes, “Offense wins games, but defense wins championships,” and the Tigers have won more championships than any other program across the commonwealth.
Trying to narrow it down to pick the top defensive player of all-time for a program that has become the standard of winning at the highest level, is as tough as trying to break a diamond with a bare hand.
However, one name that will forever be on the Mount Rushmore on the defensive side of the ball for the small school located in Columbia County is Cal Haladay. He finished his career with the most tackles in Tiger history with 474, and his 18.5 sacks rank in the top five for the program.
“Cal was such a productive player for our program over his four years as a starter on our defense,” said Haladay’s high school head coach Jim Roth. “From the time he stepped on the field as a freshman, he had those rare attributes that most people don’t have. He constantly made plays all over the field.”
In fact, the former Tiger middle linebacker along with offensive teammates Julian Fleming and Gaige Garcia became the first players in Pennsylvania high school football history to garner A.P. All-State honors for all four of their high school seasons.
Being the only individuals to ever do something in a sport that dates back two centuries is obviously rare enough, but when the trio all completed the feat in 2019 for the same program, it was about as rare as a person finding out they won the Mega Millions or Powerball at the same second of getting struck by lightning.
Additionally, Preston Zachman and Max Tillett rounded out the quintuplet of former Tigers to go on to play Division 1 football.
All five are on scholarships, and with last season not counting as a year toward eligibility, they were considered freshmen in this 2021 campaign.
“The extra year allowed me to gain confidence in myself and better understand the defense. It also gave me time to gain weight and strength,” Haladay said. “I always want the best for my former teammates and close friends. We are forever Tigers at heart. I know that they are putting in the required work to do big things in the near future.”
Fleming is in a deep and talented rotation at wide receiver for an Ohio State program full of future NFL players. Garcia, who is playing football and wrestling, transferred from Michigan to Lehigh and had to have season-ending surgery a couple of months ago. Zachman has been dealing with injuries in Wisconsin’s program limiting his participation. Tillett is working in at New Hampshire as primarily a special teams contributor while seeing some time on defense.
Awarded in America
Haladay earned the starting role at linebacker for Michigan State in the preseason, and he has been arguably the Spartans best defensive player on the year.
For his success, Haladay was given a prestigious honor earlier this week as he was selected to the 2021 Maxwell Freshman All-American Team that consists of only 22 players in the United States from the 130 programs at the FBS level.
He was one of just three linebackers chosen throughout the country along with another Big Ten selection from Michigan’s Junior Colson. Arizona State’s Eric Gentry, who Haladay faced in high school while Gentry played for Neumann-Goretti, was the third member.
“I was in shock when I found out and couldn’t believe it. I actually texted someone to see if it was true,” said Haladay.
After going 2-5 in last year’s pandemic shortened season, the Spartans have been one of the surprise team in the country this year.
After beating Penn State in a snowstorm this past Saturday, Michigan State closed out the regular season 10-2 and is hoping to get picked for a New Year’s Six bowl to cap off the resurgent season.
Against the Nittany Lions, Haladay led the team with 11 tackles and a forced fumble in East Lansing to close out the regular season third for the Spartans with 85 total tackles.
“For a freshman, Cal has looked like a seasoned veteran from the start. He may be a little undersized for a prototypical linebacker in our conference, but he has a knack for finding the football and making plays. He will continue to put on muscle and get even better. Heart is more important than size, and he has the heart of a winner,” Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker said.
Message From Magic
In the Spartans Homecoming win over Western Kentucky, the freshman forced a fumble and recovered it to set up a touchdown run by Heisman Trophy candidate Kenneth Walker III.
Earlier in the Big Ten slate, the former Tiger returned an interception for a touchdown in a road victory over Indiana. Haladay jumped a route to pick off Indiana’s Jack Tuttle and returned it 30 yards for the team’s first score in helping Michigan State win 20-15.
Following the win over the Hoosiers, NBA Hall of Famer Earvin “Magic” Johnson praised Haladay on Twitter for his outstanding production at that point on the season and in particular his pick six to get things started for the Spartans.
“It was awesome to get recognition from a Michigan State legend. He is supportive of all of our programs and anytime you get a shoutout like that, it makes you feel good for sure,” said Haladay.
Known By Nicknames
The farm boy has become a crowd favorite throughout East Lansing due to his throwback style of play. Prior to breaking his hand in a win over rival Michigan, forcing him to wear a lime green club on his hand to close out the season, it was still easy to find Haladay on the field.
He was the lone Spartan on defense that didn’t wear any accessories. No gloves, no pads, no tape, no sleeves, no nothing.
“The players have called him the ‘The Body Man’ since the beginning of camp. He is an old-school type of player and has been very good for our team this season,” said Tucker who was named the Big Ten Coach of the Year on Tuesday. “He doesn’t wear anything other than what he needs to. Most guys have tape or something, but he is just one of those cats that makes plays and wants to win football games.”
Being highly ranked, Michigan State was featured on a lot of nationally televised games and Haladay earned other nicknames. None have stuck more than Gus Johnson’s call on Fox Sports against Michigan when he called him ‘John Wick’ and ‘The Boogeyman’ in the same call after a bone-crushing tackle.
The Spartans were in the College Football Playoff picture a couple of weeks ago, but Ohio State handled them in Columbus by a margin of 56-7 while his high school teammate scored his first career touchdown for the Buckeyes.
Fleming, who is behind All–Big Ten first team wide receiver Chris Olave on the depth chart, caught a four-yard touchdown pass for the Buckeyes in Columbus. Haladay wasn’t covering his former teammate, but he was on the gridiron during the play.
“After the game I got the chance to talk to Julz (Julian Fleming) and just caught up with him a little bit. I didn’t even think to congratulate him at the time for his score because of the result of the game,” Haladay said.
Like they have done all season, the members of Southern’s high school coaching staff were able to watch their former stars on the biggest stage on television.
“It is definitely a neat thing to see your former players making an impact at the next level. Seeing them on television being talked about in front of a national audience makes you smile and makes everyone at Southern proud,” said Haladay’s former defensive coordinator Andy Mills. “Cal has an outstanding work ethic, plus he studies the game by watching hours of film. His motor never stops, and he’s relentless as a defender.”
Big Ten and Bowls
Haladay was also one of just a couple of freshmen selected by the conference’s coaches on the All-Big Ten Team where he received honorable mention status at linebacker on Tuesday.
As the season comes to an end, expect more accolades to pop up for the hidden gem that has made himself a household name throughout the country.
“Not having a lot of players that get the opportunity to play at the highest level of college in the past because we are a small school, you’re not really sure how things will pan out at a big-time program like that,” Roth said. “However, just the way he played for us and his whole demeanor as a high school player, I certainly thought that if he got enough size and physically to where he needed to be, Cal would have an opportunity to play and be very productive.”
Many early predictors have Michigan State playing on New Year’s Day in Glendale, Arizona for the Fiesta Bowl. Official announcements will be made after this upcoming weekend’s slate of conference championship games.
“Finishing with a win would be great for the team and would definitely cap off a great season,” said Haladay. “This game also may allow other players to get some experience which can prepare us better for the next year since we have a lot of guys graduating.”
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