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Written by: Dave Fegley on Monday, November 30th, 2020
In Southern Columbia’s 60th straight victory, and the 456th of Jim Roth’s career, the Tigers showed their big-play capability on the biggest stage against Wilmington in the PIAA Class 2A State Championship. Gavin Garcia scored the game’s first touchdown of the afternoon on a one-yard plunge, and then the Tigers rolled off a quartet of touchdowns on plays of 65, 89, 74, and 79 yards. Wes Barnes, who sprained his ankle in the first quarter, scored the final touchdown on a two-yard run.
With the 42-14 win, Roth became the winningest coach in the history of Pennsylvania. It was also the third time in the past four years that SCA defeated Wilmington in Hershey. “The guys on this team just wouldn’t let the loss of all the talent from last year’s team affect the way that they played. I would be lying if I didn’t say that I had my doubts about how the new players would come in and respond this year, but they earned it,” said Roth. “I can’t say that any state title is any more special than one of the other ones, but this one showed what a team can do when they have a chip on their shoulder.”
For the second week in a row, Garcia set a new career high for rushing yards with 217. “It’s amazing to go out with a bang for this season,” said the junior. “I wouldn’t have wanted it to end any other way than with another state title. I am happy that the new senior starters took advantage of the opportunity that they were given after all the players we lost to graduation.” Garcia’s four touchdown performance followed in the footsteps of his older brother Gaige who scored five times in the Tigers 2018 matchup against the Greyhounds.
The one part of Southern’s arsenal that was a work in progress all season was the passing game, but it came alive in the season finale. Liam Klebon wasn’t asked to throw the football often because of the effectiveness of the three running backs in Roth’s running scheme. “With the limited amount of times we threw the ball this season because of the starters being on the sidelines when we were comfortably ahead in games, it took time to get the passing game to work. Each game you saw Liam getting more settled into his new role, and this was his best performance,” Roth said.
Against the Greyhounds, Klebon topped the 100-yard passing mark for the first time of the season. The first-year starter threw for a career-high 177 yards and two touchdowns while completing all four of his attempts. The first pass was a 65-yard screen pass to Garcia that went the distance to make the score 14-0 following Garcia’s first rushing touchdown. “Things didn’t always go the way that I wanted earlier in the season. I didn’t have confidence in myself at times, but I knew I was capable of getting it together and was happy to have a good game to help the team win a state championship,” said Klebon.
Andy Mills, who has been the defensive coordinator during Roth’s entire tenure, saw his defense come up with a fourth down stop on the following drive. However, Wilmington’s defense came up with a fumble recovery on the next play which led to a Darren Miller touchdown run of 11 yards on the very next play to cut the lead to 14-7 with 11:44 left in the first half. “Our guys gave it their all and I couldn’t be prouder of the seniors on our team. We had a good week of practice and the guys didn’t quit,” said Wilmington’s third-year coach Brandon Phillian.
Garcia, or as fans all over the state now know him as ‘Gar-CYA’, scored for a third time in the second quarter. After a penalty put the Tigers in a 2nd and long situation, the state’s all-time leader in yards per carry broke off an 89-yard run with 3:22 remaining. With the score now 21-7, the Greyhounds picked up two first downs before intermission, but the Tigers didn’t allow them to cut into their deficit before halftime. “Our defensive line had a tough task as most of them were giving up about 100 pounds from the guys across from them. Wilmington had some sustained drives, but our guys didn’t allow them to ultimately capitalize on a lot of them,” Roth said.
Wilmington got the ball to start the second half, and they used up over seven minutes of the quarter before scoring to cut Southern’s lead in half at 21-14. With 4:13 remaining in the quarter, Caelan Bender completed a 17-yard touchdown pass on a fourth down play. The receiver, Mason Reed, appeared to blatantly push off a Tiger defensive back before corralling the football, but the ref never threw a flag. “That touchdown got our guys pumped up, but give Southern credit for not losing their composure. They have a great coaching staff and responded in a way that a champion does,” Phillian said.
The Tigers first drive of the second half resulted in Garcia’s most memorable play of the season. Faced with a 3rd down and 4, deep inside their own territory, the magician pulled out another one of his magic tricks on an 89-yard run. “You never know what he is going to do next,” said Roth about his halfback who also had 98 yards receiving. “He can score a touchdown from anywhere on the field and has done it just about every way possible throughout his career.”
The junior didn’t go to his trademark sideline to sideline, with some spins and jukes in between, for this march to pay dirt. Instead, the lock for Player of the Year raced down the SCA sidelines and stayed in bounds like a tight-rope artist for the final fifteen yards as a Greyhound safety tried pushing him out of bounds. After Isaac Carter’s PAT, Southern took a 28-14 lead with 3:22 remaining in the third quarter. “I did everything that I could to stay in bounds. Thankfully, I was able to keep my balance,” Garcia said when asked about his final touchdown of the season.
After forcing a turnover on downs, thanks to an open-field tackle and pass breakup on back-to-back plays by linebacker Jake Rose, the Tigers called the fat lady out of Chocolate World to sing. Klebon threw his best pass of the season to senior Jake Davis who took a perfectly placed ball 79 yards to pay dirt early in the fourth quarter making the score 35-14. “I saw when the defender lined up against Jake that he was taking away the inside,” said Klebon. “I made sure to put the ball on the outside where only Jake could catch it.”
After forcing another turnover on downs, Barnes scored the final touchdown on a run of two yards to give the champs a 42-14 lead with 3:49 left to play. “You just couldn’t have imagined this season to have gone any better. There is no better feeling in the world. All of these guys on our team wanted to win this so badly to prove that we could do it even after losing all of the talent that we had last year,” said an emotional Braden Heim following the trophy presentation. In addition to playing defensive tackle, the senior filled in during Barnes’ injury at fullback.
The win for the Tigers was their 11th PIAA title, which is five more than any other school in state history. “We knew that it was going to take a team-effort to beat this team. We were also motivated to keep our undefeated season,” said Rose. It was also Southern’s 19th trip to a PIAA championship game, which is ten more than the next closest program. Additionally, Roth’s squad became the second school in PIAA history to win 60 games in a row. They are seven wins away to start next season from taking over the top spot and currently have the second longest winning streak in the nation.
For the final play of the game, Southern sent out just ten players on offense to take a final kneel. The gesture was in honor of Keegan Shultz who took his own life in March of 2019. Shultz would have been a senior this season. The Tigers gave his family the game ball after the final seconds ticked off the clock. “That was entirely organized and planned by the players earlier in the week. It was a fitting way to end the season and I am happy for our seniors,” said Roth. “”It was a strange season with everything that has went on with COVID-19. I can’t say enough about this team as a whole after losing all those guys after last season. To work the way that they did to get back and play at this level has been unbelievable.”
Southern Columbia 42, Wilmington 14
First downs 16 12
Rushes-yards 57-235 30-288
Passing yards 17 177
Total yards 252 465
Passing (C-A-I) 1-4-0 4-4-0
Penalties 0-0 7-55
Fumbles/lost 1-0 2-1
WILMINGTON (11-1): 0 – 7 – 7 – 0 — 14
SOUTHERN (12-0): 14 – 7 – 7 – 14 — 42
SC – Gavin Garcia, 1-yard run (Isaac Carter kick)
SC – Gavin Garcia, 65-yard pass from Liam Klebon (Isaac Carter kick)
W – Darren Miller, 12-yard run (Daniel Hartwell kick)
SC – Gavin Garcia, 89-yard run (Isaac Carter kick)
W – Mason Reed, 17-yard pass from Caelan Bender (Daniel Hartwell kick)
SC – Gavin Garcia, 74-yard run (Isaac Carter kick)
SC – Jake Davis, 79-yard pass from Liam Klebon (Isaac Carter kick)
SC – Wes Barnes, 2-yard run (Isaac Carter kick)
RUSHING: WILMINGTON — Ethan Susen 25-136; Darren Miller 17-66, TD; Caelan Bender 15-33. SOUTHERN — Gavin Garcia 13-217, 3 TD’s; Braeden Wisloski 5-52; Barnes 7-12, TD; Braden Heim 2-11; Trevor Yorks 1-1; Logan Potter 1-(-1); Klebon 1-(-4).
PASSING: WILMINGTON — Caelan Bender 1-4-0, 17 yds, TD. SOUTHERN — Liam Klebon 4-4-0, 177 yds, 2 TD’s.
RECEIVING: WILMINGTON — Mason Reed 1-17, TD. SOUTHERN — Gavin Garcia 3-98, TD; Jake Davis 1-79, TD.
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