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Written by: Billy Splain on Monday, November 30th, 2020
This article is dedicated to the staff at the PIAA. Without their fortitude, strength, courage and fight it wouldn’t have been possible.
This feature is always done by one of my reporters, Phil Myers. However, this years edition will be done by me, Billy, because due to Covid restrictions this year we weren’t allowed to take many of our staff to Hershey. It’s understandable given the restrictions handed down by Tom Wolfe earlier in the week, a difficult position the PIAA was in. So I’ll do my best to honor my friend Phil and tell you about MY Hershey experience.
It was a quiet drive to my hotel on Thanksgiving night. This quiet drive gave me time to reflect on the season MANY said could happen. As I drove to Hershey I thought to myself “well, here we are on Thanksgiving night instead of two weeks later when the games were originally scheduled.” I truly wished that when I got to the stadium the next morning I would be greeted by throngs of friends, fans, and fellow high school football addicts but I knew that wasn’t going to happen. Undeterred, I refused to allow the circumstances to ruin my weekend of high school football championships.
an empty cookie tin
I knew the task at hand wasn’t going to be easy as it was just myself and our staff photographer, Jason, covering six games in two days. I thought how strange it was packing a lunch before I left my home for Hershey, but I had to do so because with the Covid restrictions there would be no complementary meals provided by the PIAA because we simply weren’t allowed to have a tent set up for people to gather in between games. I packed some chicken salad and bread to make sandwiches, sliced carrots sticks and celery and other snacks. The highlight of my packed launch was a tin of homemade chocolate chip cookies (yes, they were Hershey’s chips) from my wife. She knew we wouldn’t be able to have them there for us so she packed the tin to share with others, usually a highlight of the Hershey commissary tent. My friends left not a crumb.
So I woke up the next morning, headed off to the stadium and arrived by 9 am. I was greeted by PIAA Executive Director Bob Lombardi and we had a conversation about just how wonderful it was that we made it there, to Hershey, for the football championships, an event many said would never happen. I discussed a video that I had taken before I got to the stadium of the shopping outlets just around the corner packed with shoppers yet here we are in a stadium that holds 40,000 for concerts yet we were limited to just 750 people. Again we were playing our games and considered this a victory for all high school football.
The first game was expected to be an exciting game with the Rollers of Steelton-Highspire taking on Jeanette Jayhawks. There was no press box to be packed with media personnel so they had the stage set up with tables for members of the media to do their work during and in between games. We made the best of it and thankfully the weather cooperated with temperatures expected in the 50s and 60s both days.
the self dubbed “media rock stagebox”
Though not as many were there, it was still nice to meet up with many of my colleagues from around the state to discuss the season and upcoming games. Mike White from the Post Gazette, Eric and Ed from Pennlive, Paul Burdick from Maxpreps, Andy Kalista, Alex Cawley, Joe Garrison and many more throughout the weekend including a Hershey virgin, Chriss Masse from the Williamsport Sun Gazette, who was covering his first state title bout in his 21 years, the Jersey Shore/Thomas Jefferson bout on Saturday.
“Doc” Masse in Hershey for his first title game coverage
I couldn’t help but think of the people that weren’t there, friends and coaches that are always a part of the experience. Mike Farr, Head Coach of Schuylkill Haven is always there in the North endzone. Not this year. Ross Tucker wasn’t there to call the games for the first time in 11 years, tough for him not to call the game for his Wyomissing Spartans, a team he won a state title with in 2012. Also missing was a certain crew of referees from District one that always attend the games and many more.
But, the games were being played. That in itself was enough to keep me excited. As the Rollers and Jayhawks took the field for the 1A title game, I took my place on the sideline and went into “business mode”. The game itself played out somewhat how many of us thought it would, a battle between two exciting teams loaded with speed and talent. I say somewhat because while we expected an offensive explosion, it never materialized. Instead it was the defenses that provided the excitement, capped by not one but two pick sixes by the Rollers defense, the second was the game clincher for the 2020 1A Champion Steelton-Highspire Rollers.
It was here, after the first game, that I felt the tug of another memory that wouldn’t not develop as had in past years. Usually in between games Phil, Ed Weaver and I head over to the Parkside Lounge to talk football with friends. We usually meet up with a crew from the Bedford coaching staff and chat about everything high school football over wings, sandwiches, and more. No Stromboli soup for you! (insert sad emoji). So, off the the truck to fetch one of the premade chicken salad sandwiches and a pack of cheese crackers. Homemade iced tea from the wife instead of the usual Hershey’s hot chocolate that was usually waiting in a vat in the gathering area under the bleachers. It did the trick, and kept me from hunger while awaiting the second game.
Back to the self dubbed “Hershey MediaRock Stagebox” to prep for the second game, one between the Wyomissing Spartans and the Central Valley Warriors. We were all excited for this game, one between a team that could be called “rhino”, the Spartans, who just hammer that wing-t offense at you and a team of gazelles, CV, who had athletes that could outrun you on any given play. A glance at the stands just before kickoff reminded me that the crowds were small, however, during the game they didn’t sound small. It was nice to see the teams brought cheerleaders. Below the Warrior and Southern Columbia Cheerleaders.
The game itself was definitely worth the price of a streaming package, something many fans were forced to purchase if they didn’t have PCN on their cable package. Wyo stuck to their ground and pound game and the Warriors aired it out. The Spartans took a 14-7 lead at halftime, but to start the third Central Valley showed their quick strike ability and eventually pulled away for the 35-21 win to claim the schools first State Championship.
As night fell at Hersheypark Stadium, the weather continued to cooperate for the media and fans. Remember, we were relegated to working outdoors which could have been a disaster had there been rain, snow or high winds and cold, which isn’t uncommon for Thanksgiving weekend. As writers pounded away at their keyboards to get their stories out, I giggled to myself thinking how they were the “rock stars of media” right now on a stage that has seen many a true rock star pounding away at their instruments, though musical and not of the laptop form. Anyway….back to football. Talk turned to the final game of the night, a game between two foes that have seen this field many times. Cathedral Prep out of Erie facing Pine-Richland. With the Ramblers not having played a game in three weeks due to forfeits thanks to covid, many wondered if they’d be able to shake off the rust. Pine-Richland, however, was coming off a game in which they were surely still feeling the affects, a bruising contest with Governor Mifflin.
The first quarter showed signs of both as the score was 7-0, but when the second quarter started the rust began to show for Prep. The Rams pulled away while it took until their last drive of the second quarter for Prep to show signs of life. The halftime score was 21-7, but it wouldn’t stay that way long. PR used an 86 yard td toss from Cole Spencer to Eli Jochem and a stifling defense led by a tenacious Luke Miller to pull away from the Ramblers to win the 5A title handily, 48-7.
As the first night came to a close, a quick glance at the health doohickey on my phone told another story. This one of the feeling in my feet and legs. Because of restrictions, the media had to stay outside the 20 yard line. This meant a lot of traveling on the sidelines for those of us determined bring the fans the best coverage we could. 9.9 miles it told me. No matter, it was worth it. I packed up my gear on the stage, sent off the interviews to my writer who was covering from home, Nate Grella…..oh yeah… more on that in a few. Then I headed back to my hotel room to lay in bed and try to sleep, but I knew the anticipation of the day to come would keep me awake. Goodnight for now Hersheypark Stadium, see you in the morning.
good night Hershey, see you in the morning
Because of the limited staff restrictions, I couldn’t bring the many staff members I’d planned to bring. We usually cover and someone writes the story there at Hershey after the game. I had to break it to my staff last week that we needed a new plan. They were all very disappointed but understanding. Shane and Bruce Lux were all set to cover their first Hershey games. But, we did the best we could. I covered the video portions, Jason sent them photos, they followed along on tv or streaming video and the PIAA provided live stats for them to cover the game. So, a shout out to Greg Ricupero https://twitter.com/GregoryRicupero Tristen Klinefelter https://twitter.com/pfntristan Phil Myers https://twitter.com/Protime_PFN Shane Lux @PFN_Luxy Nate Grella @NathanGrella and TC Jones @tcjones2007 for being understanding and also being team players. Their coverage of the games can be found in our gameday hub located HERE
The calm before the storm, it was a beautiful Saturday morning to begin the second round of title games.
The next morning I arrived back at the stadium with anticipation as the first game was special to me. Being from Berwick, I’m quite familiar with the Southern Columbia program, a program that has just been shattering records. Today, Jim Roth was in position to reach the pinnacle of coaching. He entered the stadium tied with Berwick coaching legend George Curry, my childhood neighbor, for career wins at 455. For Wilmington, they had what head coach Brandon Phillian described as their best shot at finally taming the Tigers. And for a while, it looked like they had a chance. The Hounds pulled within 7 with just a little over four minutes remaining in the third quarter, but the talented and speedy Gavin Garcia took off on a 76 yard streak down the sidelines to give the Tigers a 2 score lead. They never looked back scoring two more times on their way to a record 11th state title, giving coach Roth the win he needed to surpass the legend and become the states all time winningest high school football head coach. After the game the Tiger players had some fun poking at the way NFL players leave their games in some “high end” attire.
With game 4 of the weekend in the books, I head back to the “stagebox” to prepare to chow down on yet another chicken salad sandwich, however, a Wilmington representative who was serving the band and cheerleaders from a pile of boxes of pizza that was delivered to them “saved” me from that fate! They offered up a couple of the extra boxes to the media on stage. I’m going to say THANKS to that person, I never got your name. As I enjoyed the pizza, I stood there just amazed at the loyalty those people had. They left Mercer county in the wee hours of the morning, watched their team play and were heading back home. A looong day for them. High School Football Fans are amazing!!
The time for game five came quickly. Another first. The Jersey Shore Bulldogs and coach Tommy Gravish were making their first appearance in a state title game. Their task was tall, taking on the defending champs, the Thomas Jefferson Jaquars, a much larger in all aspects team. The game itself played out that way to start. The much larger Jags controlled the Bulldogs offense, not allowing them many yards. As a matter of fact, on the game they held Jersey Shore to negative 66 yards on the ground. However, the yards didn’t come easily for the defending champs either. The Jersey Shore defense was also ferocious, hounding the TJ quarterback all night. That negative 66 yards might sound like it was a blowout, but this game actually had the most exciting finish of the weekend. Trailing 14-0 late in the third quarter, Dalton Dugan snagged a TJ pass and raced 48 yards to give the Bulldogs their first score. TJ responded when they recovered an errant snap to take a 21-7 lead with just under six minutes to play, then got what appeared to be a game ending interception. But the Bulldogs mounted a furious comeback. Getting the ball back with 1:23 left to play, they scored a td with just 34 seconds to play, then recovered the onside kick. Wheary completed a pass inside the 20 of TJ, but on fourth down his pass attempt for the game tying td was batted at the line and TJ escaped with another title. Jags head coach Bill Cherpak looked gassed after the game. “Man, that’s a tough tough team” he said of the Bulldogs. What an exciting, heart stopping game!!!
With five games in the books and on my feet, the bittersweet moment was approaching. The last game of the year. I looked forward this one just as much as I had the previous five, but knew the year was coming to a close. The final game of the weekend was loaded with talent. A future Ohio State qb (Kyle McCord) versus a future Penn State qb (Beau Pribula) and many more would be on the field as St Josephs Prep and Central York, making their first title game appearance, were set to fight it out for the 6A title. The game itself turned out to be anti climactic as the Hawks dominated the Panthers in every phase of the game on their way to yet another State title, winning easily by a score of 62-13.
As I wrapped up the weekend standing on the stagebox, I thought back to that day in Harrisburg. A day full of fans, senators, players and many others who stood to fight against a proclamation made by the Governor. “LET THEM PLAY” was the battle cry. “We shouldn’t be playing high school sports until January 1st” he said just days before. “It’s not safe” said the governor is a shock statement that took everyone by surprise. Well, as the season came to a close I felt a glow of pride in my heart. He was wrong. We made it through an entire fall sports season, with championships! Nearly all teams finished their shortened schedules. Some missed a few, a group of them started late, District 11 and a few District 1 leagues skipped the playoffs in lieu of their own, but “we did it, we made it happen” said Lombardi at halftime of the last game. I drove home Saturday night with sore legs, feet that traveled 18 miles on a 120 yard field according to my phone doohickey and reflected on the weekend, trying to put to memory much of what I just typed.
Goodbye Hershey, see you in 2021!!!!! Pic thanks to Alex Cawley
I want to give a HUGE shout out to the leaders at the PIAA. They fought for the kids and programs like never before. They were like the underdogs of a championship match, taking blindside hit after blindside hit from the governors office. But they kept fighting, kept countering and this website owner has declared the PIAA the winners. Thanks to their fight, I was able to write a recap of the weekend that was, the Hershey Experience 2020.
A special thanks to the greatest team in high school football, my staff. It was a difficult year. The struggle to get into games to cover them was difficult, but you were patient and persevered, bringing Pennsylvania high school football fans, the players and the programs the best coverage anyone could ask for. I look forward to working with you all again, the photographers, writers and interns that make up PAFootballNews.com. SEE YOU ALL IN 2021!!
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