Montgomery finds itself as one of two area high school football teams left

DANIELLE FIORINI/For The Sun-Gazette Ashton Martin, A.J. Flick, Gideon Green and South Williamsport finished 9-2.

From the outside, Montgomery sure feels like it has created quite a Cinderella story.

The Red Raiders went 2-8 last year and snapped an 18-game losing streak halfway through the season. Montgomery had no playoff wins or winning seasons since 2000. It had not reached the postseason since 2009 and never won more than two games since that same year. But there Montgomery will be Friday night against Wyalusing, hosting the District 4 Class A championship. The Raiders (6-5) earned their first playoff win since 2000, thumping Bucktail, 47-6 in last Friday’s semifinals and now have a shot at capturing the program’s first district title.

This has fairy tale written all over it. The problem with saying that is Montgomery does not believe it. The Raiders may be surprising everyone else but they are not surprising themselves. This is right where they expected to be.

Coach Paul Bozella, his staff and the players have completely changed the Montgomery football culture. That is as impressive as this championship run. The Raiders no longer wait for things to go wrong, but create their own destiny. They fight back, they battle and they believe. It is one thing to say all it, another thing to do it and that is the key threshold Montgomery has crossed.

The Raiders will finish with a .500 or better record for the first time since 2000. They have won their last two games and made quick work of a determined Bucktail team. The offensive line was outstanding, the defense dominated and the special teams made a big impact. Everything came together and everyone did their part. This is a true team and it is captivating a community that for so long has thirsted for a football winner.

Those outsiders that think this is a Cinderella story are the same ones who wrote off Montgomery before the season started. They are the same ones who laughed at Montgomery in the past. Now the Raiders are getting the last laugh and Friday will get to experience the kind of game that serves as a reward for all the hard work put in making this transformation possible.

Believe that.

THE GENERAL: Montgomery quarterback Brayden Strouse played an outstanding game against Bucktail, completing 8 of 12 passes for a season-high 184 yards and two touchdowns, while also running for a score. Strouse became Montgomery’s first 1,000-yard passer since 2012 and his nine touchdown passes are the most by a Raider signal caller this decade.

What Strouse provides, though, goes far beyond numbers. The third-year starter has settled in as a team leader and exudes confidence. He has worked and improved each season while keeping defenses off-balance. He also has grown smarter and and has played some of his best football late this season.

“Brayden as a quarterback has matured so much over the last year. Last year he was tentative, he’d get a little bit more nervous at line of scrimmage. Now he’s complete leader for our team,” Bozella said. “A lot of times when he audibles, he’s marched our team down the field. He works on his play fakes and his touch passes and that’s a credit to his quarterback coach, Coach Thomas, with what he’s done with him over the last year. Brayden’s a true leader on that offensive front.”

TEAM EFFORT: Seemingly everything that could go wrong, did go wrong for Loyalsock in its Class AAA semifinal against Lewisburg. It was bad enough that the Lancers trailed 24-7, but when standout wide receiver Gerald Ross was injured on the first-half’s final play, their victory chances appeared dim. Double that when stalwart defensive lineman Geno Ginobile was injured early in the third quarter.

Instead of crumbling, Loyalsock came together and played one of its best halves all season. The next man up shined, the offense became explosive and the defense constrictive. The Lancers showed they are not only deep, but mighty tough and they fought back for a 35-24 win. Loyalsock scored 28 third-quarter points, the defense made five straight stops inside its territory and the Lancers won their first playoff game since 2014 while earning a spot in Friday’s championship at Danville.

“That’s what we’re looking for. We’re not looking to just hang on one guy, we’re looking to hang on the whole team,” linebacker Hunter Webb said. “What we showed (Friday) is that we’re not just one guy, we’re a whole unit.”

Fitting then that it was Sam Newton who caught the game-changing touchdown. Newton, one of the area’s premier cornerbacks, replaced Ross offensively and on Loyalsock’s first second-half play he blew past his defender and caught a 73-yard touchdown. That ushered in an avalanche of big plays as Loyalsock scored four third-quarter touchdowns on four touches.

Jacob Waltz capped the surge when he caught a Connor Watkins 74-yard touchdown that made it 35-24. Waltz caught just one pass during the regular season but the outstanding defensive back, showed he can get it done on the other side of the ball. Watkins played safety for the first time this season and returned a quick kick for a score. Offensive lineman Malaki Parlante moved to defense and clinched the win when he made a last-minute stop at midfield. The list goes on. Loyalsock has some star power but it showed Friday that it is a good team, period.

“Those guys have been waiting for the opportunities and when the bell rings you have to answer it,” Watkins said. “That was huge.”

“This was a game in which often times you look to a hero. The hero in this game was leadership and accountability on the kids part. Every single one of them jumped into situations due to injuries or circumstances that they haven’t been in before,” Loyalsock coach Justin Van Fleet said. “We switched defenses and the kids soaked it in and did their jobs. These kids took it upon themselves to win a game and continue their season.”

EXTRA POINTS: North Penn-Mansfield gave powerhouse Southern Columbia a tough game and trailed by just eight in the second quarter before losing its Class AA quarterfinal, 63-28. The Panthers pulled within 28-20 in the second quarter as Brent Burleigh threw for 225 yards and three touchdowns while reaching 20 this season. Brendan Hill went over 1,000 yards rushing and caught a 78-yard touchdown pass and Dylan Wesneski caught 10 passes for 96 yards and two touchdowns … Muncy dropped a 22-21 heartbreaker against Wyalusing in the Class A semifinals despite never trailing until 36 seconds remained. It was a tough end to the season with last year’s district champions losing to Hughesville and Wyalusing in the final seconds. The Indians (7-4) captured the NTL-II championship and running back Colby Alpaugh finished with 1,477 total yards and 22 touchdowns … Lewisburg freshman Max Moyers ran for 230 yards and two touchdowns against Loyalsock. Moyers is the first area freshman to top 1,000 yards rushing and he finished his excellent debut season with 1,104 yards and 12 touchdowns despite missing 1 1/2 games with injuries.

Dr. Masse’s final top five in football

1. South Williamsport (9-2): Mount Carmel ended South Williamsport’s season, winning the District 4 Class AA quarterfinal, 28-14. The Mounties captured their second straight HAC-III championship and sixth straight league title overall. South won eight straight games to close the regular season, defeated seven playoff teams and won at least nine games for the fifth time in six years. The senior class will graduate as one of the program’s most decorated. They won a district championship, four league titles and 40 games the last four years. South has several all-state candidates and senior running back Gideon Green ran for 175 yards and two touchdowns to close his brilliant high school career, running for 175 yards and two touchdowns. He is one of only three area running backs to ever top 5,000 career yards, finishing with 5,304 yards and 63 touchdowns.

2. Williamsport (7-4): The Comeback Kids nearly did it again. Williamsport tied Hazleton after trailing 21-0 in the District 2-4 Class AAAAAA semifinals and nearly tied it again after Hazleton went ahead, but lost a 28-27 heartbreaker. It was a bitter end, but Williamsport again showed the fight that defined its season. The Millionaires won three games when they trailed by 10 points or more and tied games twice after trailing by 14 points or more. A team that lost all-state running back Treyson Potts before the season started had ample opportunities to crumble, but never did. Quarterback Joe Fagnano finished his breakout season with 2,460 yards and 30 touchdowns while being intercepted just four times in 325 attempts and running for a team-best seven touchdowns. Marcus Simmons shattered the program’s single-season record for catches with 71 for 934 yards and 11 touchdowns. Fagnano, Simmons and Potts all return next season as do several other talented players. The Millionaires will be back.

3. Loyalsock (7-4): Defensive end Bam Bam Brima keeps getting better each week. The junior, who played in Massachusetts last year, repeatedly wrecked what Lewisburg was trying in the second half. Brima had 15 tackles, two for loss, and batted down two passes at the line of scrimmage. He has become a weapon during the season’s second half and the best might still be coming.

4. Jersey Shore (7-4): The Bulldogs played defense better than any team has against Selinsgrove this season, allowing just 200 yards, but the Seals won this heavyweight District 4 Class AAAA semifinal battle, 14-7. Jersey Shore made huge strides over the last four weeks and put together its fourth straight winning season. Its defense was playing as well as any District 4 unit the last four weeks and held 3,000-yard quarterback Logan Leiby to a season-low 133 yards. Hunter O’Connor finished with a program-record 146 tackles and had 17 more against Selinsgrove. Linebacker Dominic Williams made 13 tackles in his final game and also topped 100 for a second straight year while David Tomb had 13 tackles and a sack, capping a big year. Workhorse running back Kyle Tomb ran for 110 yards, topping 100 yards for a ninth time. The junior finished second among area rushers with 1,662 yards and 16 touchdowns. Quarterback Elijah Shemory reached 20 touchdowns for a second straight year and Hunter Frantz (838 yards, 9 touchdowns) caught his 20th career touchdown pass against Selinsgrove.

5. Wellsboro (10-1): Like South Williamsport, Wellsboro put together a fantastic four-year run but it ended in gut-wrenching fashion Friday as Line Mountain edged it, 14-13 in the Class AA quarterfinals. Wellsboro lost all-state candidate Quinn Henry to injury in the third quarter but still made it a one-point game before the game-tying extra point was blocked. The defense recorded a shutout in the second half and Henry provided one last memorable play, returning a punt 81 yards for a touchdown. Henry put together one of the best high school careers in area history and the quarterback finished with 7,789 career yards and 110 touchdowns. Henry also topped 1,000 yards passing and rushing for a second time in three seasons. The seniors are the most decorated in program history, winning 41 games, Wellsboro’s only district championship and three league titles.

Players of the week

Montgomery’s offensive line and Hunter Webb, Loyalsock: The key to Montgomery’s resurgence starts up front. The line has set the tone throughout the season and Brennan Bailey, Alex Hans, Jacob Gearhart, Nick Pryor and Noah Eshenaur did so again against Bucktail. Those linemen paved the way for a balanced attack and Montgomery scored 27 first-half points. Budman and Strouse are over 1,000 yards rushing and passing, respectively, and the linemen have played a huge role in making that happen. Webb was a beast on both sides of the ball. The Connecticut-bound senior made a game-high 20 tackles, including 13 solos, and three for loss. He was all over the field in the second half and also helped spark the offense, breaking off a 90-yard touchdown and running for 118 yards.

Game of the week

Wyalusing at Montgomery and Loyalsock at Danville: The only two games left featuring area teams are huge ones. Montgomery will try and make history and exact some revenge against Wyalusing which edged it, 36-35 in double overtime six weeks ago. Loyalsock is pursuing its first district title since 2009 and also has a shot at some revenge. Danville defeated Loyalsock, 34-7 in last year’s semifinals. Both Montgomery and Loyalsock have worked all season and offseason to earn moments like these and these are the games that make all that work mean so much.

Masse may be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @docmasse