Newton no stranger to big plays

As the quarterback rolled right, Sam Newton followed his eyes. He knew where the ball was going and knew he had safety help behind him. He took a calculated risk, jumped the route and intercepted the pass. Newton then weaved in and out of traffic and took the interception 80 yards for a game-clinching touchdown against Montoursville.

Just one problem. It did not count. A roughing the passer called wiped out Newton’s highlight reel interception return. But do not feel too bad for Newton. He has spent a season producing big plays and has rapidly developed into one of District 4’s premier cornerbacks.

Just ask Danville.

Newton intercepted three passes Friday at Danville and was part of a nasty defense that stymied the Ironmen in a 35-6 District 4 Class AAA championship win. The senior speedster now is tied for the district lead in interceptions with seven and is a big reason the Lancers have advanced to Friday’s state tournament at Williamsport to play District 2 champion Scranton Prep.

“Sam is incredible,” two-way starting lineman Carmen Barone said. “Each of his interceptions was a turning point. He’s unbelievable.”

“Sammy is the baddest man,” defensive end Bam Bam Brima said. “He makes the near impossible look easy.”

Newton has provided Loyalsock one of the most valuable assets a team can have. The senior who will run track at Liberty University in 2019, is becoming that shutdown corner who can take an opponent’s best receiver and neutralize him. He was all over the field against Danville and played one of his best games in Loyalsock’s biggest game at that point.

Danville usually is the team that feasts on turnovers, forcing 30 in its first 11 games. This time, Newton flipped the script and consistently set up the offense with shorter fields as it blew open the game in the second half and won its first district title since 2009.

“I can’t really describe the feeling. It was incredible what we did as a team Friday night. In my 5 years of football, I’ve never witnessed my team click that well in all aspects of football,” Newton said. “Having three interceptions in one game was awesome. I kind of surprised myself on that one.”

He did not surprise his teammates. While intercepting three passes is rare, Loyalsock knows it possesses a weapon in the secondary. He already had four interceptions entering the game and returned one for a touchdown in a Week 3 win against Mifflinburg. He also had a key interception against Montoursville and held the area’s active leader in receptions, Lewisburg’s Dylan Farronato, to one catch in a 35-24 district semifinal win.

Newton enjoyed a breakout season last year, providing excellent coverage and helping the Lancers go 8-3. He did not intercept a pass, but life in the secondary goes beyond interceptions. Newton is a thinking man’s cornerback.

As good as interceptions are, Newton easily could give up as many touchdowns if he simply went for the big play every time and cancel out the big plays. Sometimes, Newton blankets his receiver and beats him to the ball. Other times, he knows when there is safety help behind him and understands he can take a chance and go for the interception. He has become a complete cornerback and his growth was instrumental in opposing quarterbacks going 10 for 35 with four interceptions and just 159 yards during two district playoff games.

“Sam’s ball skills have improved tremendously. He did a lot of 7 on 7s over the summer to improve those skills and help in his preparation for the season,” Loyalsock coach Justin Van Fleet said. “He’s one of the kids who from Day 1 wanted to just get better and fought incredibly hard to be best he can be and he’s certainly achieved that. He has gotten everything he can out of his 5-foot-8 frame.”

Newton is not the biggest cornerback, but he is one of the fastest. Last spring, he took third in both the 100 and 200-meter dashes at districts while also qualifying for states in the 100. Consistently running between 11 and 11.2 seconds, Newton showed the same kind of improvement on the track that he has on the football field.

At his core, Newton is a worker. That attitude is infectious and his teammates feed off it. Before the season started, Loyalsock named Newton one of its captains. He has embraced the role and showed that leadership goes beyond words and rousing pep talks.

“Gaining that varsity experience last year has been critical to my success this season. It seems every game I get more comfortable in my position and I’m able to utilize my skill sets even more,” Newton said. “I’m not the vocal leader type, so instead I lead by example and try to show the younger guys to keep you’re head in the game.”

That provides the final key to Newton’s success. Cornerback can be one of the most mentally taxing positions on the football field. A short memory is a requirement because getting beat is going to happen from time to time. If a receiver does make a big play, a cornerback must let it go and not let his mindset dictate allowing another catch.

Not all catches are created equal either. Some cornerbacks believe allowing any catch means the receiver won the battle. Obviously, it is not that simple, especially if that catch does not produce many yards or a first down, especially when it already is third down. Newton knows all this. He has put everything together at the perfect time and has become the complete package cornerback.

“The mental aspect allows him to rebound from situations and understand what a win in a situation can be,” Van Fleet said. “He’s a cerebral kid who has come to grips with how to play the position.”

That is key as Loyalsock prepares to face Scranton Prep, an undefeated team that has routinely steamrolled its opponents. It is the ultimate test and that is the way Newton likes it.

“With anything in life it seems, I like a challenge,” Newton said. “It’s just another reminder I have to be on my A-game every week.”

So far, he is receiving straight A’s.