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Canton Warriors

SUN-GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Canton football has enjoyed a renaissance the last three seasons, going 23-6 and reaching three straight District 4 Class A championships. There is just one thing Canton has not liked about these past three years: the ending.

Those seasons have resembled a play that is riveting the entire time before missing the final piece which could create the perfect script.

After going 10-1, 9-2 and 4-0 entering the district finals, Canton has lost three consecutive district championship heartbreakers against Muncy. All three losses came at home by a combined 11 points. The last two have been particularly cruel with Canton holding second-half leads and going up by nine points in the third quarter last Halloween.

That is all in the past, though. Canton can not control what has happened, but it can dictate its future and its goal remains the same. The Warriors are determined to clear that last hurdle and capture the program’s first district championship since 1990. Muncy again looks like the main obstacle but Canton certainly has a team capable of ending that long title drought. The Warriors return a strong core of starters and will be bolstered by some exciting newcomers as they try building on last year’s success which came despite so much adversity wrought by COVID-19.

“Our expectations are high for this season” Canton coach Tyler Sechrist said. “We have been working hard this offseason and we are focused on breaking through and getting that district title.”

Canton knows it can beat Muncy because it has done so the last three years. Those victories came in the regular season before Muncy exacted revenge in the championship. The rivals do not meet in the regular season this year so the only way Canton and Muncy will cross paths is they do so in the playoffs again.

Muncy has held Canton to 19 or fewer points in the last three finals, but the Warriors have an offense capable of doing damage after topping points three times in four regular-season games a year ago. Cooper Kitchen returns at quarterback and averaged two touchdown passes per game. Riley Parker and Hayden Ward form a dynamic backfield combo and combined for five 100-yard games in 2020. Parker averaged more than 100 yards per game but could not play in the district final because he was in COVID quarantine. Weston Bellows made a big impact at fullback, blocking well, catching 12 passes and scoring five touchdowns. Michael Davis and Hudson Ward also could see carries and Kitchen is a mobile threat.

Canton must replace its leading receivers from last fall, including current Penn State tight end Ben Knapp. Austin Allen, Bailey Ferguson and Gavin Morse are expected to be among those Kitchen targets the most. While Canton was a run-oriented team last fall, Kitchen and his receivers displayed a knack for making big plays and produced touchdowns on 27% of the completions.

Caiden Williams anchors what could be a physical and strong offensive line. Connor Davis, Mason Nelson, Brenen Taylor and Mason Harold all have experience, size and hunger and that line will help make the Canton offense go. Last season, the line often imposed its will and the Warriors averaged more than 200 rushing yards per game. Gage Pepper, Mason Shultz, William Colton and Rian Eberly also could make an impact up front.

As he does offensively, Williams ignites the defensive line and led Canton in both sacks and tackles for loss a year ago. Nelson and Harold have the potential to be difference-makers in the middle with Williams and Eberly and Shultz coming off the edge.

Canton is especially strong at linebacker where Parker, Bellows and Hayden Ward all return. Each player enjoyed a strong 2020 campaign and Canton did not allow more than two offensive touchdowns in any of its last four games. Parker and Ward could have made runs at 100-tackle seasons during a normal season and Bellows was a terrific playmaker, intercepting two passes and returning a fumble for a touchdown. Look for Taylor, Connor Davis, Hudson Ward and Michael Davis to also bolster the linebacking unit.

Kitchen is the most experienced defensive back and the senior led Canton in interceptions two years ago. Ferguson, Allen, Morse, Wesley Castle and Avery Dibble all likely will play key roles in the secondary as well.

Canton opened last season with one of the most exciting wins in recent program history. The Warriors rallied from down 16 in the final four minutes against heavily favored Troy to force overtime and win there, 34-28. Canton will be trying to open the 2021 campaign in similar strong fashion when it hosts North Penn-Mansfield in a Saturday afternoon game.

Whatever the case that day, Canton has its eyes firmly set on the postseason. The Warriors have done just about everything right the past three regular seasons. And it is not that they played bad in those championships either. Each game literally has come down to a play or two.

Canton wants to keep doing the right things throughout the regular season and give itself the opportunity it so covets.

And that is when Canton hopes to flip what otherwise has been an outstanding script.

­2021 Football Players to Watch

Cooper Kitchen, QB/DB: Already an experienced and talented defensive back, Kitchen moved from wide receiver to quarterback and performed well in his first season starting last fall. The senior averaged two touchdown passes a game, throwing 10 in five contests. He also displayed his clutch gene in his first start, throwing two late touchdowns and running for the game-winner as Canton erased a 16-point deficit in the final four minutes and edged rival Troy, 34-28, in overtime. Kitchen threw four touchdowns against Wellsboro and had at least one touchdown pass in all four regular-season games. A dual threat who ran for 190 yards, Kitchen also was part of a stingy defense and was among the area’s leaders in interceptions as a junior when he picked off six passes.

Riley Parker, RB/LB: In a normal season, Parker would have made a run at 1,000 rushing yards. The hard-nosed junior was one of the area’s breakout players, averaging 112 yards per game and gaining 447 in four contests. Parker missed the district final because of COVID-19 tracing, but topped 100 yards three times and gouged Athens for a career-high 176 yards and two touchdowns in a 33-9 win. The 5-foot-10, 180-pounder combines power and speed and went over 100 yards in three of his last four games. He also is an excellent linebacker who was among the team’s leading tacklers. Parker has a nose for the football and combines with fellow junior Hayden Ward to give Canton quite a backfield and linebacking tandem.

Hayden Ward, RB/LB: Speaking of Ward, he continued the family tradition of excelling on the gridiron and also built off a promising freshman campaign to become one of the NTL’s premier all-around players. Ward is the thunder to Parker’s lightning and ran for 339 yards, averaging 5.7 yards per carry. Ward provides strong blocking and also showed how tough he can be to slow, going over 100 yards twice against District 4 Class A champion Muncy. That included a 137-yard performance in a 19-0 regular-season win against the Indians, helping Canton hand them their only regular-season loss. Ward also flies to the football and is a sure tackler. He led the team in tackles and averaged close to 10 per game. Ward added a sack and is good against the run and pass.

Caiden Williams, DL/OL: Because of his position, Williams has flown under the radar the past few years, but he has been absolutely vital to Canton’s success. The three-year starting senior is a difference-maker on both sides of the ball and one of the team’s most valuable players. His consistent play up front helped Canton average 28.2 points and 293 yards per game while showing quality balance. Williams also headlined a defensive front which allowed two of fewer offensive touchdowns in all but one game. Fast off the ball and a physical presence, Williams helps bottle up the run and also makes life difficult for opposing quarterbacks. Williams collected a team-high four sacks and his ability to command attention up front was especially crucial against Athens when Canton recorded a season-high seven sacks.

–By CHRIS MASSE

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