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Chris Masse on high school football: South roster lacking numbers but not skill

The South Williamsport sideline is lonelier than it has ever been.

The varsity football team features just 25 players this season. Numbers are so small that South cannot field a junior varsity team. Still, do not be fooled.

There is strength in South’s numbers.

South might not have a lot of players, but the ones they have are mighty good. The Mounties defeated defending District 4 Class A champion Muncy, 40-13 last Friday and are 4-0 for the first time since 2013. South is receiving strong contributions from veterans, first-time starters and freshmen. The roster is small so every player must do something positive and every one has thus far. The schedule will become soon become nasty, but South certainly looks like a serious District 4 Class A title contender.

“It’s been a lot of fun. I told the guys the other night, I’m really having fun and we love them. It’s just a great team in every sense of the word,” South coach Chris Eiswerth said. “There’s not many of them and every one comes and works hard. It’s a small group of people who have made a conscious decision to try and do something special.”

Eiswerth, his staff and players past and present have built something special over the last eight seasons. South has made the playoffs each year since 2012, winning a league title in six consecutive years, capturing the 2014 District 4 Class A title and reaching the state semifinals that year. No area team has won more games since 2012 than South Williamsport (69) and this team has no intention of letting the tradition slip.

South does not care about its roster size. These players believe in themselves, believe in their coaches and believe they can do great things. So far they have. South has shined on both sides of the ball, a young offensive line has imposed its will, different running backs have made big plays, sophomore quarterback Landon Lorson has matured each game and Austin Nash has developed into one of the area’s premier wide receivers. The defense has forced 16 turnovers, returning four for touchdowns and made a goal-line stand against Muncy that stopped a second-half comeback and helped deliver the game’s knockout blow.

“It’s a great group of guys,” Eiswerth said. “These guys came in and they lifted and worked hard in the offseason.”

Luke Winner who produced his fourth straight 100-yard game (128 yards, 3 touchdowns) against Muncy and Gannon Guerrisky (154 yards) were known commodities entering the season. So was Nash, who has caught a touchdown in all four games and totaled 120 yards on six catches against Muncy. Ditto for all-state caliber tackle Dakota Hill who has been dominant on both lines all year. What was unknown is who would complement on those players.

Turns out South has found a lot of answers. Zack Miller and Lane Lusk ran well when Guerrisky was injured the first three weeks. Lorson is the area’s highest-rated passer through four weeks. Kyle Whipple has played well up front and Sam Hostrander shined when he missed the Muncy game. Fellow linemen like Ryan Rischoff, freshman Lucas Long and Jake Casella also have flourished. Sophomore Grant Bachman has intercepted four passes, sophomore Clayton Swarthout has returned an interception for a touchdown and linebacker Caleb Nelson was the team’s leading tackler last Friday.

South might not have a lot of quantity this fall, but one better believe it has quality.

“We’ve really had to change how we practice. Just getting to Friday is our new mantra,” Eiswerth said. “There’s a tradition that’s been set and the guys are conscious of that, so hopefully we can hold it together and continue to do good things.”

LEARNING QUICK: Muncy also is doing good things despite its youth. The Indians had their chances against South and showed a lot of promise after having won their two previous games. Several freshman are starting a year after Muncy was hit hard by graduation. Still, Muncy is trending in the right direction and has come light years from where it was following a season-opening 35-6 loss at Warrior Run.

It was that game, however, which may have provided a turning point. For so many players that was their first taste of varsity football and it was coming against a quality team. It was that night when Muncy stopped thinking about how promising the future might be and how good the present can be. Two convincing wins against Cowanesque Valley and Towanda followed and if Muncy had finished long drives better against South that game’s complexion might have changed.

Many might have counted out Muncy as it tries defending its district championship. Muncy has not.

“Right in Game 1, things started clicking for the young guys. They started to realize we could have something special going on this season. We don’t have to wait until next season for something special,” Muncy coach Sean Tetreault said. “We have a good core, a good senior group. Cael Hembury, Dakota Haueisen, Christian Good, Nate Palmatier, Mason Hillman … those guys are huge for us. We can do some special things this year.”

Sophomore Bailey Hadzinikolov and junior Ethan Gush are forming a strong linebacking tandem. Freshman quarterback Branson Eyer is developing excellent chemistry with his cousin, fellow freshman Ross Eyer. Those two connected on both a 20-yard touchdown and 51-yard play against South. Junior running back Paul Pepper and freshman Elijah Weikle combined for 115 yards and the offensive line, missing injured all-state tackle Haueisen, jelled as the game continued.

“Muncy has some tough kids,” Eiswerth said. “They have done a tremendous job with that program down there and it shows.”

“We have some potential, but potential is only worth what they put into it. They have to get back to working hard this week,” Tetreault said. “We have to keep progressing and we have to get ready for the stretch and try and make it a good run.”

SETTING THE TONE: Cowanesque Valley features just five seniors and two juniors. The Indians might be District 4’s youngest team, but strong senior leadership has helped CV make major strides. The Indians snapped an 18-game losing streak Saturday when they defeated CMVT, 20-8.

Seniors Owen Fitzwater, Seth Huyler, Magnus Swimley, Kole Hurler and Luke Wills could have become demoralized by the losing streak and been bitter, Instead, those five have helped instill this team with a dedicated work ethic. Huyler was injured in the first quarter Saturday, but has totaled 784 yards this year. Hurler caught four passes for 86 yards and a touchdown against CMVT, Fitzwater made 11 tackles and Swimley was outstanding along both lines. With so many underclassmen receiving significant playing time, the future could be bright at CV. If so, these seniors will have their fingerprints all over that success.

“They have been great leaders,” CV coach Mike Schmitt said. “Sometimes it’s hard when you’re a senior to kind of let the young kids shine more, but that’s what they’re allowing them to do.”

EXTRA POINTS: No player in Wellsboro history has run for more yards than Aidan Hauser. The senior topped 200 yards for a third time this year, running for 237 yards and three touchdowns as Wellsboro defeated Towanda, 54-12 and Hauser became the program’s all-time rushing leader with 3,501 career yards. He also is leading District 4 in rushing with 872 yards and 13 touchdowns. Darryn Callahan returned an interception for a touchdown for a second straight week as Wellsboro improved to 3-1 … Lewisburg quarterback Nick Shedleski threw for 196 yards and a score, while Max Moyers ran for 133 yards and four touchdowns as Lewisburg defeated Milton, 41-6 … Warrior Run senior Riley Daubert returned a kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown in a 28-7 loss at Montoursville. Daubert has returned kicks for scores in consecutive weeks … Bucktail’s Gage Sutliff ran for a career-high 235 yards and two touchdowns in a 52-14 loss at Canton … Hughesville sophomore Mikey Dylina ran for a career-high 100 yards and a touchdown in Hughesville’s 43-7 loss at Central Columbia.

Chris Masse may be reached by email at cmasse@sungazette.com. Follow him on Twitter at @docmasse

Dr. Masse’s Top 5 Football Teams

1. Montoursville (4-0)

Warrior Run made Montoursville earn its seventh straight regular-season win the hard way. The Warriors did not mercy rule an opponent for the first time and led by just seven in the fourth quarter before winning, 28-7. Warrior Run is vastly improved, but one also has the feeling that this might have been a trap game sandwiched between a Jersey Shore victory and Friday’s game at Loyalsock. Whatever the case, the defense dominated again, not allowing an offensive touchdown and holding the area’s third-ranked offense to a season-low 122 yards. Montoursville is shutting down the run and disrupting passing games by consistently getting in the quarterbacks’ faces. Dillon Young intercepted a pass for a second straight week, sophomore running back Rocco Pulizzi went over 100 yards for a second consecutive game, CJ Signor scored twice and Jacob Reeder totaled 82 yards on 10 touches.

2. Williamsport (3-1)

Give Williamsport a lot of credit for maintaining its composure in Friday’s 13-7 win against rival Hazleton. The Millionaires were flagged 11 times for 127 yards and three touchdowns were negated. This young team never lost its focus, kept working and rallied in the second half. That was a gutsy win on a night the team was far from its best. For years, the offense often has carried Williamsport, but it is the defense now becoming one of the area’s best. The Millionaires have surrendered just 24 points in four games and made one timely stop after another while giving the offense an opportunity to rally from a seven-point halftime deficit. Keith Freeman and Stavon Jefferson intercepted passes and electrifying quarterback Dallas Griess gave the offense a jolt with two sensational long touchdown runs, including the game-winning 40-yard scamper.

3. Loyalsock (3-1)

A team that is getting better each week, Loyalsock is where it wants to be entering Friday’s showdown against Montoursville after battering Bloomsburg, 48-14 and winning its third straight game. The Lancers are playing well on both sides of the ball and have outscored consecutive opponents by 52 points. Rees Watkins continues to impress in his first year playing high school football, reaching 500 receiving yards after catching four passes for 124 yards and two touchdowns. Chase Cavanaugh threw for 202 yards and three touchdowns, while Joeb Schurer scored twice. The defense has made big strides since the season opener and has surrendered just three offensive touchdowns the last two weeks. Senior linebacker Simone Mileto is having an outstanding final season and made nine tackles, two for loss.

4. Jersey Shore (2-2)

The Bulldogs had their chances against Mount Carmel, but struggled to finish drives and dropped their second straight game, 34-18. Jersey Shore has not matched up well from a size standpoint with its last two opponents, but all its goals remain in front of it so there is plenty to be excited about. Wide receiver Stanton Westlin has developed into one of the area’s premier receivers and caught a touchdown in a fifth straight game going back to last year, finishing with seven catches for 116 yards. Quarterback Tanner Lorson threw for 264 yards and leads District 4 with 971 yards. Josh Malicky ran for 125 yards and two touchdowns.

5. Canton (4-0)

It trailed for the first time all season, but Canton immediately responded, scored the next 52 points and stayed undefeated after beating Bucktail, 52-14. The offensive line continues setting a physical tone and Canton piled up 618 yards, pushing its season average to 516. Tight end Ben Knapp topped 100 receiving yards for a third time, Carson Stiner ran for 90 yards and two scores and an opportunistic defense intercepted three more passes. Canton has 11 interceptions through four games and Cooper Kitchen picked off his fourth, helping him stay tied for the area lead. The Warriors are 4-0 for a second straight season and will hit the road for the first time since the season opener, playing at Athens this Friday.

Players of the Week

Aiden Gair, Loyalsock and Uriah Bailie, Canton

Gair has been at the heart of Loyalsock’s defensive resurgence and played one of his best high school games against Bloomsburg. The senior linebacker made 12 tackles, including 10 solos. He also recorded two sacks, helping Loyalsock slow a dangerous offense that produced 579 yards the previous week. Bailie is a fantastic dual threat quarterback who unleashed his entire arsenal against Bucktail. The senior totaled 415 yards and five touchdowns, throwing for a career-high 245 yards and three scores. Bailie also ran for 170 yards and two touchdowns and has totaled 1,245 yards and 13 touchdowns this season.

Game of the Week

Montoursville at Loyalsock

There are many great high school football rivalries throughout this area, but what has made this one the best throughout the 2000s is the ramifications. So often they are playing for championships or setting themselves up for potential championships. Friday at Kenneth Robbins Stadium is know different. Teams that have won combined for seven straight victories are both HAC-II and District 4 Class AAA title contenders. They shared the HAC-II crown last season and have split the last two district championships. Both are tied for first in league play and could see each other again come playoff time. This is going to be a fun one … They almost always are.

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