Chris Masse on football: Williamsport’s defense has come up huge this season
When talking about great past Williamsport players, the conversation often focuses upon offensive contributions. And that is because, throughout the 2000s, this program often has been defined by explosive offenses.
And yes, the Millionaires remain potent this season. But this team’s success starts with a stingy, snarling defense which has gone into overdrive the past two weeks.
Williamsport allowed just 102 yards last Friday, shutting out 2019 District 2 Class AAAAAA finalist Wilkes-Barre, 26-0. It was the latest statement made by a starting unit which has surrendered seven points the past two weeks and 29 through four games.
“As a defense we definitely take a lot of pride with letting people know that we are here to hunt, but I also know as a defense we are far from satisfied and each week we take that extra step towards the top,” defensive end Avery Campbell said. “Our defensive coaches have done really well with the coaching at all three levels on the defense. We look at the film, correct our mistakes, then execute during the week, and then succeed on Friday. Also everyone on our defense wants to be better, they strive to be better, so we all make that happen so we then can take those steps to being the best defense we can be.”
Williamsport (4-0) started changing its image a year ago when it began 3-1, opened the season with two shutouts and held its five opponents to 39 points. Injuries eventually decimated that unit, but the Millionaires are deep, athletic, physical and hungry now, eager to embrace all challenges. The defensive line is among the district’s best, the linebackers fly to the ball and the defensive backs are locking down opposing receivers.
This is not a one-man show. Obviously, there are some super individual players, but the strength of this defense is the pack. When all 11 defenders are working in sync, the Millionaires have looked powerful. The starters not allowing more than 14 points in a game while helping Williamsport start 4-0 for the first time since 2016.
“As a defense, we all focus on our jobs. Our coaches really trained us on the concept that if you do your job, we will be successful,” Campbell said. “I feel as a defense we know that individually, we don’t need to be the show, but together as a team, we have to just make the show work and we will dominate.”
That certainly was the case against Wilkes-Barre Area. The Millionaires never really let the Wolfpack sniff the end zone and a 23-0 halftime lead looked more like it was 123-0 considering how emphatically all the defenders performed their jobs. They are allowing a solid 216 yards per game, but that average is skewed from Nanticoke doing some second-half damage in the opener against the reserves.
Williamsport gets after the quarterback as well as any area team and it also consistently is stuffing the run. The Millionaires are proving equally opportunistic, returning both a fumble and interception for scores and forcing turnovers which set up two touchdowns in a 26-7 win over Berwick in Week 3. There is strong chemistry here, a trust in each other. The power of that bond is being felt each week as the Millionaires already have eclipsed last year’s win total.
“We have all known each other and played football together since pee-wee football, there is definitely a brotherhood factor that is stronger than anything I’ve experienced,” Campbell said. “Even for the newcomers we get every year, it’s not long until they feel at home with us on the field.”
Offense can come and go. Play good defense each week, however, and one likely will find itself with a chance to win every game. That is what makes Williamsport so dangerous right now. The Millionaires are not just keeping points off the scoreboard, but also creating some and growing stronger each week.
Not that this defense is focusing on its stats or seeking individual accolades. This is a team with a single-purpose. Winning is all that matters.
The defense playing so well certainly helps toward achieving that goal.
“I want our team to be elite, I want our team to be remembered,” Campbell said. “So in order to do that, we have to consistently be successful on both sides of the ball.”
As efficient as the defense is stifling, the Williamsport offense performed well again last Friday, scoring 23 first-half points and 393 yards. Frankie Morrone continued shining at quarterback, completing 17 of 27 passes for a career-high 202 yards and three touchdowns. Keith Freeman caught two touchdowns, totaled 109 yards and Nassir Jones added his fourth touchdown reception.
The offensive line dealt with some early-season injuries, but is making strides and helping pave the way with Williamsport scoring at least 26 points in all four games. The Millionaires have both more than 570 rushing and passing yards, but also believe they can become more effective as the season progresses. That will be the goal come Friday at Wyoming Valley West.
“I feel like we’re jelling and getting better each week. We just have to take out the little mistakes and we can be unstoppable,” Jones said. “Our o-line is doing great right now and having a good solid o-line and a good balanced group of skills just makes us harder to defend. We make a lot of minor mistakes and once we get those mistakes out the window we will dominate.”
Bucktail played one of its best games over the last five years Saturday at CMVT, winning 50-8. The Bucks allowed just 73 yards and three players ran for 93 or more yards as they reached 50 points and mercy-ruled an opponent for the first time since 2015. Gage Sutliff (12 tackles) ran for 114 yards and three touchdowns and became Bucktail’s leading rusher of the 2000s with 2,470 career yards … Central Mountain (3-1) may be the area’s most improved team and matched its best win total since 2016 after downing Milton, 49-6. Tyler Weaver and Kaden Falls scored special teams touchdowns while quarterback Brett Gerlach threw touchdowns to Cayde McCloskey and Peyton Johnson. The defense allowed just 14 rushing yards … Lewisburg rallied from a seven-point third-quarter deficit and edged Midd-West, 35-28 for its first win as Max Moyers scored a game-winning 29-yard touchdown with 43 seconds remaining. Moyers reached 50 career rushing touchdowns, rushing for 131 yards, Ethan Dominick threw for a career-high 143 yards and Cam Michaels caught seven passes for 98 yards and two touchdowns while also running for a score … Tucker St. Peter threw for 186 yards and a touchdown while Tanyan Brown caught this third score of the year in Cowanesque Valley’s 32-14 loss against Brockway. Michael Sipps is enjoying a breakout season and added two sacks.
DR. MASSE’S TOP 5 RANKINGS
1. Montoursville (4-0): Montoursville has long been one of the district’s most successful programs and its performances like it delivered Friday against Danville and players like CJ Signor which have made it possible. The Warriors overcame costly injuries along the offensive line, Signor moved from fullback to center for the first time in his football career and the line did not miss a beat as Montoursville won this showdown of unbeatens, 42-21. Ethan Wanner also played well in his first significant varsity action, combining with Signor, Hunter Hanna, Jeremiah Caseman, Lane Stutzman and Thad Anderson to help Rocco Pulizzi run for 205 yards and keep a powerful Danville offense on the sideline. Dillon Young continued showing why he is one of the district’s most versatile players, returning a fumble and interception for touchdowns while adding six extra point kicks. Heath Jones is excelling at linebacker and also caught his first varsity touchdown pass as Montoursville made key plays at crucial times in its first close game this season.
2. Jersey Shore (4-0): Jersey Shore’s offense appeared human for a quarter against Selinsgrove and the game was scoreless. As explosive as the offense is, however, the defense is equally dominant and paved the way for a 33-0 win in a rematch of seven of the previous eight District 4 AAA/AAAA championships. The Bulldogs lead District 4 in yards allowed (87.5) and bottled up Selinsgrove for 84 yards while forcing three turnovers. The two-time defending district champions have not allowed more than 124 yards in a game and outscoring opponents, 182-14 a year after reaching the state semifinals. Oh yeah, the offense got going, too, against Selinsgrove. Cayden Hess became the program’s all-time leading receiver (104 catches), hauling in two of Branden Wheary’s three touchdowns with Kooper Peacock catching the other. The offensive line has been outstanding and running back Cam Allison produced his fourth straight 100-yard game, gaining 115 yards. Jersey Shore has won four straight against Selinsgrove and has all but clinched another playoff berth.
3. Williamsport (4-0): The Millionaires received a lift against Wilkes-Barre with Stavon Jefferson making his season debut. An excellent linebacker a season ago, the junior also adds backfield depth and carried eight times Friday. Freeman and Jones each have scored five times and Morrone is up to 10 touchdowns, throwing multiple touchdown passes in all four games.
4. Muncy (4-0): Linebacker Bailey Hadzinikolov topped 100 tackles last year and opened his junior season with 24 tackles in two games. Not having him could have left a gaping void, but Paul Pepper has capably filled in and helped the defense continue surging. Pepper, a 5-foot-7, 155-pounder, was all over the field during Friday’s 34-17 Old Shoe win at Montgomery, finishing among the team’s leading tacklers. Pepper played in the secondary a year ago, but provides both speed and physicality to his middle linebacker position and was vital in Muncy building a 34-3 fourth-quarter lead. Pepper also ran for a touchdown and has four scores this year while averaging 8.5 yards per carry.
“When you have a linebacker like Paul Pepper who you can put in there and you can give a little different look defensively while staying true to your values that is big,” Muncy coach Sean Tetreault said. “Paul goes out there and does a great job for us stepping in. He’s having a great senior year.”
5. South Williamsport (2-0): This program has won a lot of games since 2012 and it has been defined by some old-school players who frequently deliver in big moments. That certainly was the case at Northwest as South put together a game-winning, 86-yard drive to beat the defending Eastern Conference champions, 21-14. Landon Lorson found Jake Casella, who opened the year at tight end, filled in at center in the opener and moved back to tight end last week, for the game-winning 34-yard touchdown pass with 48 seconds remaining as South erased the late deficit against the previously undefeated Rangers. Lorson may have played his best scholastic game, completing 10 of 15 passes for 177 yards and two scores while also intercepting a pass. Casella and his brother Ryan were part of a defense which made an impressive goal-line stand and forced four turnovers.
Players of the Week
Grant Bachman, South and Will Kelley, Bucktail
Bachman was catching just about everything in sight no matter who threw it against Northwest. The junior two-way starter caught a career-high six passes for 120 yards and a touchdown while also intercepting two passes. Bachman played a crucial role on a night Northwest slowed the run and he has eight interceptions over the last two seasons. Kelley is only 5-7, 160 pounds, but played like a giant against CMVT, making a career-high 10 tackles, including four for loss in a 50-8 victory. Kelly also was part of an outstanding offensive line which cleared the way for 458 yards, including 377 on the ground.
Game of the Week
Williamsport at Wyoming Valley West
The Millionaires are seeking their first win against Valley West since 2017 and have beaten the Spartans just once since 2002. Expect Williamsport to remain mighty hungry for this one as it tries moving to 5-0 for the second time in the 2000s.
Chris Masse may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @docmasse