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Playing Harrisburg about more than result

MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette Williamsport's Nassir Jones (3) finds his footing after Harrisburg's Lincoln Boetel (1) tried to trip him up in the third quarter.

Williamsport wanted a victory. Although it did not earn one on the scoreboard Tuesday against Harrisburg, the Millionaires might have gained something better moving forward.

State power Harrisburg blanked Williamsport, 41-0, but the experience gained outweighs the results. Harrisburg played in a state final two years ago and is the state’s No. 10-ranked 6A team. If the Millionaires are to go where they want in the postseason, seeing an opponent the caliber of Harrisburg can only help.

That really was the main purpose in scheduling Harrisburg last Friday and playing it four nights later after its games with Pittston was canceled because of COVID-19 concerns with the Patriots. The Millionaires (5-1) had multiple chances to take a first-half lead, but trailed 12-0 at halftime before Harrisburg pulled away in the third quarter. Now Williamsport has a taste of what high-level postseason football will be like and that is why this Harrisburg game could prove so vital.

“No disrespect to anyone we’ve played, but we just played a state-caliber team and if you want to be a state-caliber team you have to show it against a state-caliber team,” said Williamsport offensive coordinator Kevin Brown, filling in for quarantined coach Chuck Crews. “We did what we were supposed to do in those games, but we’re looking for State College. State College is over there and we know we’re going to run into them so this is a good stepping stone toward that.”

State College is a tradition-laden program which has made three straight state quarterfinal appearances. The Little Lions play Altoona in next week’s District 6 final and is a heavy favorite to advance and play Williamsport. The 2016 Millionaire district champion team won a 35-28 thriller in the opening round of states against State College, and a challenging regular-season schedule helped prepare it for that game.

That is the hope again in 2020. Harrisburg just started practicing Sept. 20 after its district reversed an earlier decision to cancel fall sports. When Pittston canceled its game against Williamsport last Friday, the Millionaires went looking for another opponent. When Harrisburg came calling, they embraced the opportunity. If that meant playing two games this week and risking an undefeated record, so be it.

Harrisburg is strong in all areas. It is big, strong, explosive and fundamentally-sound. It was the perfect team for Williamsport to see late in the regular season.

The Millionaires are off to their best start since 2016, but the goal was not to go undefeated. The goal always has been to try and win a district championship and make state tournament noise. Tuesday’s result was less important than the lessons it provided a still fairly young team which features just nine seniors.

“This was about prepping for State College who we’re probably going to play and that’s why we were excited for the opportunity (Tuesday),” Brown said. “We know about Harrisburg. We know they are always tough. We knew it was going to be tough, but if we see this and see if we can compete with this, and we did for a half, than that helps us. We have to put a whole game together but if we can compete with them longer than we can try building and get ready for State College.”

Before playing State College, Williamsport plays Saturday afternoon against defending 4A Eastern Region champion Dallas and next Friday against surging Hazleton. The Dallas game will provide the Millionaires a quick opportunity to see if they learned from what happened against Harrisburg.

Although the score ended up being lopsided, this was a fiercely competitive game throughout the first half. The Millionaires slowed one of the state’s most explosive offenses and had six possessions reach Harrisburg territory, including one inside the 10-yard line. They simply could not finish. Some of that was Harrisburg and some of it was a lack of execution.

A few plays were there which could have potentially given Williamsport a halftime lead. That does not make the Millionaires feel better about Tuesday’s result, but it can provide a boost knowing that it was that close to being on top of a potential state title contender. The past two summers Harrisburg overwhelmed Williamsport in preseason scrimmages. Williamsport closed the gap Tuesday and could be dangerous moving forward if it learns from Tuesday’s experience.

“The biggest thing I noticed about Williamsport is they’re a really well-coached team and the kids didn’t give up. They kept fighting and fighting,” Harrisburg coach Calvin Everett said. “I have a lot of respect for the program. We scrimmaged them last season and the year before that and they have made huge steps, huge strides.”

That is the goal now. The time table simply is sped up with Williamsport hoping to keep growing against Dallas and into the subregional championship. The Millionaires thumped their first five opponents, the defense has been one of the district’s best and the offense is both balanced and dangerous.

Harrisburg shutting Williamsport out does not change that. The Millionaires remain one of the district’s top teams. Now the goal is moving forward and becoming one of the state’s best teams.

Do that and Tuesday’s loss could turn into quite a win.

“Williamsport did a great job,” Everett said. “They were right there.”

“This will help us a lot,” Brown said. “We’ll watch the film and we’ll learn from it.”

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