Zack Miller ran for 262 yards and 4 TDs in South’s win against Troy in District 4 Class AA semifinals
TROY – A pile of bodies filled the gap Zack Miller was supposed to hit, both those of his South Williamsport teammates and Troy’s defenders. With it being fourth down and the Mounties inside the Trojans’ 5-yard line, there was no option to take a loss and wait for the next play.
A quick glance to the South Williamsport running back’s left and he saw a lane. It was going to be a footrace to cover the yardage to the pylon, but the senior is ever confident in his speed. So he took off.
With his final steps, Miller dove and extended the ball just inside the pylon. The official on the goalline threw both arms up in the air. South Williamsport’s bench was euphoric. Troy’s defense was crestfallen.
The touchdown gave South Williamsport a three-point lead. And as the Mounties’ pitched a second-half shutout, Miller continued to make Alparon Park his own personal playground. Miller ran for 262 yards Friday night and scored four touchdowns, but none as big as the fourth-down dash to the pylon which gave the Mounties a lead it never relinquished in a 35-18 win over Troy in the semifinals of the District 4 Class AA tournament.
With the victory, the Mounties snapped a four-game postseason losing streak dating back to 2016. They also earned a trip to three-time defending state champion Southern Columbia next week for the district title game.
“It’s surreal,” South Williamsport coach Chris Eiswerth said. “I did tell them whatever happens after (Friday night), so be it. We respect everything Southern is and does. But for us being a small school, this is our district title. And the kids really grasped that. They came out in that second half and put it all together and played like they were possessed.”
A night like Friday seem so far-fetched at times this season. South Williamsport started the season two weeks after most teams in the district as it dealt with COVID-19 concerns in the school. There was no preseason game for the Mounties to play. Instead, it practiced for a few days after returning from quarantine only to jump right into the schedule with a roster of 38 players which features just seven seniors.
But the few seniors the Mounties do have continue to play key roles as the younger kids continue South Williamsport on the positive trajectory the program has enjoyed since Eiswerth’s arrival. Miller’s 262 rushing yards accounted for all of South Williamsport’s offense. When Troy struggled with extra point or two-point conversion attempts, senior kicker Riley Hockman nailed all five PATs for South. Sam Hostrander returned from injury to help kickstart the run game in the second half. Ryan Rischoff was a menace on both the offensive and defensive lines.
None of those seniors had experienced a postseason victory in their careers, and the trips up Route 14 haven’t been kind in the last two years as Canton ended the Mounties’ season each time. But Friday night South Williamsport weathered the storm of the first half where it ran just 13 offensive plays thanks to a Miller 78-yard touchdown run, a Clayton Swarthout 80-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, and a successful Troy onside kick.
When South finally got his hands on the ball consistently in the second half, they relied on their Novocaine offense – just give it time, it always works – to first grab and then extend the lead. The Mounties’ lead kick run play which goes off-tackle and helped make all-state players out of the likes of Dominick Bragalone and Gideon Green helped Miller turn in a career performance.
If it wasn’t enough his teammates were opening holes wider than the Grand Canyon for him, Miller was harder to catch than a greased pig. When he didn’t run through tackles, he ran out of them. Even when Troy defenders had an angle on him, it was no guarantee they could take him to the ground.
Miller ripped off runs last night of 78, 26, 46 and 33 yards. His 262 rushing yards were a career high.
“We were hitting that lead kick every time and they couldn’t stop it,” Miller said. “The guys go block the hole for you, you want to make the sideline your friend, and then hit that sixth gear and go.”
“We have a whole lot of trust in our running backs,” Rischoff said. “Miller is a really fantastic runner. It feels like every time he touches the ball, a big play happens. And I feel like the line made some good paths for him to run.”
Miller’s decisive fourth-down run in the third quarter was the antithesis of how the rest of the second half went. He had no running room. There was no open lane for him to exploit. Instead, he trusted his vision. He trusted his speed. He trusted his own athleticism.
When when he stretched the football inside the pylon to give South Williamsport a 21-18 lead, the confidence of a team which believes it plays its best football in the second half kicked in. Miller carried 14 times for 155 yards in the second half. And on a night where the Mounties didn’t complete a pass, they needed each one of those yards.
“Miller played the game of his life,” Eiswerth said. “We knew we could run the lead kick. We’ve been running that for 10 years and it’s been a tremendous play for us.”
After giving up 160 rushing yards in the first half to a Troy offense which likes to punish its opponents with a big, physical offensive line, South Williamsport found its footing in the second half. First and foremost, it found a way to slow the Trojans’ fullback dive.
Damien Landon was a 2,000 yard rusher and year ago and his ability to make yards from that fullback dive is the catalyst to the rest of the Troy offense. But after running for 82 yards in he first half and helping the Trojans run for 160 as a team as it took an 18-14 halftime lead, the well dried up.
Troy gained just 60 yards on 26 second-half carries. After posting nine five runs of 9 yards or more in the first half, the Trojans had just one in the second half. And when they called on Landon and the fullback dive from fourth-and-1 at the South Williamsport 10, the Mounties’ defense held.
“I thought Randy Boone and the defensive guys did a great job with their adjustments,” Eiswerth said. “(Troy) comes downhill on you with those 300-pound kids. But we got a little lower and played a little tighter. The Binford kid is incredible and I thought we bottled him up just enough. Our kids had a great game.”
“They kept running that dive early and we couldn’t stop it,” Miller said. “They plowed us with it over and over. But we caught on to it in the second half and they couldn’t run it anymore.”
Conversely, Troy never caught up to Miller and the South running game. His third touchdown run expanded the South lead to 28-18 when Miller scored from 46 yards out, running out of a pair of tacklers at the 5-yard line. He then burst through the middle on third-and-8 for a 12-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter to ice the game.
South Williamsport ran just 34 offensive plays last night, but 10 of them gained first downs. And the 7.7 yards per play the Mounties averaged dwarfed Troy’s 3.85 yards per play.
“At the beginning of the season, we didn’t know if any of this was going to happen,” Miller said. “It’s a blessing to make it this far and hopefully we can keep it going.”
“To me and to us and our program, our goal isn’t necessarily winning that district title, it’s getting to the district title game. We understand what we have to go through,” Eiswerth said. “We’re very proud of our small-school program. I think in my mind, we’re building young men and getting guys to the next level. We help them get good grades and be good citizens, and on top of it we’ve been fortunate enough to win some football games.”