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Chris Masse on football: South has relished being an underdog

MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette South Williamsport players run onto the field prior to a game at home earlier this season.

While being interviewed during a high school football podcast last Thursday, this reporter said the only way South Williamsport could beat No. 2 seed Troy on the road was by mixing up its offense. I added that while South has enjoyed an excellent season it was likely ending in the District 4 Class AA semifinals.

I underestimated South. Again. And I am not the only one.

South was a decided underdog against the surging Trojans last week, but dominated the second half, scored 21 straight points and won, 35-18. Now the Mounties are back in a district final for the fifth time in nine seasons, playing at Southern Columbia for the title Friday night.

The thing is we have seen this script before. South has been an underdog against teams like Bloomsburg, Wellsboro and, in some eyes, Mount Carmel during a spectacular nine-year playoff streak. The Mounties have won all those games and have never deviated from who they are while doing so. This is a blue-collar program and it never shies away from a fight. If that means running the same three plays all night until someone proves they can stop it, so be it.

That is the beauty of football. One can know exactly what is coming, but if one brilliantly executes the plays it does not matter. South has repeatedly proven that these last nine years while going 79-33.

That is the foundation which a proud tradition has been built upon and South did it again against Troy. The Mounties attempted just five passes, completed none, but pounded the strong and large Trojans up front, running for 271 yards. The defense then stuffed out Troy’s power running game in the second half and South romped to a victory against a team with a strong core back from last year’s 10-2 NTL-I champion/district semifinalist.

While some were wondering how Troy might match up against powerhouse Southern in the days leading up to the game, South kept grinding. The Mounties have never cared about what others think, but how they perform. Time after time, they have performed so well.

But while this year mirrors many others over the last nine years, it also is so different. COVID-19 has wreaked havoc with just about all aspects of sports and life, in general. South did not even know if it would have a season throughout the summer and doubts were fueled when their lone preseason scrimmage was canceled at the last minute, ironically against Troy. A few days later the program was shut down for two weeks due to COVID concerns.

Oh yeah, on top of all that, South features just four senior starters and has started multiple freshmen throughout the season.

But here the Mounties are again, playing for another championship. The beat goes on.

Again, South has stuck to its roots. The line is young, but powerful. Zack Miller has run for 959 yards and 13 touchdowns in six games, erupting for 262 yards against a Troy defense which had posted three shutouts in its previous four games. Lane Lusk and Clayton Swarthout also have run well and South has made big plays in the passing game with Landon Lorson developing good chemistry with receivers Grant Bachman, Jake Casella and Cam Greenaway.

Conversely, the defense has been stout and aggressive. The starters have let just one team reach 20 points and linebacker Lane Lusk made 20 tackles against Troy. Defensive linemen Ryan Rischoff has been a beast up front and freshman linebacker Ryan Casella looks like a rising star.

But as it always has been over the years at South, this is a collective effort. It is coach Chris Eiswerth and his excellent assistant coaches putting in countless hours and maximizing their players’ strengths. It is the players working equally hard, accepting their roles and thriving in them. It is the next man up always stepping up when costly injuries mount, something that happened earlier this year. South has had some star power over the years, but at its core, it just is a strong team in every sense of the word.

This year drives that home more than any other season during this run. Considering the team’s youth and inexperience the challenges already were immense. Throw in COVID and they became unprecedented. South, however, never flinched. Troy was the signature win, but the signature moment came in South’s second game when it trailed Northwest by a point in the final minutes.

South was backed up at its own 14-yard line playing a 3-0 team which had the benefit of playing three more games, counting a scrimmage, at that point. Three times South faced fourth downs during that drive and it converted each time. Lorson capped the game-winning drive when he found Casella for a 34-yard touchdown and Bachman clinched it with a last-second interception as South won, 21-14.

That drive, this season and that Troy win perfectly symbolize who this team is and what this program represents. The Mounties are determined, tough, poised, well-coached and just really good.

And if you don’t appreciate that … Well, South doesn’t really care.

They just love proving the doubters wrong.

Chris Masse covers football at the Sun-Gazette and may be reached by email at cmasse@sungazette.com. Follow him on Twitter at @docmasse.

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