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Chris Masse on football: There’s a buzz building around Milton football

More than an hour before kickoff, energetic Milton fans already had mostly filled the long bleachers at their new spectacular looking new stadium. They watched less than three minutes of football before thunderstorms delayed the game for 101 minutes.

By the time play resumed, the bleachers were jammed again.

If one wants to truly understand how the times are changing at Milton, those scenes might be the best way to describe it. Nobody wants to miss a thing. There is a buzz about this team after last year’s breakthrough campaign and, if Milton, builds off what it did in Friday’s opener against South Williamsport, that buzz might soon become a roar.

Milton shined in all facets against a quality South team, winning, 28-0 and quickly showing that last year’s 7-5 season was no fluke. The Black Panthers dominated a physical team up front, produced two 100-yard rushers, forced four turnovers and looked like a hungry team eager to keep moving upward. It’s a long journey, but last year was a huge first step and another big one was taken against South.

“We had a breakfast tailgate and a pep rally in school. There was a lot of energy here today and I’m glad we could come out here and perform the way we did,” said Hunter Zettlemoyer, one of several excellent linemen who helped Milton run for 303 yards. “I think this is just the start for Milton football.”

Milton had hit a rough patch early in the 2000s before a brief successful three-year run from 2011-13. Hard times returned, though, and entering last season Milton had won more than three games in a season since 2013. The Panthers endured a winless 2019 campaign and won their last game of 2020 to snap a 16-game losing streak.

Every great turnaround story needs a launching pad. For Jersey Shore it came in 2013; for South in 2012 and Canton in 2018. Milton started its climb last year as it put the past behind, won its first four games and finished 7-5. Milton won its first playoff game in nine years and came within a play or two of beating Montoursville and reaching the District 4 Class AAA final.

The question was whether that was a one-year wonder or the start of something big. Early indications are it’s the latter. Even after losing dynamic sophomore running back Chris Doyle in the preseason, this offense still looked potent. Quarterbacks Cale Bastian and Xzavier Minium each topped 100 yards rushing and the passing game showed nice potential. The defense swarmed against one of the area’s premier teams over the last decade and Milton built a 21-0 halftime lead.

There was a lot of pressure on Milton to make this home debut on the new turf field a big one. It’s safe to say the Panthers exceeded even the fans’ lofty expectations and increased the excitement in the process.

“It was exciting. When we first stepped on the mat (to go on the field), everyone was cheering,” standout lineman Gary Verdinelli said. “That kind of set the mood for the whole team and it showed. We came out energetic and put the petal to the metal.”

Milton produced second-quarter scoring drives of 97 and 90 yards to take control. South threatened twice and reached the red zone but Milton forced turnovers each time. The Panthers than controlled all aspects in the second half as Mason Rowe and freshman Monty Fisher provided power running behind the stout line. The offense looked versatile; the defense stingy and the fans never stopped cheering.

It’s only one game but it was just the kind of start Milton needed.

“I feel like that was the first step of many that these guys want to take this year,” Milton coach Phil Davis said. “You have to take care of each week, so I feel like we took care of Week 1 and we enjoy it tonight and get ready to move on and make a long trip to Towanda and see where it goes from there.”

Belief is a powerful thing and that is what Milton generated last year. Now it goes beyond that. Milton has confidence and talent. Even more exciting, several starters who produced strong games are underclassmen.

There were some dark times for a while but, like the backs running behind that aggressive line, it appears Milton is now running toward daylight. They started at the bottom of this stair case and still have a long way to go. But one step at a time, Milton keeps climbing higher.

“Every win; every positive play is a step forward for our program. It’s not only us. It’s the fans that come to support us, it’s everything,” Zettlemoyer said. “We’re trying to change a culture around here. Every positive play we have, that’s one more step in the right direction of changing the culture.

“This is Game 1 out of many. I can’t wait to see what the others bring.”

FOR MIKE: Montoursville picked up one gutsy win after receiving an inspirational halftime pep talk from coach Mike Boughton. Boughton recently was diagnosed with cancer and could not coach Friday, but he was there at halftime to provide motivation and it worked in a huge way. Montoursville scored 21 third-quarter points in a nine-minute span, erased a 14-point halftime deficit, played dominant defense and defeated Wellsboro, 21-14.

It was a great tribute to Boughton with his players showing the fight that he is as he takes on the battle of his life. This was a really gutsy win, with Montoursville digging and rallying when things looked bleak.

The defense took over and allowed just 132 yards while forcing three turnovers. Blaise Alexander had a career-high 11 tackles with a sack and Ethan Wanner produced a sack, nine tackles and recovered a fumble. Cole Yonkin had a big night, too, with seven tackles, including two for loss. Bryce Eberhart threw for 167 yards and two touchdowns in his first varsity start, while Matthew Conklin ran for a touchdown.

GOOD START: Hughesville used some dominant defense to blank Montgomery, 42-0 and win its first season opener since 2016. For a program hoping to turn things around, things could not have gone much better with Hughesville allowing just 42 yards and scoring touchdowns in all three phases. Aiden Barlett intercepted two passes, returning one for a touchdown, and Luke Stutzman returned a blocked punt 10 yards for another score.

Luke Kaiser threw for 142 yards, finding Angelo Ferrigno and Haydn Maneval for touchdowns. Kaiser spread the ball around, hitting seven different receivers. Ferrigno broke free for a 57-yard touchdown and is one of several playmakers Hughesville can utilize. Tough games are ahead, starting with Loyalsock Friday, but this was just the kind of start Hughesville needed.

EXTRA POINTS: Bucktail has just 18 players but that was enough for it to impress the home crowd with an emphatic 42-12 victory against Sheffield. It was an excellent start after going winless last season and was highlighted by big plays and stingy defense. Braylon Fantaski scored touchdowns three different ways, totaling 132 yards and returning an interception 90 yards for a score. Four different players produced touchdowns and quarterback Brody Pentz produced 120 yards and two touchdowns … Central Mountain is one of the area’s youngest teams, but played Mifflin County tough in a 14-7 loss. Brady Myers found Connor Foltz for a fourth-down touchdown and the defense did not allow a second-half point … Karson Dominick hit Sammy Lawrence with a 20-yard touchdown and Kohen Lehman totaled 124 yards in North Penn-Mansfield’s 34-13 loss at Towanda … Cowanesque Valley sophomore Fletcher Good had a huge night in a 51-19 loss at Northwest. Good ran for a career-high 154 yards and two touchdowns, while adding 69 yards and another score receiving.

DR. MASSE’S TOP 5 RANKINGS

1. Jersey Shore (1-0): Yup, Jersey Shore is still mighty good at football. Coming off a third straight state Final Four appearance, the four-time defending District 4 Class AAAA champions made quick work of a quality Pottsville team, winning, 55-12. Jersey Shore won its 20th straight regular-season game and built a 41-0 halftime lead against a team it defeated in triple overtime in the 2019 state quarterfinals. The starting defense did not allow a point and Luke Springman made three tackles for loss, while Gabe Andrus and Tate Sechrist combined for 3 1/2 sacks. Hadyn Packer made six tackles and the two-time all-stater was a beast on offense, running for 131 yards and four touchdowns. The offensive line pushed Pottsville around, paving the way for 423 yards as Brady Jordan found Connor Griffin and Kooper Peacock for touchdowns. Peacock also intercepted a pass as Jersey Shore built plenty of momentum heading into Friday’s game at Lewisburg.

2. Loyalsock (1-0): The Lancers went looking for a strong Week 1 opponent, found one in Berks Catholic and then opened some eyes with an impressive 34-21 there. Loyalsock’s offensive line got a good push up front and paved the way for 451 yards as Loyalsock moved the ball at will against a perennial District 3 title contender. Tyler Gee threw for 198 yards and two touchdowns while Gage Patterson showed some big-play ability and caught a 48-yard scoring strike. Gavin Rice and Will Burdett shined defensively and combined for 27 tackles while adding three tackles for loss. Logan Bastian made 11 tackles and David Boring added a sack. The District 4 Class AAA field looks crowded this year and two-time defending champion Danville appears loaded. Loyalsock showed with this performance, though, that it once again is a title threat and this could be a positive springboard.

3. Canton (1-0): Because of Sayre’s weak move to cancel its varsity season despite having 28 players, Canton did not find a Week 1 replacement until last Tuesday. The Warriors made the long trek to New Castle and defeated Union, 31-18. Ultimately, while Sayre’s decision August 4 put Canton in a bind, it could be a blessing since Union was a quality opponent and pushed it hard. The Warriors held off repeated Union comebacks and showcased the offensive versatility which helped it reach last year’s District 4 Class A semifinals. Four players scored and the defense contained an explosive offense. Riley Parker scored two touchdowns, Bailey Ferguson kicked a field goal and Canton won its season opener for a fifth straight season. The defending district champions have a short week this week and head to North Penn-Mansfield on Thursday night.

4. Muncy (1-0): Coach Sean Tetreault said this preseason he would like to see the passing game be utilized more this season. And, wow, did Muncy utilize it in its opener at Warrior Run’s new stadium. Branson Eyer threw for 129 yards and a career-high five touchdowns in less than 18 minutes as Muncy won, 56-6. Eyer threw his first touchdown just 21 seconds into the game and his fifth with 6 minutes, 15 seconds still remaining in the second quarter. He found his cousin Ross Eyer three times for touchdowns and running back Austin Johnson twice. Muncy’s offensive line did a nice job opening holes as well and Jacob Fowler ran for a career-high 109 yards and two touchdowns. Muncy scored 49 first-half points and intercepted three passes, showing it is eager to try and fight for the district title back after Canton ended its three-year reign last fall.

5. Milton (1-0): Doyle produced one of the best freshman seasons in area history last year, running for 1,174 yards and an area freshman record 19 touchdowns. Losing him hurts a lot, but the combination of strong line play and a bevy of playmakers could help negate it. Minium and Bastian both have some explosiveness and Fisher showed some good burst against South. Mason Rowe also ran hard and Peyton Rearick, who caught, a touchdown also could see some carries.

“You don’t replace a kid that good, but now it’s going to give opportunities for some other kids to step up and get different opportunities to make plays,” Davis said. “Last year he (Doyle) was the unknown. Now we found some other people in this first game, so we’ll use them and move forward.”

Players of the Week: Davion Hill, Loyalsock and Marco Pulizzi, Montoursville

Hill is still deciding which Division I basketball school he will play at, but he’s quite a football player, too. The all-state running back dazzled against Berks Catholic, running for a career-high 227 yards and three touchdowns. He also caught two passes for 94 yards and a score, totaling 331 yards. Hill can gain tough yards, but also showed his explosiveness on the game’s first scoring play as he took a Gee pass 71 yards for a touchdown less than three minutes in. Pulizzi helped will Montoursville back in the second half caught two third-quarter touchdowns while adding an interception. Pulizzi caught a career-high seven passes for 149 yards, scoring on plays of 50 and 71 yards. His 71-yard put Montoursville ahead and Pulizzi also was part of a stifling defense, making a tackle for loss.

Game of the Week: Muncy at Wellsboro

This is a nice test for both teams, with Wellsboro showcasing its prowess by playing Montoursville so tough. Wellsboro had controlled this series before it ended in 2017 and this is an intriguing NTL I vs II matchup. Things won’t be as easy for Muncy as they were last Friday, so it is a game which should help it moving forward. Expect a close and entertaining game.

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

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