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Chris Masse on football: Hughesville’s defense has come up big as Spartans are taking steps in right direction

NICK FIORINI/Sun-Gazette Correspondent Hughesville’s Luke Kaiser hands off in the first quarter against Loyalsock on Friday night.

Hughesville went nearly six quarters before finally allowing an offensive touchdown this season. Even then, the touchdown came the hard way with Jaylen Andrews making a spectacular, diving catch.

Nothing comes easy against these Spartans and while the season may just be two games old, that has this team’s prospects looking a whole lot brighter. Yes, Loyalsock blanked Hughesville, 27-0, last Friday but the defense still stood out, holding an explosive unit to just 241 yards and two offensive scores.

Hughesville has not won more than two games in a season since 2016, so this rebuild is a process. The offense and special teams need work, but the defense is providing a strong foundation to build upon. And if those other units catch up to the defense, Hughesville might take a huge step forward this season.

“From last year to this year it’s been a big upgrade. There’s a lot of focus,” standout linebacker Mason Hoppes said after making three tackles for loss and adding a sack. “We’re stopping the run game and it’s a team effort. We have a really solid defense this year compared to previous years.”

Hughesville would rather not have moral victories, but the bottom line is Loyalsock had pounded it the last few years and this game was much more competitive than the final score indicated. Through two games, the defense has allowed just two touchdowns and 283 yards, so there is reason to believe Hughesville could be in every game this season. Moral victories could become real ones more consistently.

Having a stout defense is a good place to start any climb. The Spartans appear to have it, possessing quality players at all three levels. A week after piling up an area-high 453 yards at Berks Catholic, Loyalsock learned early and often that this is not the same old Hughesville as the Spartans closed off running lanes, stormed the passer and covered receivers well. That first Loyalsock offensive score did not come until the final two minutes of the first half and Hughesville allowed fewer than 100 first-half yards.

Sure, Hughesville wanted the victory but establishing building blocks is crucial. The Spartans added a few more last Friday.

“Our defense is right up there. I think our defenses is one of the best around,” Hughesville coach Howard Rainey said. “Defense is always going to keep us going.”

Hughesville played quality defense at times last year, but often was on the field too much and wore down in the second half. Against Loyalsock, Hughesville hung in well all night despite the offense struggling. If not for two special teams touchdowns, the game’s complexion would have been different, but the defense still made a statement, often controlling the line and bottling up some big-time playmakers for long stretches.

The offense is a work in progress, but the defensive surge means that unit does not have to come out and play like the 1999 Rams Greatest Show on Turf. If the defense continues building steam, a couple touchdowns a game might be enough to win.

“I think that’s what is going to allow us to get to that next level. I think our defense is going to keep us in every game,” Rainey said. “Everything is going to be close, so all it’s going to take is one or two big breaks and we’ll be OK.”

Hoppes is playing like one of the area’s best linebackers and Hughesville already has eight sacks. Landen King and Gabe Wagner each have three and Josh Applegate was an excellent run stuffer against Loyalsock. Tyler Wetzel and Aiden Barlett each have two interceptions and the defense is playing the team concept well. Nobody is playing hero ball and players are carrying out their assignments while playing physical.

This defense also is developing some swagger. After Andrews returned the opening kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown, Loyalsock hoped to land an early knockout blow. The defense responded with some haymakers, forcing two turnovers and making two red zone stops. For a team which has struggled the last five years having that confidence is huge and is making Hughesville look more dangerous.

“They’re really good,” Rainey said. “It’s definitely a lot better this year and everybody is starting to believe.”

Belief is powerful and this defense may also be. Another test comes Friday as Hughesville plays its home opener against Bloomsburg. The Panthers are coming off a 42-point showing against Central Mountain so Hughesville again will have its hands full.

But this is a defense excited about challenges like these. This is not a collection of individuals but a unit playing as one. The defense is setting a tone and is eager to show that this program is on the rise.

“We’re always picking each other up. If it’s a good play were congratulating each other and if it’s a bad play we’re not getting down on anyone. We’re moving on,” Hoppes said. “We’re more of a team. It’s not half and half. We’re all together and we’re working more as a team than we have in the past.”

“Going forward I think they have the development of a very strong season on their hands,” Loyalsock coach Justin Van Fleet said. “I think they have some very strong pieces to work with.”

MORE DEFENSE

Loyalsock also has made massive defensive strides. A program more known for its explosive offense in years past is eager to change its image. That was especially true after opponents averaged 44 points in Loyalsock’s five losses last season.

So far, so good on that front. Loyalsock contained Berks Catholic in the opener and shut down everything Hughesville tried. A relentless defense surrendered just 67 yards on 55 plays, bottling up the run, attacking the quarterback and locking up receivers. Every defender who took the field did his job spectacularly well and the Lancers never let Hughesville get closer than 36 yards from the end zone.

“It’s a real chip on our shoulder last year consistently looking at some tag lines about Loyalsock that weren’t necessarily nice to read,” Van Fleet said. “Our kids kept seeing that and really worked this offseason to clear out some of those demons.”

Van Fleet’s high school coach at Loyalsock, Tim Thompson and is working with his son Travis, who is the defensive coordinator. Those two have provided a lift and a defense with a nice blend of experience and size is jelling. The Lancers did not allow a play of more than nine yards against Hughesville and 22 times held ball-carriers to two or fewer yards.

Some major tests are coming, starting with five-time defending Class AA state champion Southern Columbia Friday. Two weeks into the season, however, the defense has earned an A.

“Our linebackers have returned from last year; I think we have a stout front and our defensive backs have always been solid. We’re really excited about what’s happening defensively,” Van Fleet said. “There’s an attitude that is brought to the game. I give a lot of credit to Travis and Tim Thompson. I’m very proud of the work done by themselves and all the defensive coaches.”

COMING BACK

Williamsport gave Mike Pearson coach his first win on the hill Friday after dominating the second half, making some excellent halftime adjustments and downing Pittston, 29-12. The Millionaires trailed by 12 at halftime before overpowering Pittston in the second half and scoring 29 straight points, including 22 in the third quarter. The Millionaires dominated up front on both sides, Nasir Hennigan ran for 135 yards and two scores and a young team took a big step forward.

Williamsport (1-1) has outscored its first two opponents, 43-0 in the second half and stuffed Pittston’s running game, especially in the second half. Caleb Williamson threw his first varsity touchdown pass, hitting big-play threat Yahzir Slaughter for a 77-yard score and George Whaley took a reverse 11 yards for another score. It was a good character win since Williamsport came out fighting after trailing at halftime and the fight continues Friday at home against undefeated Dallas.

“It’s not been an easy lift for us getting off the mat these first two weeks,” Pearson said. “There were sparks after the first half; we could see it. We said, ‘Let’s get to it.’ We made a stop, then some moves defensively and got to work”

BREAKING FREE

South Williamsport broke out in a big way, scoring 53 first-half points and defeating Montgomery, 59-14. Caden Harris (4 carries, 151 yards) and Amir Kemrer (4-144) each scored twice in the first half and Riley Knapp completed all four pass attempts for 102 yards. Dylan Scheller caught a 50-yard touchdown, Connor Apker 14-yarder and freshman Jack Fortin a six-yarder from Tadd Lusk. The offensive line helped South average 18.5 yards per carry and Garrett Cooley and Ryan Fry intercepted passes. Weston Pick totaled 129 yards and a touchdown for Montgomery.

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

DR. MASSE’S TOP 5 RANKINGS

1. Jersey Shore (2-0): Even with all Jersey Shore has achieved the past nine years, its performance against Lewisburg still seemed shocking. Mind you, it was not that Jersey Shore won, but how it did so. The Bulldogs scored 70 first-half points against a quality team in a rematch of last year’s District 4 Class AAAA semifinal and romped to a 70-6 win. The Bulldogs scored 42 second-quarter points and produced touchdowns in all three phases with Kooper Peacock taking a punt back, Connor Griffin a fumble and the offense scoring eight times. Peacock and Griffin each caught touchdowns from Brady Jordan and Hadyn Packer ran for 126 yards and three scores. The defense was as stifling as the offense was explosive and the starting unit has surrendered just one score in two games. Gabe Andrus, Tate Sechrist and Bo Sechrist all recorded sacks and Andrus has three in two games. Jersey Shore has done a good job over the years of staying focused and not letting a game’s margin impact its mindset going into the next week. Doing so will be critical again this week with the Bulldogs hosting rival Selinsgrove.

2. Loyalsock (2-0): Linebacker Logan Bastian helped ignite the swarming defense Friday. The senior made eight tackles, including three for loss.

3. Canton (2-0): Picking up Union at the last minute for the season opener already appears to be playing dividends. The four-hour road trip against a quality team opened some eyes and had Canton extra focused last Thursday. The Warriors scored 35 first-quarter points and defeated North Penn-Mansfield, 53-0. Michael Davis and Rian Eberly fueled a relentless defense, five players scored offensive touchdowns and Weston Bellows returned a punt 66 yards for another score. The passing game clicked as well with Austin Allen and Bailey Ferguson completing 7 of 8 passes for 107 yards.

“It was a great learning experience. We got off the bus and were a little sluggish and they were a little better than we expected,” Allen said of playing Union. “So playing a team like that, with athletes like that, it made us kind of kick it into a faster gear. It showed us that we better get playing harder.”

4. Muncy (2-0): Wellsboro pushed Muncy hard as expected, but the Indians came back strong in the second half, scoring 23 points and overcoming two seven-point deficits to win, 30-22. The offensive line asserted itself in the second half and Branson and Ross Eyer continued making plays on both sides. Branson found Ross for a score, ran for another and each had interceptions. Muncy has played well up front, helping two runners go over 100 yards in each victory. Linebacker Jason Shuda is one of the best in the area and led the team with 13 tackles. Muncy has been unable to find a Week 3 opponent after Sayre canceled its season on August 4th, so it likely will be off this week before hosting Montgomery in the Old Shoe Game.

5. Milton (2-0): Playing defense which would make the Steel Curtain envious helped Milton rally past Towanda, 21-7 and start 2-0 for a second straight season. Milton surrendered just 33 yards and scored 21 straight second-half points after trailing 7-0 at halftime. Peyton Rearick, Xzavier Minium and Ashton Krall intercepted passes as Milton held an offense which produced 385 rushing yards in its opener to just nine. Milton has allowed just seven points and 207 yards the first two weeks and Luke Goodwin made a team-high 13 tackles with Rearick adding 12. Milton also collected five sacks.

Players of the Week — Austin Johnson, Muncy and Gary Verdinelli, Milton

Johnson took charge in the second half at Wellsboro, finishing with 181 yards and two touchdowns. The powerful sophomore went over 20 career touchdowns and has 21 in his first 13 high school games. He also helped the defense and made four tackles. Coming off a breakthrough season, Verdinelli continues to shine on both sides of the ball and the defensive end was living in the Towanda backfield. Verdinelli made nine tackles and added two sacks, helping Milton overwhelm Towanda up front.

Game of the Week — Selinsgrove at Jersey Shore

It is a District 4 Class AAAA championship rematch Friday at Thompson Street Stadium. Jersey Shore and Selinsgrove have combined to win the last nine District 4 Class AAA and AAAA championships. The Bulldogs have won the past four and undefeated Selinsgrove is eager to try and end that streak. Both teams feature ferocious defenses and exciting offenses. Jersey Shore edged Selinsgrove 9-7 in Week 2 a year ago and one has the feeling this will not be the last time these two teams see each other this season.

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