Pilgrims, pizza, pancakes and power

Mike Mathews
Nov 22, 2018

Saturday afternoon, after leading the school fight song, a handful of Fort Hill football players dove into a big pile of snow just in front of the Greenway Avenue Stadium stands.

Don’t know if any of them made snow angels off the field, but do know opponents have had a devil of a time trying to beat them on it.

Catoctin was the latest to try but, like most of the others this year, fell woefully short. Fort Hill led for all but the first 38 seconds, and waltzed to its sixth straight West Region championship, and 11th straight win, 55-6, in a game that wasn’t as close as the score may indicate.

Long ago, Pilgrims and native American friends at Plymouth celebrated the first Thanksgiving. A lot of things have changed since then.

Not too long ago, it seems, we were wolfing down our first square or two or three of Stadium pizza on the first football Friday night of the season. A lot of things have changed since then, too.

Back then, it was a Fort Hill offense trying to find its footing. Trying, and struggling at times, to get out of first gear.

“At the beginning, we were sort of a weakness of the team, as an offensive line,” tackle Trey Bishop, a mountain of a senior at 6-foot-6 and 281 pounds, admitted. “And now we’re becoming a strength and I’m really proud to see that. Every single day, I’m surprised even more.”

Coach Todd Appel gave the offensive line a B-plus for its Saturday performance that helped him to his 30th playoff win. After watching a line serve up more pancakes than IHOP on a busy weekend morning, one might say he’s a pretty tough grader.

“They know where I’m coming from,” he said with a laugh. “They can play a little better, absolutely.”

Center Hunter Jacobs, guards Austin Burt and Jakobe Jackson, tackles Liam Moran and Bishop and end Wyatt Brehm have paved holes that have led to 613 rushing yards in the two postseason games. In the region championship game, the Sentinels ran 40 times for 374 yards, a 9.3-yard average.

“Our offensive line has been something we’ve been working on all year, and coach Rusty Swarner and Danny May have done an excellent job with the line this year. They started very young. We only have one senior on the offensive line (Trey Bishop) and the rest are juniors. They’ve made leaps and bounds. That was something we weren’t very good at at the beginning of the year and now we’re getting a lot better, but we still have room to grow.”

Many moons ago, Fort Hill failed to score an offensive touchdown in a 19-7 win over Hollidaysburg.

Since the last full moon, the Sentinels have scored 208 points (a four-game span against teams with a combined 28-15 record). They have put up 152 points since Homecoming and 114 in two playoff games.

There’s no reason a team scoring like that would need a stout defense, but they have that, too.

The only teams to have scored more than one touchdown against Fort Hill were Reginald Lewis, Capital Christian and Forest Park, three games that were over almost before they began: 62-12, 56-13, and 51-14.

And again, place-kicker Danny King has scored more points (77) than the defense has given up (76), a statement that says volumes about both heading into the 13th week of the season.

“From a defensive standpoint, we’ve always been great,” Mt. Bishop said.

“I don’t know if we can get any better,” linebacker Colten Crabtree said of the defense. He has returned interceptions for touchdowns in both playoff games. “But we’ll see in the next couple of weeks. If we keep doing what we’re doing, we’re going to be very good.

“I think we’re 10 times better,” he said in comparing the Week 12 team to the teams of earlier weeks. “We just became more of a family as the weeks go on. We’re just building more and more.”

Appel added another reason for his team’s maturation.

“When they first started, they really didn’t like accountability. But they’ve accepted and embraced accountability,” he said. “They show up every day. If you go to practice every day and watch film every day, and lift weights every other day, and listen to coaching, I think that’s a recipe for getting better.”

Two things became evident early in the region championship game: The Cougars, if they were going to go down, were going to go down throwing, and they were not going to allow a special teams touchdown.

Quarterback Christian Michael threw for more than 1,500 yards during the season. But Saturday the Cougars, after completing two of their first three passes, were 3 for their next 19 and finished 8 for 25.

Just as eye-opening was Fort Hill’s third-down defense. Catoctin went 0 for 8 for minus-27 yards on third down. There were three incompletions, three sacks and two tackles for loss. Isaiah Plummer had a sack for a 10-yard loss and tackled Travis Fields for a 7-yard loss. Wyatt Brehm teamed with Bryan Uhl for a sack and with Plummer for another one seven yards behind the line of scrimmage.

The third-down defense forced plenty of punting. There were 41- and 44-yarders, but also a 14-yarder, a 15-yarder, a 22-yarder and two 23-yarders. Catoctin punted seven times, all in the first half, and booted all seven out of bounds.

That silenced Fort Hill’s return game. But the 14-yarder gave the Sentinels the ball at the Cougars 44, the 15-yarder at the Cougars 28, the 22-yarder at the Cougars 35, and the 23-yarders at midfield and at the Cougars 35.

Seven of Fort Hill’s 10 possessions began at midfield or in Catoctin territory. The Cougars had 11 possessions. Ten began at their 20; the other, at their 25.

Appel didn’t say if anything he sees at this point surprises him.

“I’m just blessed and thankful,” he answered. “I don’t ever think we’re going to go into a game, winning a game. I worry about the opponent, and I worried about Catoctin tossing that ball around and us not being able to guard people.

“Those kids, our kids, just played extremely well and they like to play football. No one ever thought this group could do it. I give all the credit to God, and then to all the kids, who play extremely hard. I’m just thankful.”

Thankful, too, no doubt, to be playing high school football after Thanksgiving.