September 24, 2021
Todd Helmick

Hollidaysburg, PA - I have seen my share of FH games the last 40 or so years but tonight was something rarely witnessed. It was weird yet inspiring. Abnormal but interesting. Tiring but gritty. But these COVID times are anything but normal by a long shot.

The truth is that last Monday the word coming out of Greenway Avenue was this varsity football game for Fort Hill at Hollidaysburg would be cancelled. Quarantine Time after the Sentinels win at Southern Garrett last week left a huge chunk of the roster home for 10 days due to a positive COVID test by one of the Rams players that forced heavy contact tracing player suspensions. Southern wound up canceling their Friday night game this week at Pendleton County. The entire offensive and defensive lines for FH had to be retooled and reestablished on three days of practice. JV players who have never participated at the varsity level were left filling gaps. Fort Hill had six linemen. That was for both offense and defense and they needed the extra JV players just to get that.

The big concern wasn't just relegated to inexperience, but a lack of depth. Sure enough cramps, injuries and exhaustion all played its hand deep into the second half. I am guessing upwards of 12 different players were used on the defensive line tonight. Some of them at 160 pounds with a wet uniform. More than half have never even played defensive line before. The chosen starters for this game were dropping like flies, never getting a breather. Especially once Hollidaysburg finally sped up the tempo pounding the ball up the middle on the read-option hand off and around the edge with a running quarterback to start the second half. The Fort Hill offensive line had a JV tight end starting at tackle, that's how this game rolled. Oh well, coaches knew this was going to be the case before even getting on the bus.

The Sentinels scored all 35 points in the first half, none in the second half. They held a 21 point lead to start the 4th quarter as the attrition walls started caving in with the mental mistakes joining the fray. Kickoff returners running into each other to start the FH drive on the 5 yard line. The punter scooping a low snap (from a newly found 10th grade long snapper) with his knee on the ground to have it blown dead there. A defensive back on 4th and long falling down that led to a long passing touchdown. In the second half FH just could not get a stop even though it took Hollidaysburg all 3 or 4 downs to move the chains.

The loss of senior Blake White early in the first half due to an unexplained sickness really took its toll the rest of the game. He came back late in the 4th quarter. But once he went out and others started cramping the FH coaches were left directing a sandlot pickup game with players being asked to play first time positions on the fly.

Offensively, Fort Hill was just the same as the defense - a committee approach. I don't think any one player had more than 50 yards rushing. But there were like six of them who had 50 yards rushing.

The first half was an opposite tale of two halves. Up 28-0 just like that and then 35-7 at the half, Fort Hill was just gashing Hollidaysburg with long runs and a key blocked punt returned for a touchdown. Most of the red & white fans including myself had this look of disbelief, like is this really happening, WOW. It was an incredible opening fireworks display and it looked like this one might be a mercy rule running clock at some point. But credit the Tigers for some nice halftime adjustments, the first including a design to wear out the extremely thin FH defensive front. It worked.
As it turns out, one of the best kickers FH has seen this year who could probably kick a 55-yard attempt if need be, shanked an extra point off the left upright to make the score 35-27 forcing the Tigers to go for the two point conversion on their last score. Fort Hill got that stop and it was the only stop that really mattered as a pass sailed incomplete. FH falls on the ensuing onsides kickoff attempt and then holds on through two incomplete hail mary pass attempts with 13 seconds left.

As mentioned, nothing seems normal anymore. One Hollidaysburg set of parents asked me after the game how FH could win championships with only 22 guys in uniform. It was explained to them how COVID protocols work in Allegany County for this week. Not sure they still understood the process. Me neither ma'am.

The coaching staff deserves a great deal of credit for having the courage to just play this game when many were arguing to cancel it. Same credit goes out to the players who toughened this victory out. I know personally every week since August has been a daily and weekly grind of contact tracing and just trying to keep players in a uniform. I'm sure it's the same at every school. Ask any school administrator and they will tell you the jest of their time is spent doing contact tracing. Forget about actually running an educational set up.

Hollidaysburg is just a wonderful stadium and atmosphere. The band, the surrounding neighborhood with grills and football celebrations all on Senior Night. My only knock was that the concessions ran out of perogies by halftime. Their fans tell me that happens every home game...get some by halftime or not at all. So it was on to a $5 hot chocolate in a souvenir mug with free refills. My belly hurts and now I'm exhausted.
Next up for Fort Hill -- Class 3A Oakdale out of Frederick County, who lost to big time power and long time rival Linganore tonight 53-54 in overtime. The Oakdale Bears will be the best team Fort Hill or any Class 1A school sees all year by a landslide.
In other related football the MPSSAA voted to pass the new 2021 "EVERYONE MAKES THE PLAYOFFS" format. Instead of four classifications (1A, 2A, 3A, 4A) there are now six classifications. Instead of 12 teams in the 1A West Region, there are now 8 teams. Moving out of Class 1A for this year will be the likes of Dunbar, South Carroll, Cambridge-South Dorchester, Boonsboro, Williamsport, Harford Tech and a handful of others. What is left in terms of September top level projections are Fort Hill, Havre de Grace, maybe one of the Baltimore City schools like Edmondson-Westside and this up and coming program called Mountain Ridge.

Given the new six classification alignment and playoff structure, I really see the Fort Hill vs. Mountain Ridge second match up taking place at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium in Annapolis on December 4 for a state championship. Granted this is due to an extremely watered down Class 1A post season situation. But nothing is normal anymore. For the first time in history -- two Allegany County schools one time at the state capital three hours away for all the marbles. You heard it here first!