Southern Columbia head coach Jim Roth sees pretty much the same Wilmington team that the Tigers ousted, 48-0, during last year’s PIAA Class 2A Championship game.
He also knows the Greyhounds (13-1) have an extra year of weight training, experience and a slew of returning players for this year’s season finale set for 1 p.m. Friday at HersheyPark Stadium.
“They’re a notch better,” he said when asked how the team has changed. “They’re doing the same things on both sides of the ball, but they seem to be executing better offensively and stronger on defense. The scores they’ve put up kind of indicate that.”
That sets up an interesting rematch for this year’s title. And for Southern, now 8-8 in the title game as a program, will get the opportunity to move into winning-record territory with a victory over Wilmington.
The Greyhounds sustained their only loss of the regular season to Farrell, a team that will be playing for the Class 1A championship today at 1 p.m.
Aside from the Week 2 loss, Wilmington steamrolled through the District 10 regular season using a similar offensive scheme to Southern’s Wing-T formation.
“To an extent they’re running the Wing-T like we are, but there are some differences. Neither of us are running a traditional Delaware Wing-T system,” Roth explained. “The offenses are still quite a bit different in terms of what our playbooks are.”
However, the similarities in formation alone may help both team’s defenses prepare for what is to come in the championship game.
“It definitely helps both teams be a little more familiar with what they’re looking at,” Roth said. “There are some of the same things going on in terms of concepts.”
The Greyhounds’ rendition of the time-tested offense is led by senior quarterback Robert Pontius, who stands 6-4 and weighs 195 pounds.
Compared to his counterpart, Southern QB Stone Hollenbach, Pontius will be much more active in the running game and much less active in the passing game.
Pontius has ran the ball 85 times for 574 yards (6.7 yards per carry) and is an integral part of the Wilmington ground game.
The squad’s top offensive threat is senior halfback Cameron Marett, whose statistics are comparable to Southern halfback Gaige Garcia. Marett has ran the ball 200 times for 1,735 yards (8.6 average).
Defensively, the Wilmington defense is running a 4-3 scheme, highlighted by senior inside linebacker Colton Richards, who stands 6-2 and weighs 270 — huge for a high school linebacker. Richards is a three-time letterwinner and a captain on this year’s squad.
Last week, the Greyhounds held Steel Valley to 11 yards of offense and only two first downs in a 26-6 win to advance to the title game.
Roth described the defensive unit as one that brings a very aggressive front that does well playing in a coordinated fashion.
“It’s hard to say what their defense brings compared to (Mount Carmel), but there are certain things that jump out when you look at solid groups,” Roth said. “With the front seven they are bringing back six starters, including the middle linebacker, and they are an experienced group that has had a lot of success.”
The Southern Columbia offensive line is showing it has a lot to be proud of entering the championship game.
Roth showed skepticism about the unit in the preseason, ranging back to the District 4 Media Day in August, but has recently turned the narrative around to one of praise.
“We had some changes going on at different times with personnel in the beginning of the year and, I guess it was just a matter of getting the guys some experience and adjusting,” he said.
Roth described the improvements as a “natural progression” that involved hard work and getting a feel for what needs to happen on the field.
“The overall execution and communication has gradually improved. They are playing probably their best football as a group and, this late in the season, that’s the goal,” he said.
“There was never one single weakness that we were focused on — it was a combination of factors and one of the biggest things that have gotten us to this point is having the same group in there for a number of weeks.”
Southern Columbia has single-handedly changed the narrative when it comes to the East vs. West debate at the top levels of high school football.
Ranging back to the 1990s, Southern was often an underdog in state championship games against teams from the other side.
The Tigers got the school’s first gold in their first state championship appearance with a 49-6 rout of Western Beaver in 1994, before losing six straight title games in what could only be described as a title drought.
Roth is quick to mention the success of the teams that earned silver, and rightfully so, but it took until 2002 for Southern to hit its stride as a program.
“The (early years) were a very successful time period for us — making it to the state championship game so often,” Roth said. “We beat so many teams in the East over that time period, but we couldn’t beat the teams from the West. After losing those games so many times we knew from a program standpoint that the only thing left to do was turn it around and win a bunch — and that’s what we’ve done.
“Looking back to those losses, it has made what we’ve been able to do recently that much more rewarding. It took the sting away.”
When Southern Columbia’s absurdly talented Class of 2020 burst onto the scene in 2016, not everyone knew the kind of affect they would have on the program.
Gaige Garcia, who has become a bit of a household name in coal region football, often had his first name misspelled by area media outlets.
Julian Fleming, as hard as it may be to believe, hadn’t yet received interest from Division I schools.
And linebacker Cal Haladay served as a quiet, though still effective, force that didn’t burst through the line before the ball left the center’s hands anywhere near as often as he does now.
Look how far they’ve come.
Garcia is on pace to break Henry Hynoski’s career rushing record. Fleming has received offers from just about every big-name school in the country and Haladay recently received an offer from Jim Harbaugh to play at the University of Michigan.
Now add in the other guys — senior QB Stone Hollenbach is walking on to Alabama, Gavin Garcia is one heck of a freshman athlete (and we haven’t even seen him wrestle yet) and an offensive line that head coach Jim Roth was critical of at the beginning of the year is now earning the seasoned coach’s praises.
Needless to say, Wilmington (13-1) has a lot of obstacles to overcome in Friday’s state championship game.
After falling 48-0 to the Tigers last season, Greyhounds head coach Terry Verrilli called it a career following 40 seasons.
He told the New Castle News that he wanted to leave the program while it was at a high point for new head coach Brandon Phillian to continue the squad’s winning tradition.
Phillian, who was previously the team’s defensive coordinator, has lived up to his side of the bargain, leading the Greyhounds back to the title game with a squad that has a host of returning starters.
He’s going to get a trial by fire tomorrow.
Southern Columbia is a 51-point game away from setting the PIAA record for most points scored in a season, a mark set by Jeannette in 2007 with 860. The Tigers have racked up 810 points heading into Friday’s game.
While Southern’s talented group of juniors will secure the program’s integrity for at least another year, it’s important to remember that the Tigers also found a state championship without them in 2015.
With that said, it’s completely within the realm of possibility for the squad to make it through their entire high school careers having lost just one game — the 2016 state championship against Steel Valley.
And that’s a statistic no one can take away from them.