HERSHEY — On high school football’s biggest stage, Southern Columbia’s Gaige Garcia absolutely stole the show.
The junior running back scored five touchdowns to help the Tigers power past Wilmington, 49-14, in Friday’s PIAA Class 2A Championship and earn the school’s ninth state title in 17 appearances.
The win gave Southern it’s second straight 16-0 season, and the Tigers did it in dominating fashion, finishing all but one game under the 35-point mercy rule (Week 5 vs. Central Columbia).
But the final score does not tell the whole story, as both teams were deadlocked at 14 going into the locker rooms at halftime.
The first quarter ended scoreless after both teams managed long, field-ranging drives and Southern got off to a shaky start.
The Greyhounds’ defense forced Southern to do something it hadn’t had to do all season — drive the football — for the first drive of the game. It took the Tigers six minutes to travel 60 yards and get into scoring position with a first-and-goal on the Wilmington 3-yard line.
Southern head coach Jim Roth gave fullback Ty Roadarmel the call and the Greyhound defense forced a fumble and recovered it just outside of the endzone.
Now facing 97 yards in front of them, the Hounds managed to find holes in the defense and put together a 7-minute, 38-second drive that consisted of 15 plays to put the first points on the board and take the lead, 6-0, after a missed PAT.
Southern responded on the ensuing possession, taking advantage of a great read by Julian Fleming, who opted to dash for a first down on fourth-and-10 instead of punt the ball away, a move that pleased Roth.
Roth said he didn’t call for the fake, but agreed with Fleming’s on-field read of the situation that led to the first down.
“When I saw it I thought, ‘That’s a good idea,’” Roth said with a smile. “He read the defense and saw they had everyone inside. He was comfortable enough knowing he would get the first down if he ran it.”
Garcia reached the corner of the end zone on a 5-yard scamper a few plays later and Ethan Dunkelberger converted what is probably the most important extra point of his career to give the Tigers a 7-6 lead with 6:59 remaining in the half.
Wilmington showed their exploitation of the Southern defense was no fluke on the next drive, this time using the passing game to make Southern’s secondary look almost foolish on a nine-play 70-yard push to that ended with a 13-yard pass to Cameron Marett from Robert Pontius in the end zone.
The Hounds converted the 2-point conversion, leaving them with the lead, 14-7, and only 1:18 left on the clock.
With 67 yards of turf in front of the Tigers, the squad went on the attack, albeit slowly at first.
After several plays that only resulted in a few yards, Southern QB Stone Hollenbach found Garcia over the middle on a seam route for a 32-yard touchdown with only one second left in the half to tie the game at 14. Photos circulating on social media during the game showed Garcia’s entire body down just shy of the end zone.
Wilmington head coach Brandon Phillian said he felt that Garcia was down when he saw it live and felt the call could have hurt the team’s momentum heading into half.
“There’s no doubt about it (hurting our momentum),” he said. “I felt he was down short and I expressed my thought and my opinion to the official and he told me they saw him in — so hey, you have to accept the result of that and move forward. The kids kept their heads up in the locker room and they stayed calm, cool and collected. We have no regrets about anything that transpired here today.”
Nevertheless, when the teams emerged from the locker rooms after halftime, Wilmington never saw the same flawed Southern defense it saw in the first half.
The second half of the game brought two Southern interceptions, both by Shane Miller, and the Hounds managed only three first downs — and no points — for the rest of the game.
“This game was about overcoming adversity,” Roth said. “The defense played really uncharacteristically in the first half and we were really surprised because they’ve been solid all year. They stepped it up in the second half and executed the way they needed to.
“Gaige and Gavin gave us a spark — and that’s what players like that do,” he said. “A lot of people coming into the game and our players were hearing how easy this was supposed to be. We knew they weren’t going to be that easy, and that’s pretty much what happened.”
Roth said he was pleased seeing Miller pull down his two interceptions.
“That’s a kid who hasn’t had a ton of time at the position and he worked really hard to get that starting spot this year,” he explained.
The Southern offense continued to roll, with Garcia scoring on a 37-yard pass reception and 26-yard run in the third quarter and adding another 18-yard scoring run in the fourth. His younger brother, Gavin, put the game out of reach for Wilmington, darting into the end zone on two big runs of 38 and 33 yards in the fourth quarter.
Hollenbach said he told his offense at halftime to stay relaxed and continue playing how they were playing.
“I told my guys, ‘Look, all the defense has to do is get me the ball and they aren’t stopping us.’ They got us the ball in the second half — and you saw what happened.”
The Southern offense held its end of the bargain, putting up 35 second-half points and falling just one point shy of the state record for most points scored by a team in the season with 859.
“I had some guys telling me to go for two there at the end, but that’s not how we wanted to get a record,” Roth said.
Friday’s win gave Southern an overall winning record in state title games — now set at 9-8.