Top of the Country
Southern Columbia’s football program is obviously as well-known as any in Pennsylvania. On Christmas Eve, they became well-known around the entire country by High School Football America. The Tigers were chosen as the top Small School team in the United States by the organization. “Southern has been known as one of the best football programs in the state. Now we can say that we are the best in the country,” said senior Troy Donlan. HSFA picked Southern as the top team followed by Newton (Texas) and Madison County (Florida) in their final rankings of 2018. This is the first time that one of Jim Roth’s teams has finished at the top in the national rankings of a national poll.
To cap off the 2018 championship season, Julian Fleming found himself in rare company. The junior became just the fifth player to be named the Class 2A Player of the Year by the PA Sportswriters twice. He joins the small list that includes Clairton’s Tyler Boyd, Cathedral Prep’s Joe Mischler, South Williamsport’s Dominic Bragalone, and South Fayette’s Brett Brumbaugh as the other two-time winners. If Fleming was to win it again next season, he would be the first ever three-time winner.
“He gets it done on offense, defense and special teams. We haven’t ever had someone as talented as him in our program. From an athletic standpoint, Julian can just do it all and at times makes it look so effortless. One part of his game that gets overlooked is how good he is as a blocker from the outside,” said his head coach.
If Fleming wasn’t on the team, there is a really good chance that fellow junior Gaige Garcia would have been in the same position as a two-time winner.
Fleming, who is ranked as the top junior recruit in the country by multiple recruiting services, also became the first Tiger to ever win another award. He was chosen as the 2018 Gatorade Pennsylvania Football Player of the Year. The award is given to just one player in each state no matter what classification you are in.
“I am blessed to be able to play this great game. It is an honor to have your name being brought up with some of the best to ever play the game. I was looking at some of the past winners and its crazy seeing some of the names of guys to win this award that have gone on to have success in college and the NFL,” said Fleming. Recently the most-coveted recruit has narrowed his college choices down to ten including Alabama, Clemson, Florida, Georgia, LSU, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, USC, and Virginia Tech.
Besides Fleming, there are two other juniors that have received scholarship offers at the Division-1 level. Cal Haladay has been offered by Michigan among some other smaller schools. Gaige Garcia, who has been offered by some well-known wrestling schools, received his first offer from Colgate, which plays in the Patriot League. “It’s awesome to be able to get this opportunity. Not many schools have more than one player getting recruited to play at the highest level in college. You have to be hungry and motivated to give everything that you can at all times,” said Haladay. Two other juniors, Max Tillett and Preston Zachman, have been in contact with some recruiters at the next level and are anxiously waiting to get a call. “We all put in a lot of work in the offseason. We go to camps and combines and then do a lot of training also. Our dream is to be able to play at the next level and hopefully we can do that,” said Gaige Garcia who has been receiving a lot of interest from Oklahoma, Nebraska, NC State, and others on the mat.
Double Barrel Shotgun
It’s always better to have more than one. Well, maybe not always, but in the case of quarterbacks the more the merrier. Stone Hollenbach, a senior captain, returned this year for his third season steering Southern Columbia’s offense. Unfortunately, the record-setting quarterback only lasted for three and a half games before breaking his non-throwing hand. “It was definitely frustrating to have to watch from the sidelines. I wanted to be in there with my teammates. When I returned, it gave me more motivation knowing that nothing is a given,” said Hollenbach. The Tigers then had to put the trust at the arm of junior Preston Zachman. Although Zachman had played quarterback all the way up through junior high, he was switched to wide receiver and linebacker after Hollenbach came to the school as a sophomore. “We were definitely confident in Preston because he had been a quarterback growing up. He went out and showed he was more than capable of leading the offense when he was called on,” Roth said. In five games as the starter, Zachman was just as efficient as Hollenbach. Hollenbach earned the edge in passing yards per game, but Zachman’s had a slightly better completion percentage as well as touchdown-interception ratio. Hollenbach threw for 1,767 yards and 28 touchdowns. Zachman had 597 yards and eight touchdowns. They combined to throw just five interceptions.
Thunder and Lightning
As the band Imagine Dragons says in one of their top-selling songs, “Thunder, feel the thunder. Lightning and the thunder.” If there was ever a better time to display that on the football field, the Garcia Brothers displayed that on the state’s highest stage. Gaige “Thunder” Garcia made sure that Wilmington felt his rumble early and often in the state championship game. “Football is a team game and we are in it together, but it is cool knowing that the two of us scored all the touchdowns in the game,” said Gaige. “I did most of my work against them in the first half and third quarter. Gavin kind of put an exclamation point on it.” The junior scored five touchdowns including the two first half touchdowns that the Tigers scored. After Gaige continued to bulldoze his way through Greyhound defenders in the third, it was time for the Tigers to show off another part of their arsenal.
In his first state final appearance Gavin “Lightning” Garcia showed off his quickness by cutting around Wilmington defenders and scoring the other two SCA touchdowns in the game. On the season, the duo became the first set of brothers to rush for 1,000 yards in a season, and they accomplished it the same year. “The fact that they are brothers, and both competing at such a high level, is really amazing. They bring the best out in each other because they are so competitive and want to be the best that they can be,” Roth said. Gaige went over 6,000 yards rushing thanks to another year of topping 2,000. Gavin topped 1,000 yards in the state quarterfinals. Gaige finished with 2,042 rushing yards and 38 touchdowns and Gavin followed with 1,179 yards and 23 touchdowns on the ground. They combined to catch 19 passes, 10 of which went for touchdowns. The most impressive stat is what they average per carry. Gaige averaged more than first down per attempt, and Gavin led SCAat 11.7 yards per carry.
Julian Fleming is rated as the best junior wide receiver in the country. Another junior, Preston Zachman, just may have been the second-best receiver in the whole conference. “Having Preston on the other side definitely has to make it hard to prepare for. There are times when they have an extra defender or two on my side, and he can do damage,” Fleming said. Zachman’s receiving stats may not look all that impressive because of the limited opportunities that he had due to the five-star recruit on the opposite side of him and the fact he was playing quarterback for a stretch. “It makes it nice because if Julian is out there on the same pass play as me, the defense focuses the attention towards him. When my number is called, I just try to make a play,” said Zachman. When given the chance, Zachman’s numbers showed that he could produce. He caught 19 passes for 372 yards and four scores with a lot of his bigger plays coming during the playoff run. Fleming will enter his senior season next year making a serious push to finish in the top ten in some national records for a career. As a junior, he reset program bests by finishing with 78 receptions for 1,524 yards and 22 touchdowns bringing him closer to shattering the Pennsylvania records.
Southern Columbia had part of their offensive line broken when graduation struck in June. The Tigers had three returning starters in Troy Donlan, Oak Six and John Stabinski to take care of the center and right-side of the line, but the left-side was a question mark. “We knew coming in to the season that two guys would have to step up to fill the void on the left side of the line. It ended up being kind of a group approach for the most part. Different players rotated and as the season moved forward we got better as a unit each week,” Six said. Two juniors, Jacob Herr and Lear Quinton, and two seniors, Seth Pletcher and Ross Wertman, were looking to patch up the left-side. “We had some difficulty at the beginning of the year trying to fit guys in where they were comfortable. We knew (Troy) Donlan, (John) Stabinski, and (Oak) Six would be solid,” said offensive line coach Mike Johnston. “Strength and explosive quickness are two very important areas for a lineman. We’re lucky to have kids who work as hard as they do.” It was a work in progress all season, but by the end the big guys up front, including newcomer tight ends Cam Haladay and Wade Kerstetter, were able to repair the void. The Tigers finished with 7,386 yards of offense and only scored less than 40 points once all season.
First Line of Defense:
Lear Quinton was the only returning starter on the defensive line from last year. In 2017, the Tigers established a new school record for rushing yards allowed per game. In 2018, Quinton was the leader on the defensive front by finishing with 68 tackles, five sacks, and a team-high 14 hurries. Fellow junior, Cole Schankweiler, saw some action as both a freshman and sophomore. He had 52 tackles and three sacks this season. The other two guys were seniors, Robert Williams and Payton Pursel, and they were finally getting their chance to make an impact on the varsity team. “You put in the work to hopefully one day get the chance to start at the varsity level. When you are a backup it makes you that much hungrier to go out and contribute when it is your chance. I think our defensive line worked really hard and did a good job,” said Pursel. Very rarely did this front get pushed around. Most of the gaps closed quickly allowing the athletic linebackers to come in and make the play. “We thought that if the D-line matured quickly we would be pretty strong there. One strength we thought we had was another good run defense,” said defensive coordinator Andy Mills. “They understood what their jobs were and didn’t try to do too much.”
If you look at the four Southern Columbia junior linebackers walking down the hall, the eye test may not wow you. If you look at the group in action on a football field, your perception will certainly change. The two leaders were the inside tandem of Cal Haladay and Max Tillett. Haladay’s 131 tackles and Tillett’s 124 were both good enough to be top ten in the program’s single-season history. The duo also combined for 12 sacks. “The main thing is being physical. You have to want to go out and hit people. If you don’t like lots of contact then football probably isn’t the sport for you. We want to go out and smash people,” Haladay said.
Haladay is already the school’s record-holder for career tackles, and Tillett should finish second by the end of next season. On the outside, the speed of Preston Zachman and Nate Crowl add to the headache for the opposing quarterback. Wade Kerstetter filled in during Zachman’s stint at quarterback, as well as in other scenarios, and the sophomore finished the season third on the team in tackles with 74.
“You have to go out with the mindset to make plays however you can. As a linebacker, you need to fly around and get to the ball. It’s not a position where you can relax, but I know we have a lot of fun doing it,” Tillett said. “We mesh together well and know our roles. You have to react when the ball is snapped and not allow a lineman to get a good block on you.”
Passing the Test
If you were the guy playing cornerback on the opposite side of Julian Fleming, you knew that you were going to be tested. Early on, senior Shane Miller and sophomore Jake Davis had to prove themselves by sharing the other corner spot. They got to learn the varsity game rather quickly as each of them made some mistakes, but they stayed confident. As the season progressed, they both made an impact in coverage by intercepting and breaking up passes in helping the defense limit big plays. Miller tied for the team-lead with four interceptions including the two he had in the state final. Davis led the team with 13 pass-breakups and had three interceptions. The safety who oversaw things from the secondary was junior Cade Linn. Linn, who rotated in last season at times, finished fourth on the team in tackles by stepping up and making a big impact on stuffing the run.
“Guys just step up and do what they are supposed to do. It’s really that simple. You go out and try to do your best. Play with confidence in yourself and trust your teammates,” said Linn who had 71 tackles on the season as well as a pair of interceptions.
Special Kind of Effort
With most of the media’s attention focusing on the offense and defense, sometimes the third phase of a team gets overlooked. Not that the Tigers needed to win the field position battle to win games, but by controlling all three phases of the game made this version of the Tigers just that much better. A perfect example of one of those staples on special teams coverage was starting fullback Ty Roadarmel. The junior rushed for 601 yards and eight touchdowns and added 23 tackles.
“I love being able to run down and hit someone on kickoffs. I think the coaches have decided it doesn’t matter if you start on offense or defense, but more of who is willing to sacrifice their bodies to make a tackle and earn a spot on special teams,” Roadarmel said. The most impressive part of the SCA special teams unit was their return game. Julian Fleming and Gaige Garcia, just by their visual presence, forced teams to kick away from them given the fact that they could take it the distance at any moment that they touched the pigskin.
When most championship teams say they won as a family, it usually comes across as cliché. In Southern’s case, there is truth to it. This year’s Tiger team consisted of four sets of brothers. Gaige and Gavin Garcia shared the backfield. Cal Haladay has been a staple at linebacker while his brother Cam started at tight end. Payton Pursel played on the defensive line while his brother Owyne was used at times as a second safety in passing downs. Ross Wertman rotated as a starter on the offensive line, and his brother Derek was a backup lineman.
“Having so many brothers on one team really made this team special. At times it also made it more interesting,” said Ross Wertman. Lear Quinton and Ty Roadarmel are first cousins as are Nate and Kurt Crowl.
Injury Bug Swatted
SCA trainer Tim Jurnak didn’t have to deal with as many injuries as the Tigers may have had in some of their previous deep runs. Sure, there were bumps and bruises along the way, but except for three incidences the injury bug was squashed. The most severe injury was Hollenbach’s five-week absence with a broken bone on his non-throwing hand. Gavin Garcia missed all but one play of the Eastern Final with a migraine. Nate Crowl, who was originally thought he fractured his ankle, missed the better part of three games with a sprain.
“When you don’t know exactly what the diagnosis is, your mind thinks the worst. There’s not really a better feeling than finding out that it’s not as bad as your originally think,” said Crowl. Given how violent of a game football is, I’m sure the Southern coaching staff would be pleased in any season to have their starters combine to miss less than ten games throughout the course of a long season.