Southern Columbia has doled a bevy of hard hits with its elite-level performers on defense throughout this season, a trend the Tigers hope to continue in tomorrow’s state championship game against Wilmington.
Allowing just 148 points through 15 games, the Tigers have been phenomenal at holding teams to a low number on the scoreboard.
In 15 games played this season, the unit has only allowed opponents to score 10 points or more on five occasions.
One of the key cogs in the Tigers defense is inside linebacker Max Tillett, who has 111 tackles and leads the squad in sacks with seven.
Southern has been all over the field during its pursuit of a second consecutive state championship.
Tillett attributes much of the defense’s success to the importance of having Andy Mills as the Tigers defensive coordinator.
“Coach Mills was big on being intense throughout the year. Just try and go three and out every time. Just going more for a shutout every game,” Tillett said.
Southern’s second leading tackler said that he started playing linebacker in the junior high ranks.
“They moved me there because I got to the ball really good,” Tillett added about his origins at the position.
The linebacker takes pride in flying around the field in order to make plays for his team.
“I want to be all over the field and try to be an athletic linebacker that can cover and stop the run and just be all over the place to help the team,” Tillett explained.
Southern’s linebacking core continues to force opponents into some rough circumstances as Cal Haladay, Wade Kerstetter, Nate Crowl, Preston Zachman and Tillett have stopped running backs in their tracks and knocked quarterbacks to the ground with regularity.
“We’re all really athletic so if Cal makes a play I’m like, ‘OK, I have to go make a play now,’ and we kind of bounce off each other. It just makes us better,” Tillett said about the friendly competition between the linebackers.
The unit faced an adjustment period when Zachman had to play quarterback for five games when Stone Hollenbach went down with an injury earlier this year. Tillett had to switch to Zachman’s outside spot and Kerstetter moved to play inside backer.
“I played outside last year so I moved back out there for them and we brought Wade Kerstetter in. They knew I could play both positions, so it was good I could move there again and help us out,” Tillett said about the temporary move.
Football fans often hear about a secondary needing a strong push up front, and developing a consistent pass rush can change the result of a game.
Southern has seen its front seven have success this season, which has assisted its secondary and vice versa.
Tillett acknowledged how the Tigers corners and safeties have stepped up to the plate and made games a bit easier for their pass rush.
“When they stay on their guys longer it helps us have more time to get to the quarterback and get more pressure on him,” Tillett said.
Southern will face an offense in Wilmington that focuses on running the football. Senior running back Cameron Marett has 200 carries for 1,735 yards and Ethan Susen posted 80 attempts for 887 yards this season for the Greyhounds.
“They have a pretty good offensive line that blocks really good, because they run the ball a lot. We have to get past the line and stop the running back,” Tillett said about the challenges that the Greyhounds present.
Wilmington has made noise through the air as quarterback Robert Pontius has connected on 59.1 percent of his throws for nearly 1,200 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Tillett has seen plenty of time in pass coverage and has devised a plan to help him in that role.
“When I’m out in coverage, I basically stay right on the hip and when they turn I just have to have a little sense when the ball is coming so I can hit it down,” Tillett said about his defensive approach against the pass.
With the state championship game tomorrow and a shot to add to the legacy of Southern football, Tillett wants his team to show they belong as one of the best teams in the state.
“I want us to be considered one of the great teams in Pennsylvania. The opportunity to play in Hershey is really great. Not a lot of people get it,” Tillett said.