BELLWOOD - For the things working in Bellwood-Antis' favor heading into its much-anticipated showdown with Portage Area - playing at home, the superior size, the more-challenging schedule, the tradition of playoff success - perhaps nothing was a bigger asset than the Blue Devils not having made it through the District 6 Class A high school semifinals last year.
"Ever since we lost to [Bishop] McCort, probably the entire team has been working extremely hard,'' Blue Devil two-way senior lineman Grant Martin said, "to come back and redeem ourselves this year.''
Martin and the unbeaten Devils did exactly that on Saturday night at Memorial Stadium, rising to the occasion in the second half to dispatch the undefeated and third-seeded Mustangs, 28-12.
As a reward, Bellwood earned its fifth 6-A championship game berth in six years. Along with that comes another shot at defending district champion McCort, which the Blue Devils led in the fourth quarter of last year's semifinal meeting at Point Stadium before bowing out of the playoffs by four points. The rematch will be at Altoona's Mansion Park, probably on Saturday night.
Afterwards, the Blue Devils didn't act like making the finals again was anything but old hat. They jumped and cheered in their locker room like a team experiencing their first trip ever to the district finals.
"It feels great,'' said senior Zack Doyle, who'll draw his second starting assignment in a championship game in three years as the Devils center. "You just can't expect to be in this situation each year. You still have to work hard.
"It just feels great right now.''
"Our team stuck together all week. We had a couple tough practices. We proved tonight that we're a team, that we can go,'' B-A senior quarterback Nate Plummer said.
While Doyle is an old hand at this starting-in-a-championship-game deal, he's the only Blue Devil that can make that claim. He recalled that he was nervous and tentative heading into the Devils' 2007 final game against Purchase Line.
However, there were a number of Bellwood players that weren't even starters against McCort last year. Plummer was one of them, having served as understudy to Nate Gray.
"There were a little pregame butterflies,'' Plummer said.
Plummer played like a veteran, though. He hit on all seven of his first-half passes. Four of them converted third downs, including a 5-yarder to Danny Nove for a touchdown that capped an 81-yard drive which answered Portage's game-opening score.
Not known as a runner, Plummer also had the wherewithal to pull the ball down and scramble when he didn't have anyone open, picking up 26 yards on three first-half rushes.
Plummer thanked the B-A crowd for helping him beat back his jitters instead of making him feel pressured to produce in his prominent role. Plummer thought that was a big key in the game.
"We knew this was going to be a big game. These guys are tough. We knew we had to keep our heads,'' Plummer said, who was 4-for-4 on extra-points as well, which loomed large with Portage's first PAT being blocked and the Mustangs getting stopped on a two-point try after their second touchdown.
Things didn't go 100 percent smoothly for the Devils. A miscue on a punt return after they stopped Portage's first drive resulted in the ball hitting a B-A blocker and being recovered by the Mustangs. That turned into a touchdown on a fourth-down pass from Travis Swires to Ryan Scoran.
Portage was also able to convert two fake punts, and a first-half personal foul put an early Bellwood drive in the hole to start.
Some of the Blue Devils mentioned that keeping from getting overly psyched for the game was a tough line not to cross. However, the team eventually settled into a rhythm on both sides of the football, as if there was a point they eventually became firmly focused on their goal. Memories of last year's disappointment was at the heart of that.
"After McCort, I can say the whole team was just a little frustrated and just driven that much more to go to all the lifting programs and stuff like that,'' Doyle said.
In the end, the motivation apparently wasn't getting another shot at McCort or even so much getting back to Mansion Park. It was more fundamental.
"We basically just want to win the championship,'' Martin said.
Cmor can be reached at 946-7440 or firstname.lastname@example.org.