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North Star stands in Northern Bedford's way

November 16, 2012
By Philip Cmor ( , The Altoona Mirror

Stop me if you've heard this one before: Northern Bedford is rolling along and seems on the verge of ending it long district football title drought when it runs into a lower-seeded North Star team in the playoffs and has its championship dreams derailed.

For Jeff Batzel, it's no joke. He's experienced it twice in the last five years: First as Dan Foor's assistant in 2007 and then again as the then-undefeated Black Panthers' head coach in 2010.

"They have a great program," Batzel said. "Success bears that out."

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Northern Bedford coach Jeff Batzel has faced North?Star twice before in his high school football career in the District 5 playoffs. He is 0-2 against the Cougars.

Batzel and the No. 1-seeded Panthers will try to make sure history doesn't repeat itself again tonight when they host the 9-2 Cougars in the District 5 Class A high school semifinals at Panther Community Stadium at 7 p.m.

Northern also is trying to unseat the two-time defending 5-A champion while punching its own ticket into next Friday's championship game against either Windber or Berlin Brothersvalley, and Batzel doesn't see this edition of the Cougars as presenting any less of a challenge than did those in the past.

"They've got a lot of great athletes, particularly [Tony] Strasiser, the wideout. They're just a good solid squad," Batzel said. "They're a lot like us. They hit hard. They're just hard-nosed, and they play a physical style of football."

Indeed, if you want to know just how closely matched the teams are, North Star has scored 16 points more and allowed four points less while playing one extra game - Northern Bedford had a bye into the semifinals, while North Star blanked Shade, 21-0, to reach this round.

The most obvious similarity between the squads deals with a quality that draws more attention on the basketball court: length. Over the last few season, Strasiser has given the Cougars an advantage because of his 6-foot-6 frame. This year, he has 42 catches for 741 yards and seven of North Star's 11 receiving touchdowns.

Northern Bedford, though, has the height to match Strasiser this time around, and then some. Kyler Diehl, the second-leading receiver in the Mirror coverage area, is 6-5. The Pressel twins, Tayler and Zach, both go around 6-4 and have vertical leaps of about 3 feet. All three start on both sides of the football.

Panther quarterback Blake Over is 6-4 and is closing in on a 2,000-yard passing campaign as a junior.

"We've had some great matchups with them over the years. The thing that stands out about them this year is their size," North Star coach Stacy Schmitt said. "It's a huge advantage in most cases because you have one-on-one coverage a lot of the time."

The ability of Over to just put the ball up high and have any of three receivers be able to go get it is a nice luxury. That will create an interesting duel against a Cougar defense that is coming off its fourth shutout of the year and held seven opponents to single-figures this season.

"Our defense has been playing aggressive and flying to the ball," Schmitt said. "We probably could have had a few more [shutouts] if we didn't get out to leads and put our JVs in early."

North Star were the preseason favorite of many in the WestPAC. The only things that denied it a perfect record were a 13-10 opening-game loss to Portage and a 28-19 setback against Berlin.

The Cougars are huge in the trenches. Eight of their starters are 220 pounds or heavier. Northern Bedford has four players that big on its entire roster.

"I think the vital areas are going to be the line play and who can establish a successful running game, because we both have strong defenses," Batzel said.

Northern bounced back from its only loss of the season against Bellwood-Antis to roll to a 35-point win over Williamsburg before completing the regular season with a comeback victory versus Class AAA playoff team Punxsutawney.

"I think we learned in the Bellwood game that we are a very good football team. That score [20-0] was a little deceiving. We felt we hit right with them, played right with them. They were a little bit better than us," Batzel said. "I think that game made us better."

Batzel would have rather not had a bye last week but is happy he's not the one having to play after it.

"It depends upon the kids and how they respond and react," Batzel said. "I have a good feeling about our group. I don't think that's going to affect them. We had a good week [of practice] last week, and things picked up. I think the kids are anxious to play. The kids may even be a little hungrier."

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