If things go as planned each year, instead of watching parades on Thanksgiving, members of the Bellwood-Antis High School football team are parading to the practice field.
"It's one of our unwritten goals that we practice before we celebrate," Bellwood coach John Hayes said. "That's on the schedule."
It's definitely on this morning's schedule. The Blue Devils will begin a day filled with football with a workout in preparation for Saturday's District 6 Class A championship game, a meeting for a fifth year in a row with a red-hot Bishop McCort squad and its opportunistic defense.
Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec
John Hayes speaks with Bellwood-Antis quarterback Seth Worthing during last week’s game with Bishop Guilfoyle.
Kickoff at Mansion Park is at 7 p.m.
The Blue Devils are 11-1 and the top seed, while McCort is the No. 6 seed with a 9-3 record. The Crimson Crushers have won two previous district final meetings with B-A, but Bellwood beat McCort in the 6-A semifinals last year, 11-10, on Tyler Campbell's late field goal.
"You're not sure who you're going up against based upon the brackets. You just try to take one game at a time. It just so happens that a number of years we've just hit up," Hayes said.
Bellwood appeared primed for a deep run in this year's playoffs when it fell short against Penns Manor in the 2011 district final with a number of underclassmen in the starting lineup. The Devils quickly made it evident that they were up to the hype by besting Tyrone in those schools' annual season-opening rivalry game.
In recent weeks, it became clearer that the Crushers might be Bellwood's biggest hurdle en route to its first district championship since 2007. Late in the season, McCort waxed a Bishop Guilfoyle team on a six-game winning streak, 37-0. In the first round of the playoffs, the Crushers withstood more than 300 yards total offense from Danny Ferens and ousted defending champion Penns Manor, 32-29.
Last week, in the quarterfinals, McCort had a surprisingly easy time with Northern Cambria, 45-6.
"We're still getting better, week by week," second-year Crusher coach Kevin Sheridan said. "We feel we still have our best football left to be played, but we're approaching our best game. In the playoffs, we've gotten better, week after week."
Bellwood is coming off a very impressive performance of its own. The Devils limited Guilfoyle to 185 yards and went on a 17-play, 76-yard drive to start the second half against one of the best defenses in the area to post a 19-6 semifinal victory.
"I definitely think it helps our confidence. We went against a team that was much bigger and probably stronger, and we were able to prevail," Hayes said. "The second half, I think our kids realized what they could do."
It was the seventh consecutive game - and the ninth this season - in which Bellwood has given up two touchdowns or fewer. It also was the fifth time in six weeks the Blue Devils' opponent hasn't gotten to 200 yards offensively.
For a second straight game, the Devils will be matched with a team that also does a very effective job stopping the other team. Even with Ferens' huge game two weeks ago, McCort, led by 290-pound Christian Roman and 340-pound Lake Dorn in the middle of the line and a terrific group of defensive backs, only is giving up 243.0 yards per game; it held Northern Cambria to 120.
"They have a very strong defense. It's very strong and big up front on the inside, and they're very quick, athletic and aggressive in the secondary and on the perimeter. They take away a lot of what teams want to do," Hayes said. "Their defense is especially tough, and, in big games, it's come through for them."
More impressive is the Crushers' ability to play takeaway. They've forced 35 turnovers this season, including five each against Northern Cambria and Bishop Guilfoyle, games in which they scored multiple times on returns.
Ball security will be very important for the Devils, but Hayes said that's always the case.
"You really can't change what you're going to do. You're just going to try to execute. You tell the kids every day we need to try to be perfect in our execution," Hayes said. "When you're in traffic, you have to cover the ball up. You have to make good decisions throwing the football."
Tailback Casey Gray is spearheading the B-A offense with 1,519 yards and 21 touchdowns rushing. Quarterback Seth Worthing surpassed the 1,000-yard passing mark two weeks ago and also has run for seven TDs, making Bellwood one of the biggest tests the McCort defense has faced this season.
"As usual, there are not many weaknesses with this Bellwood team," Sheridan said. "They run the ball effectively with Casey Gray. Seth Worthing throws the ball well, but he's one of the fastest kids we've played all year long. If he gets out of the pocket, he can cause us trouble. [Ian] O'Shea, the tight end, does a great job blocking and catching the ball. There's a series of problems they present for us.
"This game, year after year, is an absolute battle, one of the most physical games of the year that always comes down to a few plays at the end."
The last two meetings have been decided by a point and four points or fewer have separated the teams in four of their previous five meetings. If Bellwood wins, it would be its sixth district title under Hayes.
"This is definitely a huge challenge, and it's on the biggest stage that there is, so hopefully our kids go out and play their best game," Hayes said.