Portage relishes top seed in playoffs

In 22 years coaching varsity football at Portage Area High School, Gary Gouse has won 166 games. He’s led Mustang teams to undefeated regular seasons. But he’s only guided a team to the top seed in the District 6 Class A playoffs once.

Now you can make that twice.

The Mustangs officially were unveiled as the No. 1 seed in the bracket at District 6’s annual playoff meeting on Sunday morning at the Altoona Area High School Fieldhouse. A total of eight teams from the Mirror coverage area qualified for the postseason in District 6 – defending champion Bellwood-Antis is the third seed in 6-A, while Central nabbed the third seed in double-A. Five more area teams made it in District 5.

The playoffs open on Friday. The finals in 6-AA and A will be played Nov. 23-24 at Mansion Park.

Portage is 8-1. The only other time the Mustangs were seeded first was in 2007.

“I’ll tell you what. The kids are happy with it, because you play both Fridays [before the championship],” Gouse said when asked how it felt to be in the top spot. “That’s a really good feeling.”

Portage earned its seed by knocking off Homer-Center, undefeated and the No. 1 team in the standings through nine weeks, on the last weekend of the football season.

“Last two weeks were really big, going to Blairsville and then coming home and playing a really good football team. We responded really well,” Gouse said.

The Mustangs will play Blairsville for the second time in three weeks on Friday night at 7 p.m., this time hosting the Bobcats. If they pass that test, Portage will host the winner of Saturday night’s Bishop Guilfoyle at Penns Manor game, a five seed vs. four seed matchup.

“I’d rather play someone different, but you have to play who you have to play,” Gouse said. “I’m glad we’re home, that’s all.”

Bellwood also will be at home, at least for the opening round. The 8-2 Blue Devils will begin defense of their 2012 championship on Saturday night at 7 p.m. by hosting sixth-seeded Bishop Carroll in what has the promise of being a very competitive matchup.

“There’s a lot of good football teams there [in this single-A bracket],” B-A coach John Hayes said. “The draw is what it turns out to be. You don’t really have total control over that, but we’re pleased where we are.”

This is the first time Bellwood outside the top two seeds since 2008. The Blue Devils could end up having to travel to Homer-Center for a semifinal game on Nov. 16. Bellwood’s last district road playoff game was in the 2008 Class A semifinals at Bishop McCort.

“Home field is definitely nice for your fans, your comfort level, but I think that the significance of the game [makes] the players adjust,” Hayes said. “We’re just glad to be there. I think most people are.”

Second-seeded Homer-Center hosts seventh-seeded Juniata Valley in the other Friday 6-A game.

In 6-AA, both area teams will have to wait until Saturday to take the field. Central opens at home against No. 6 Central Cambria. Tyrone got the fourth seed and plays host to No. 5 Bald Eagle Area.

Richland is the top-ranked team in that bracket and drew Ligonier Valley in the quarterfinals on Friday night. Friday’s other semifinal has seventh-ranked Forest Hills traveling to second-ranked Mount Union.

Four of the area’s District 5 teams will have home games this weekend, and the fifth won’t need to travel too far. Everett will be at Bedford on Saturday in the District 5-8 Class AA semifinals. Chestnut Ridge, the top seed, hosts Westinghouse in Friday’s double-A semi.

Both Northern Bedford and Tussey Mountain will be in action on Friday night. The Black Panthers, seeded second, host Shade, while Tussey, the third seed, entertains North Star in 5-A quarterfinal contests.

“It’s a one-week season,” Hayes said. “And, if you win, it’s another one-week season.”

“You’re only as good as your last game,” Gouse said. “Now we have to get back down to business. Anybody in the playoffs can beat anybody.”