Ridge train set for next stop vs. Gremlins

Chestnut Ridge High School football coach Max Shoemaker was amused by the suggestion that the Lions offense is something akin to watching a train, moving forward slowly and steadily and becoming increasingly more difficult to stop as it gets rolling.

“I think that’s kind of the character of our kids,” Shoemaker said. “We might not have the greatest abundance of talent, but they’re blue-collar type of workers. We’re going to battle you to the end and get after you.”

If this Ridge football is indeed like a locomotive, then the station house from which it started was last year’s PIAA Class AA first round game at Clarion University where the Lions dropped a six-point decision to Karns City.

Ridge is back in interdistricts for the second year in a row with much the same personnel as in 2012 but with a much better team. As fate would have it, the next stop for the Lions is a rematch with Karns City that also has a similar lineup but is much improved in the first round of the PIAA Class AA tournament on Friday night at Northern Bedford’s Panther Community Stadium.

The Lions, who finished last season 6-6, bring a 9-3 mark into the contest. The Gremlins, meanwhile, have built on last year’s 10-4 mark to go 11-1 so far. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m.

“Certainly our kids remember last year. Even in losing last year, I think we carried a goal in the back of our mind that we wanted to get through this step this year,” Shoemaker said. “We didn’t write that on paper anywhere. We didn’t post it in the locker room or message boards. But I think if you would poll most of our senior leadership, they would say that.”

The sting of last year’s meeting probably was impossible to set aside very easily. Ridge piled up 360 yards rushing – Jacob Mock and Beau Bosch both ran for more than 160 – and the Lions outgained the District 9 champs by 123 yards.

However, after Ridge took a 29-23 lead on Mock’s 10-yard gallop midway through the third quarter, the Gremlins tied it on an 80-yard kickoff return and won it on a 6-yard fumble return with Bosch shaken up and out of the game in the middle of the fourth quarter. Karns City also returned another kickoff 66 yards and blocked a field goal, then picked off a desperation pass to ice the win.

While last year’s game might have shaped the destinies of both the Lions and Gremlins, Karns City coach Ed Conto doesn’t think it will have much of an impact when they battle again this weekend.

“That game was so close last year. They very easily could have won that game,” Conto said. “I don’t see an advantage one way or another.”

After a shaky start in which it lost two of its first three games by a combined 55 points, Chestnut Ridge has been gathering steam and won eight of nine. Five of those have been by at least 17 points, including both of the Lions’ District 5-8 playoff games, in which they’ve outscored the opposition 110-41.

Offensively, Ridge’s numbers are very similar to last year, with Matt Wiley taken over the spot Mock vacated when he graduated. However, on defense, the Lions have allowed 76 yards fewer than in 2012.

“We’re more versatile. We can do more things in terms of making adjustments,” Shoemaker said. “Last year was our first year running the scheme we’re running, and we were kind of taking baby steps even [in the Karns City game]. In the offseason, we evaluated what we did and looked at where we could make improvements, and we’ve come back in year two and done some things differently that have really helped us. The kids have bought into the system. That’s a credit to defensive coordinator Eric Zeznanski.”

That will lead to an interesting matchup, because Karns City’s biggest area of improvement probably has come on the offensive side of the ball. The Gremlins passed for just 42 yards against Ridge last year, but Tyler Kepple has thrown for 30 touchdowns and 1,601 yards this season.

Karns City’s only loss was against Clarion, a single-A school that has won all 12 of its games via the mercy rule.

“I think we improved all the way around. Both teams were young last year. It’s kind of a funny scenario,” Conto said. “We’ve minimized the mistakes we made last year, you know, kids being a year older and knowing how to do things better. Some are a little bigger, a little faster, a little stronger.”

Shoemaker believed the other area that’s been key to his team’s improvement has been its line play. That could loom large on Friday.

“Normally it works out whoever wins the rushing battle,” Conto said, “usually wins the game.”