Bellwood-Antis gains momentum heading into playoffs

Coaches want to go into the playoffs peaking, and Bellwood-Antis High School’s John Hayes couldn’t have scripted things much better in that regard.

“We wanted to win the (Inter-County Conference) championship. We felt really good about that,” Hayes said. “Along with that, we had to win against three quality teams at the end of the season to do it. Mount Union was playing really well when we played them, and Southern Huntingdon and Northern Bedford both were challenging.

“Our confidence level is buoyed by that.”

The Blue Devils passed those tests and finished the regular season a perfect 10-0. However, that wasn’t even enough to get Bellwood the top seed in a District 6 Class 2A playoff field filled with outstanding teams and teams that are playing their best football as the postseason begins.

Defending champion and 2016 PIAA semifinalist Ligonier Valley enters the playoffs undefeated at 10-0, too. Bishop McCort, which eliminated Bellwood last season, is 8-2 and could be the team the Devils play in the semifinals. Cambria Heights, the No. 5 seed, is on a four-game winning streak and has progressively turned in higher point totals in each of those contests.

“We finished the (regular) season the way we wanted,” said Heights coach Jarrod Lewis, whose team brings a 7-3 mark into the playoffs, losing only to undefeated Bishop Guilfoyle, once-beaten Forest Hills and McCort.

That brings us to Bellwood’s quarterfinal opponent. On Friday, the Blue Devils host Westmont Hilltop, which has won five of six after starting the year 1-3.

The Hilltoppers also only lost by six to three-time reigning PIAA Class 1A champion Bishop Guilfoyle before they got on their season-ending roll, back in Week 2.

“They’re extremely tough and big up front,” Hayes said of the Hilltoppers. “On top of that, they run a very unusual offense.”

Westmont is a power football team that grinds opponents down. It’s only thrown 24 passes all season, working from a bunch formation and bursting or plowing into the defense using misdirection and hiding its ballcarriers behind its hulking linemen.

It will be an interesting matchup for Bellwood, which has been tremendously effective stopping the run this season. Bellwood’s only allowing 70.2 yards per game on the ground and 2.5 yards per carry, and that includes 207 yards it gave up in its thrilling 35-34 win over Mount Union and its spectacular back, Daunte Martin.

Only two of the last four opponents have managed to crack double-figures against the Blue Devils.

One more challenge with which B-A must contend is playing a foe with which it has no experience but not even any common opponents. Westmont, like Heights and McCort, play in the Laurel Highlands Conference, which plays an all-inclusive schedule in the regular season. It makes it hard to gauge.

“That’s part of the playoffs,” Hayes said. “Most of the time, you’re playing someone you don’t have any experience with. You have to do your homework.”

The LHAC has a couple of bigger schools than the ICC or the Heritage Conference, which one could think might give those teams a bit of a leg up. Lewis, though, isn’t looking at it that way as the Highlanders get ready to travel to Southern Huntingdon on Saturday night.

“At this point in the season, if you are 8-2, you’re a good football team,” Lewis said. “Every league has good football teams.”

The Highlanders, though, have been pretty good themselves, especially later in the season, running off lopsided wins over Penn Cambria, Bishop Carroll and then playoff contender Bedford before crushing defending District 5-6-9 Class 4A champion Johnstown, which was playing for the No. 1 seed in its classification.

Heights is very good and experienced along the line. The Highlanders have been able to work in a number of different ballcarriers throughout the campaign without missing a beat.

“We’ve been approaching it as if every game of the season is a steppingstone,” Lewis said.

If Heights wins, the second round could be two rematches — Cambria Heights lost to Ligonier Valley in the quarterfinals last year. Ligonier has been just as impressive this season as it was in 2016, even without quarterback/safety Collin Smith, now playing at West Virginia.

Ligonier doesn’t figure to have a problem with West Shamokin in the quarters.

If Bellwood gets through Westmont, it appears very likely the Blue Devils will face McCort. The Crimson Crushers open by hosting Mount Union, which, for the second year in a row, went into an end-of-the-season tailspin, dropping three straight games, albeit all to playoff qualifiers.

McCort has been much too consistent and played better against on-the-whole stronger competition than Mount Union. Last year’s Bellwood/McCort game was only decided by seven, and a rerun could be every bit as competitive, as the Blue Devils and Crushers match up pretty evenly on paper. Like Westmont, McCort relies heavily on the run.

Ligonier would appear to be the team to beat after its dominance last year, but Heights, Bellwood and McCort all could provide solid competition for the Rams.