JV secondary big part of team’s success
By Michael Boytim
Juniata Valley defensive coordinator Jason Showalter can recall a moment earlier this season when sophomore cornerback Hunter Johnson seemingly came down with an interception only to have it ripped away by the receiver.
That isn’t happening anymore.
Johnson had one of two interceptions returned for a touchdown in the final minutes of the Green Hornets’ 36-20 victory over United in the District 6 Class 1A championship game.
“This is Hunter’s first year, and he was shy in the beginning,” Juniata Valley senior safety Kyle Derugen said. “Since the halfway point of the season, he’s been able to make calls on his own, and you can see he’s more confident in his coverage.”
On the other side of the field, the Green Hornets have another sophomore cornerback in Gabe Brower, but confidence has never been an issue for him.
“Gabe had some experience from last year,” Showalter said. “He wants to be the best there is at his position, and Hunter has come on strong since that learning experience of having the ball taken from him. He’s been taking the ball from kids from that point on, and it’s been neat watching them both grow.”
Johnson’s interception against United was his fifth this season, one more than Brower but one less than team-leader Derugen’s six. The Green Hornets have six interceptions in three postseason games, including three against Claysburg-Kimmel’s Corey Chamberlain who put together one of the best statistical seasons passing in the entire Mirror coverage area.
In fact, when Chamberlain’s two interceptions against Juniata Valley in the regular season are added in, the Green Hornets accounted for five of the star sophomore’s nine picks the entire year.
“We played pretty good all year long,” Brower said. “Now we’ve had a couple games where we’ve been dominant, and as we’ve grown as sophomores, it makes it hard for teams to pass against us.”
Having a pair of seniors behind them in the secondary in Derugen and Quinn Zinobile has also provided the sophomores with a safety valve.
“It’s really nice having Kyle back there,” Showalter said. “He’s the captain of the defense making calls, and Quinn is a run-first safety who has helped us there. We run a cover-two that has really been panning out for us.”
The Green Hornets will try to add to their postseason interception totals Friday when they travel to Danville High School’s Ironmen Stadium to take on District 2 champion Lackawanna Trail in the PIAA Class 1A semifinals in what will likely be another closely contested game.
Juniata Valley has played in six one-score games this season and won five of them. Many of those close games, and all of the postseason ones, have featured big plays by the secondary in the final moments.
In addition to Johnson and Derugen’s interception returns against United, Zinobile and Cameron Collins broke up a pass in the end zone to clinch a win over Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic and Grant Musser dropped back from his linebacker position to intercept a pass and lock down the Claysburg-Kimmel playoff win.
“We feel that if we can force a team to be a throwing team, we have the athletes that can make it an advantage for us,” Juniata Valley coach Bill Musser said. “Our film study is really starting to show on the field as these games wear on.”
Another factor aiding the Green Hornets’ secondary is the return of Collins, who missed much of the year with an injury.
“It’s been a big lift,” Musser said. “It allows us to get some of our guys breaks who have taken a season-worth of beatings. He can really cover a lot of ground in a short time.”
Though Brower and Johnson can excel on their own, they said they feel more comfortable knowing Zinobile and Derugen have their back.
“It’s good Quinn and I are back there as senior leaders,” Derugen said. “They look up to us a little bit.”
If there’s a turnover in Friday’s game, there may be a small ruckus on the Juniata Valley sideline.
“They all really enjoy playing defense,” Showalter said. “We have a turnover chain, similar to what Miami made popular last year but not as decorated, and we set goals for what we want turnover-wise. It becomes a feeding frenzy where everyone wants it.
“They know what’s coming each week, and they want the challenge. Each one of our guys wants the best wide receiver every week, and we as coaches have to figure out which player works that week as the best matchup, because they all want the challenge.”
What:Juniata Valley (11-2) vs. Lackawanna Trail (13-1), Friday, 7 p.m.
Where:Danville High School