By Philip Cmor
In the last dozen years since Bellwood-Antis returned to Class A after a short double-A stint, the Blue Devils have played in the District 6 championship game seven times, winning four titles.
Mirror file photo
BG’s Sam McCloskey is tackled by Bishop?Carroll’s Brody Shuty?(2) and Kenny?Weiland.
Some of those years, Bellwood was clearly a notch above the rest of the field, like last year, when it won in the finals by 51 points.
This doesn't appear to be one of those years.
Six of the eight teams in this year's District 6 Class A playoff field look like they could make a compelling argument that they can of making a strong bid for the championship, and even seventh-seeded Juniata Valley and eighth-seeded Blairsville can create some problems for their quarterfinal opponents.
Bellwood, in fact, looks like it will be facing one of its more difficult first-round matchups in the last decade or so when it hosts Bishop Carroll as the third seed in one of two Saturday games on the bracket schedule. Bishop Guilfoyle travels to 2011 champion Penns Manor in the other Saturday game, after top two seeds Portage and Homer-Center kick things off with their games on Friday.
The finals will be held at Mansion Park, probably on Nov. 23.
"We've played a lot of games, and everyone that we've played is a new challenge," Bellwood coach John Hayes said of opening with Carroll, who the Devils have played in three 6-A finals in the last 10 years. "It is what it's going to be. They're a really good football team. They have some really talented athletes. If you're going to get to the end, you have to play the best to get there."
Hayes' Devils are looking at running a gauntlet this year. If they get by Carroll, they are looking at a probable road trip to Homer-Center to play the Wildcats, who are 9-1 entering the tournament. With a win there, B-A could find itself lining up across the field from top-seeded Portage, 9-1 Penns Manor or longtime rival Bishop Guilfoyle, which would be on a 10-game winning streak and playing on its home field in the finals.
Before any of that, though, Bellwood has to make sure it gets through the first one.
Carroll is 6-4, but the Huskies have lost by 11 to 9-1 Somerset, a Class AAA school, by 10 to Class AA playoff team Central Cambria, by seven at Bishop Guilfoyle and by seven to District 5-8 Class AA second seed Bedford.
Only three teams have scored more than 14 points against Carroll all season. The Huskies' biggest strength is their front line - they're only giving up 3.0 yards per carry while averaging almost 240 yards per game on the ground.
That creates a very interesting matchup against Bellwood, which itself is known year-in and year-out for running the ball and being tough against the run.
"They are physical," Hayes said. "Up front, defensively, they have a lot of movement. They have some good athletes, some good size and some good speed in the second or third tier. They just play all out."
To add another element to the drama, B-A's Casey Gray, the fourth-leading rusher in the area with 1,233 yards, was banged up early in last week's game at Richland and didn't return. Hayes thought Gray would be able to go against Carroll.
What this game really figures to come down to, though, is Bellwood's ability to stop BC's running game on first and second down. Carroll has run the football more than 80 percent of the time this season, pounding it at opponents behind senior tailback Tyler Janosik (987) yards but routinely using six rushers. The Huskies have emerged as a potent read-option team after starting quarterback David Maruca went down with an injury and speedy wideout Brody Shuty stepped in under center - Shuty averages 7.5 yards per carry.
The Huskies would like nothing better than to wear down the Devils with long, ground-oriented drives that chew up the clock and finish with points.
Carroll, however, has completed fewer than 40 passes all year. Should Bellwood put the Huskies in throwing situations, it could be a long night for the Ebensburg Catholic school.
"We always try to force the other team into what they don't do best. Looking at the numbers, they are a run-oriented team," Hayes said. "That's what we're going to work against. But, you can't stop them for two downs and have them throw the ball over your head for big yardage."
Plus, Carroll has been able to stay diverse and successful even when it's been a run-first - and sometimes run-second and run-third - team.
"Even before Brody stepped in there, we ran the ball a lot," Carroll coach Greg Snyder said. "We were able to run inside and outside. It's hard to defend inside and outside runs. We have a lot of speed to the outside.
"We have to control the tempo. We have to keep their offense off the field," Snyder added. "If we can do that, it should be a good contest."
Snyder is very aware that Bellwood has a lot more playoff experience than do the Huskies. Bellwood's seniors have played in two district finals and went to the PIAA semifinals last season. Carroll hasn't been in the playoffs since 2010.
"We're happy we qualified for the playoffs," Snyder said. "We look at it as a great challenge and a great opportunity to show what we have to offer."
In the other game on Bellwood's side of the bracket, Juniata Valley travels to Homer-Center, the second seed. It looks like an uphill battle for the Green Hornets, who haven't won a playoff game since 2006, have been banged up late in the season and will be at a size disadvantage. However, Homer has just been knocked off by another Wing-T team, Portage, and might be without bruising running back Mike Newhouse.
The other side of the bracket has Guilfoyle playing at Penns Manor in the five-at-four game, while Portage plays Blairsville for the second time in three weeks, this time at home.
Penns Manor has proven there is life after all-state quarterback Danny Ferens and are running for more than 220 yards more per game than their opponents. Guilfoyle, though, has been on a roll against a more demanding schedule, and the Marauders got a taste of the playoffs last year. BG should advance, but it might not be easy.
Portage should be there waiting for the Marauders. After all, the Mustangs won at first-round opponent Blairsville by 32 points two weeks ago. Mustangs coach Gary Gouse, though, isn't feeling any easier because of that.
"They're a really good football team. They've got quality, skilled athletes. They can break a play at any time," Gouse said.
Whoever comes out on top, it seems they'll have to earn it, maybe several times over.
"The goal is not to win week one. The goal is to get to week three and have a chance to win that," Hayes said.