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CV offense will be big test for Dragons

Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski Central's Hunter Smith tackles Grove City's Curtis Hovis for a loss.

PIAA Class 3A semifinal

Central (14-0) at Central Valley (13-0).

When: Friday, 7 p.m.

Where: Sarge Alberts Stadium at Central Valley High School, Monaca, Pa.

Coaches: Dave Baker is 221-207-1 in 42 seasons, including 95-37 in 11 seasons at Central and 126-170-1 in 31 seasons at Williamsburg. Mark Lyons is 187-87 in 24 seasons, including 123-39 in 12 seasons at Central Valley, 30-40 in seven seasons at Mount Pleasant, and 34-18 in five seasons at Monaca.

The road to here: Central: A27 at Chestnut Ridge (W 41-27). S3 Forest Hills (W 46-12); S10 at Johnstown (W 54-6); S17 Central Cambria (W 49-13); S24 Penn Cambria (W 46-6). O1 at Richland (W 40-13); O8 Bedford (W 41-27); O15 at Bishop McCort (W 55-7); O23 at Westmont Hilltop (W 48-7); O29 Somerset (W 61-14). N5 Westmont Hilltop (W 52-13, District 6 playoff); N12 vs. Penn Cambria (W 42-7, District 6 championship). N19 vs. Bedford (W 20-14, PIAA playoff); N 26 vs. Grove City (W 35-6, PIAA quarterfinal).

Central Valley: A27 at Knoch (W 62-0). S3 Blackhawk (W 58-35); S10 at Aliquippa (W 21-12); S17 at Blackhawk (W 38-3); S24 New Castle (W 56-7). O1 Quaker Valley (W 69-7); O8 at Keystone Oaks (W 42-0); O15 Ambridge (W 44-0); O22 at Avonworth (W 43-6); O29 Hopewell (W 47-6). N12 East Allegheny (W 48-6, WPIAL playoff); N19 Elizabeth-Forward (W 51-0, WPIAL semifinal); N26 vs. North Catholic (W 52-15, WPIAL final).

Next week: The winner of this game gets the winner of Friday’s game between Neumann-Goretti and Wyomissing in the state championship game Saturday, Dec. 11 at noon at HersheyPark Stadium.

Notable: Central Valley is the defending PIAA Class 3A state champion and has made two consecutive appearances in the PIAA championship game.

By John Hartsock

jhartsock@altoonamirror.com

En route to a 14-0 record in its high school’s most successful football season ever, the Central Scarlet Dragons’ offense has racked up points this year at a video-game pace.

Led by junior quarterback Jeff Hoenstine, who set the Pennsylvania single-season high school state record for touchdown passes last week by throwing his 55thand 56thof the season on a snow-blanketed Slippery Rock University stadium field in Central’s 35-6 PIAA Class 3A quarterfinal victory over Grove City, Central has averaged 45.0 points per game.

Hoenstine, who has thrown for an astounding 3,355 yards this season while completing 188 of 271 passes, has a bevy of fine receivers at his beck and call and leads one of the most potent high school passing attacks in the state.

That said, the play of Central’s defense may be the biggest factor in whether the Scarlet Dragons can upend defending PIAA Class 3A state champion Central Valley (13-0) in Friday night’s 7 p.m. state semifinal game at Central Valley High School’s Sarge Alberts Stadium in Monaca.

The winner of this game moves on to the state championship game Saturday, Dec. 11 at noon at Hersheypark Stadium against the winner of Friday’s Neumann-Goretti vs. Wyomissing semifinal matchup.

Like Central, Central Valley has been an offensive juggernaut this season, averaging 47 points per game, and racking up 52 in a 52-15 rout of previously unbeaten North Catholic in the WPIAL championship game last Saturday at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field.

That’s why defense will be so important Friday.

“I think without a doubt, (defense) will be the key,” Central coach Dave Baker said. “This is, without a doubt, the best offensive team that we’ve played against. We will be tested. This will be a difficult challenge for us.”

Central Valley boasts the school’s all-time leading rusher in fleet senior back Landon Alexander, an NCAA Division I recruit who has rushed for 1,950 yards on 185 carries and 26 touchdowns this season. In last week’s WPIAL championship game, Alexander rushed for 217 yards on 18 carries and a touchdown, while also catching a touchdown pass.

Alexander, who has now rushed for 3710 yards, broke the previous school record of 3,525 yards, set by Jordan Whitehead, who went on to college stardom at the University of Pittsburgh and is now a safety in the National Football League with the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“He’s real shifty and real fast, he’s just plain good,” Baker said of Alexander. “One of their main strengths is their offensive line. They really block well, and they come off the ball hard. They give that guy (Alexander) room to run, and when they do that, he’s very, very good.”

But Central Valley, which has now won 25 straight games over two seasons and has made two straight appearances in the state championship game, is hardly one-dimensional.

Junior quarterback Antwon Johnson has completed 53 of 94 passes for 1,135 yards and 18 touchdowns, with junior wideout Jayvin Thompson making a team-high 25 catches for 643 yards and eight touchdowns. Senior tight end Jack Bible has 12 catches, including six for touchdowns.

“They’re mainly a running team, but they can also pass,” Baker said. “They have a quarterback who is pretty good. They’re an all-around good team.”

Central senior Ethan Eicher, a three-year starter for the Scarlet Dragons at outside linebacker and a two-year starter at tight end, knows that stopping Central Valley’s dynamic offense will be imperative.

“By far, this is the best offense that we’ve faced,” Eicher said. “I think a key for us will be containing their stars on offense, like their running back (Alexander), and to keep on making plays like we have done all year on defense.”

Central’s defense – whose front line includes senior Josh Waite and junior Wyatt Holsinger at the tackles, and junior Jason Clark and senior Devon Boyles at the ends – has surrendered an average of less than 12 points per game to the opposition, and much of that hasn’t been accomplished against Central’s defensive starters.

Eicher, sophomore Hunter Smith, and senior Parker Gregg – who is also Central’s leading rusher with 1,106 yards and its receptions leader with 46 — comprise the linebacking crew, while senior Josh Biesinger, and juniors Hoenstine, Dalton Metzger and Eli Lingenfelter, man the secondary.

“Our defensive line has been a key for us,” Smith said. “The line doing its job filling gaps makes the jobs of the linebackers and secondary players that much easier. (Central Valley) has a high-powered offense, so we’ve got to shut it down somehow.

“If we can stop it, that will give us a shot.”

Central’s defense has been doing a good job of making stops all season.

“It’s a balanced defense,” Baker said. “Our front four are big and strong, our defensive ends are quick to the ball. Our three linebackers are experienced and very good, and our secondary players are good in coverage and can tackle.”

Central Valley, led by Pitt commit Sean FitzSimmons – a 6-foot-3, 280-pound defensive tackle – has an outstanding defense as well. Central Valley has shut out four opponents, allowed six others seven points or less, and has given up an average of just over seven points a game.

Central Valley coach Mark Lyons respects the Scarlet Dragons’ overall depth on offense.

“They can run and pass the ball very effectively,” Lyons said. “I know that Hoenstine is a state record-holder in touchdown passes, but you can’t load up against the pass because they can hurt you in the running game.”

Lyons said that his team is playoff-ready.

“This team is pretty special,” Lyons said. “They have their own identity and they’re winning football games in different fashions. This team is built for November and December football, and can play whatever style is needed to be successful.”

Nonetheless, Central High School has a chance to extend its historic run – this is the furthest that any team in school history has advanced in the PIAA playoffs – and keep its state championship hopes alive.

“We’re happy to be where we are, but we’re not satisfied with just having made it this far,” Baker said. “We’re working hard to keep going, but we know that it’s going to be a tall order.”

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