By Ed Farrell
Herald Assistant Sports Editor
The season’s mid-point is an appropros opportunity for self-analysis.
Beginning tonight, several Mercer County-area squads will learn this much about themselves: Are they contenders for a commonwealth crown, or pretenders for a postseason berth?
For some teams, if tonight’s tilts do not go as planned, it could make for a long second half of the 2013 season.
Four games into the campaign, only Greenville and Mercer, in District 10 Regions 3-AA and 1-A, respectively, remain undefeated among area aggregations. Both face challenging road tests tonight at once-beaten Grove City and West Middlesex.
(All games begin 7 p.m., unless indicated)
Greenville (3-0, 4-0) at Grove City (2-1, 3-1)
Going to Grove City, which is coming off a loss — the 1st for the Eagles — figures to make the Trojans’ task even tougher than normal, taskmaster Brian Herrick asserted.
Last week, no sooner had Sharon’s last-second drive been shut down by his Trojans, Herrick was informed Hickory had humbled Grove City. Herrick — who played for and coached under the ultra-conservative Bob Stone — borrowed a page from his mentor’s media saavy:
“(Being in first place in Region 3-AA) is nice, but we know what’s comin’. ... (Winning at tradition-rich Tiger Stadium) feels good, it’s another region win, and it feels good to win down here. It’s good when you can win a couple on the road, when you can steal one ... but if we don’t do a better job of tackling, we’re gonna have a long night (tonight),” assessed Herrick, perhaps thinking of Grove City’s Foster Reznor.
Last week’s Trojans’ triumph was a product of something old and something new: Play-maker Luke Houpt stretching Sharon’s secondary, thereby creating running lanes.
Historically, Greenville’s ground game has been tailored to a single tailback. Nick Black broke loose for 58 yards last week, part of the Trojans’ troika that also included Trey VanAken and Tyler Fattman.
“ ... He’s a tough kid. ... We’d been bringing him along slowly (from foot surgery), but we just threw him in there and he had a couple great runs for us, a couple big first downs. I’m sure proud of him,” Herrick said of Black.
After Houpt hauled in a pair of 1st-half TD tosses against Sharon, he and Matt Jones collaborated on a 17-yard, 2nd-half opening slant that short-circuited Sharon’s aggressive run-defense and prompted some verbiage from Herrick that would make Jon Gruden giggle gleefully.
“We thought the ‘slant’ would be good,” Herrick related. “We ran the ‘jet’ (sweep), and (Sharon) was rotating their ‘will” (weakside linebacker) up, trying to take the ‘jet’ away. So we thought maybe we could ‘slant’ behind it.
“Luke’s our big-play guy. I don’t think we go to him enough,” Herrick admitted. “We’re gonna keep coming back to him. But it takes the offensive line, too, Pass protection was very good.”
However the humble Herrick knows too well of how good Grove City has been, particularly this decade under the direction of bench boss Jeff Bell. The ’Grovers have given Greenville consecutive 19-14, 48-7 and 48-0 losses the last 3 years. The last Trojans’ triumph in what is one of Mercer County’s oldest rivalries occurred in ’09 (38-7) at the site of tonight’s tilt, Forker Field.
In the last 8 meetings with Greenville the Eagles have eased to 6 wins by a composite 229-98 margin.
The game will be broadcast on SportsRadio 96.7 (WLLF FM) with Ryan Briggs and Chris Burtch, and on WGRP (940 AM), with Steven G. Folmer and Karl Rupert calling the action.
Mercer (3-0, 4-0) at West Middlesex (2-0, 3-1), 7:15 p.m.
Not to put Herrick’s words in the mouth of Mercer mentor Pat McClearn, but the Mustangs are meandering on somewhat uncharted territory.
While Greenville has not started a season 4-0 since ’04, according to available archives at The Herald, the last Steads squad to start 4-0 was the 1992 edition. Ironically, that club ended 6-3-1 and was routed by Fairview in its D-10 opener.
Last year McClearn’s minions missed the playoffs, snapping a successful 5-year skein. One of the 7 insufferable setbacks was a 34-13 humbling in the County Seat administered by Middlesex, which was in the midst of back-to-back D-10 title tilt appearances.
Many felt this would be a Big Reds’ rebuilding project for 1st-year Middlesex mentor Ed Roberson; instead, he borrowed a page from predecessor Jason McElhaney’s book, and following a season-opening setback to Wilmington, the Reds have reeled off 3 consecutive conquests (Moniteau, Farrell, Conneaut Area), two occurring on the road.
The game will be broadcast on NewsTalk 790 (WPIC AM), with Mark Slezak and Bob Greenburg calling the action.
Farrell (1-1, 3-1) at Sharpsville (2-1, 3-1)
With deference to the Greenville-Grove City game and Mercer-Middlesex meeting, this could prove to be the weekend’s most competitive contest.
Ironically, these teams’ lone losses occurred to the two who will be meeting in Middlesex. Mercer shut out Sharpsville (6-0) in the County Seat, while Farrell fell, at home to Middlesex (19-14), allowing a late lead to dissipate into defeat.
These proud programs have accounted for the last 6 District 10 single-A championships.
Two-time titlist Sharpsville has bedeviled the Steelers in the last 3 meetings, including last year (35-13) and 2011 (36-8 in the regular season; 36-0 in the D-10 semifinals).
Prior to that Farrell forged 5 consecutive conquests, including the ’09 district crown (34-7) — the 3rd of its 4 straight 6-county-wide skein of successes.
This season, the stingy Steelers’ defense has yielded only 43 points (14 in the 2nd half of last week’s rout of Redbank Valley), surpassed only by Sharpsville (31).
Sharon (2-1, 2-2) at Reynolds (2-1, 3-1)
This harkens back to the halcyon days of the Keystone Football League when these proud programs competed for the championship on an annual basis.
But tonight’s tilt could serve as a tipping point for both as they look to return to the postseason.
The Tigers have tumbled to Hickory and Greenville — teams that are a combined 7-1, while Sharon has slammed Saegertown and Titusville, which are an aggregate 0-8.
Similarly, Reynolds routed Saegertown and Titusville, as well as Maplewood in its opener — teams that are a collective 2-10. Against Grove City, though, the Raiders had to rally from a 23-0 hole that utimately fell shy at home.
This game features two of the area’s most prolific running backs: “The Hawk” — Sharon’s Carnell Hawkins — and Reynolds’ Mike Millero.
Reynolds rolled (21-14) last year at Tiger Stadium.
Wilmington (1-2, 2-2) at Saegertown (0-3, 0-4)
Wilmington will meet its 2nd straight winless opponent, after tattooing Titusville (47-0) last week.
Saegertown has suffered setbacks to Sharon, Greenville and Reynolds in Region 3 play. Saegertown has been outscored 237-14 this season.
Titusville (0-3, 0-4) at Hickory (2-1, 3-1)
After sustaining its lone setback, Hickory has humbled Wilmington and Grove City by an aggregate 79-13 differential during the last 2 weeks. Conversely, the Rockets have been routed 58-8 and 47-0 by Sharon and Wilmington during the same span.
Titusville, to date, has been outscored by a composite 158-36 margin.
Lakeview (1-1, 3-1) at Kennedy Catholic (0-3, 0-4), noon
Kennedy’s long season could grow longer. Lakeview’s lone loss occurred last week to Mercer, and the Sailors will be seeking to make amends.
Mercer limited Sailors’ speedster Blake Reddick to his lowest rushing output (61) since Sharpsville shackled him (65) in Week 8 last year.
Reddick rushed for 160 yards and a TD and Zach Bigley tossed a trio of TDs — 2 to Zach VanDusen — in the Sailors’ 27-0 shutout in Stoneboro against the Golden Eagles.
The game will be broadcast on SportsRadio 96.7 (WLLF FM) with Jeff Wimer and Mike Piddington calling the action.
Brookfield (3-1) vs. John F. Kennedy (1-3),
Mollenkopf Stadium, Warren, 7
In regular-season play, the Warriors’ win streak (17) was snapped by Struthers last week. Brookfield was beaten at Niles (13-9) midway through the 2011 season, then was undefeated last year and through the first 3 games of this season.
JFK was clubbed at Pandora-Gilboa (27-13) last week, as the Eagles’ allowed 307 yards rushing, including 203 and 3 TDs by Seth Schmenk.
Quarterback Michael Roscoe rifled 14 of 26 attempts for 207 yards for JFK, and he also ran for a pair of 1-yard TDs.
After erupting for 76 points in a pair of opening wins, Brookfield has tallied only 2 TDs in its last 2 games.
Herald sports writer Rob Malsom contributed research for this preview.