By Ed Farrell
Herald Assistant Sports Editor
MERCER COUNTY —
Hickory High head football coach Bill Brest has been the hunter and the hunted during the last 2 years alone.
His Hornets head into Saturday’s showdown with Grove City as the defending District 10 Class AA champion. Additionally, Hickory harvested a 41-12 regular-season win.
However Grove City also is a defending district titlist, having hurdled Cathedral Prep last year in AAA, before the biennial PIAA enrollment cycle eased the Eagles into AA this year.
So who has the edge, the Hornets or Eagles?
“I don’t know if anybody has the advantage,” Brest admitted.
“I know (Grove City head coach) Jeff Bell; he and I go back and forth,” Brest began. “But the way we were seeded for the playoffs with District 10 (committee), we are the extreme underdogs. If we’re to get to where we’re headed, we’re going to have to pull off three major upsets, based on the seeding by District 10.
“We’re definitely the underdogs,” Brest reiterated. “I recognize (Bell) had a few kids out that week. But they have fifty-five kids; we have thirty-five, and we had a bunch out, too.”
Since its lone loss at New Wilmington (35-28) in Week 3, the Hornets harvested 7 straight successes, including last week’s opening-round rout of Northwestern (48-22). Similarly, since its humbling in Hermitage the Grovers garnered 6 consecutive wins, knocking off North East (56-14) in last week’s tournament lidlifter.
“On film, Grove City seems to be much better than earlier in the year,” assessed Brest, who may view more video than ESPN’s Ron Jaworski. “And on film we’re much better. Both teams are much better in all facets, so I don’t know who has the advantage,” he repeated, noting, “I just know it’ll be a great football game.”
Bell recalled the ’04 season when the Eagles soared to the PIAA championship game, losing the opener to Harbor Creek (34-21), then exacting a measure of vengence in the D-10 title tilt (33-7).
“It seems the last few years we’ve had scenarios where we’ve played the same team twice,” Bell acknowledged, adding ominously, “but this is a different beast in Hickory. This is a very good football team.
“Even if everyone’s healthy, it’s gonna take a heck of an effort.”
But Bell’s banged up bunch is not appreciatively healthier than Week 4. Harold Price, Justin Fulkerson and McKenzie Patterson are presumed out, though mountainous lineman Shaun Smoker is back. Hickory’s Michael Nardone and Jordan Wombacker are not completely healthy, Brest said, but Michael Palumbo has returned.
“It’s been a whole laundry list,” Bell admitted, however adding, “Last week we were as healthy as we’ve been all year.”
Games of this magnitude mean much attention to detail.
“I’m a firm believer in ball-control, field position, taking great care of the football, and the team that makes least amount of mistakes, including penalties,” Brest delineated. “Big games come down to that.
“But one of the things we talk about here on a daily basis, what’s really important to us, is really focusing on field position,” Brest continued. “In the nine games we won, we had better starting field position; the one game we didn’t, we did not have the best starting field position.
“The shorter the field you have to drive, the better percentage (of scoring); the longer the field, the harder it is to score,” Brest reasoned.
Specifically special teams — sometimes the forgotten facet — may be key, Bell said.
“Their special teams are as good as anybody we’ve played all year,” Bell praised. “We play solid special teams, but they are so dangerous they make you do things you don’t want to do.”
That could lead to some trickeration. Bell noted his clubs have attempted onside kickoffs in almost every game this year.
“We’re putting in a game plan and hoping our kids can execute it,” Bell said. “We’ve picked out a few things we think we do well offensively, and that’s what we’re gonna do. Defensively, we have a couple wrinkles we’ll use. But we’ll do what we do and hope the kids play a good game.”
Brest recalled a 29-28 semifinals win over Gen. McLane 2 years ago, before bowing to Sharon (14-6) in the D-10 title tilt. Last season the Hornets laid a 35-13 loss on the Lancers to lay claim to the crown.
Similarly, Bell recalled his teams’ troika of tilts with perennial power Cathedral Prep, losing thrice (45-21 semifinals; 47-21, 28-16 in the finals) before breaking through last year (33-0)
“Everybody’s talking about Prep (ranked 2nd in the state in AAA), and this is, pretty much, the same team,” Bell related. “And that (2011 Prep) team is very similar to Hickory as far as they can run the ball, throw the ball. ... We were geared to shutting (Prep’s) passing game down, and fortunately it worked.
“We got beat by (Prep in the ’09 and 2010 D-10 championship games), so we knew going into the season that was the team we had to beat to go on, and our whole year was gearing toward that team,” Bell recalled, admitting, “I think the kids got tired of hearing about them.
“But that was a great effort by our kids and our coaching staff,” Bell praised, quickly adding, “and we’re gonna need that kind of effort, that kind of game (against Hickory).
Playing the disrespect card Brest related, “When the (tournament) seeding came out ... it is what it is. I addressed it one time ... then we moved on. What we decided was to focus on Hickory.
“I don’t care what other people think or what they say about us,” Brest emphasized. “We’re gonna focus on us, we’re gonna focus on ourselves and getting better at doing what we want to do.
“Pressure is what you make of it,” Brest mused. “People on the outside want to put pressure on you. My job and my staff’s job is to foscus our kids so that it’s all internal, and that’s how we’re treating it — it’s another big game against another outstanding opponent.
“We’re just focusing on Hickory; not the pressure outside people want put on us.
“We’re focused on ‘one game, a season,’ one game at a time,” Brest, repeating an oft-uttered refrain. “That’s the mentality we have.
“This year, this game, it’s gonna be two, pretty doggone good football teams. A great Saturday,” Brest concluded.
Recalling last season’s 2nd straight 11-1 campaign (and undefeated regular season), Bell admitted,
“This year’s a little different — we don’t have the depth and experience. But we’ve gotten better as the year’s gone on.
“We lost a lot of people off that (2011) team, but the kids have gotten better and we’ve had a very good season,” Bell continued. “Hopefully, we’ve gotten good enough to compete with Hickory, because I really think they’re one of the best teams in the state. I know Wilmington beat them and I’m not slighting anyone.
“But if we want to be, we’ll have to beat them to move on.”