MERCER COUNTY AREA —
The calendar reminds us that Thanksgiving arrives a little later than usual this year. But as holiday traditions go, this one has been pretty productive for Hickory High head football coach Bill Brest.
“My wife always has me put up our Christmas tree on the Friday after Thanksgiving ... and the next day, we’ve won. So I’ll be more than happy to help my wife put up the tree this Friday,” Brest related.
During the past 2 years Hickory has won District 10 titles on Thanksgiving weekend. But this year the Hornets harvested their 3rd consecutive crown last week, jettisoning Girard (21-10). Now Hickory (11-1) has a 1 p.m. date in DuBois Saturday against surprising Central-Martinsburg (11-2) in the PIAA Class AA quarterfinals.
While Hickory has dominated D-10 for 3 consecutive seasons, the statewide stage has been a struggle. In back-to-back PIAA playoff appearances Hickory has been handed 38-12 and 40-28 opening-round setbacks by Richland and Tyrone, respectively. In spite of a trio of titles and 42 wins in his first 50 games at Hickory’s helm — and practicing on Thanksgiving Day for a 4th straight year — would a victory validate Brest?
“One of the things I’ve always had a saying for over the years is: ‘Take it to the next level.’ That next level for us is to win in the state quarterfinals, then see what happens. But in order to get past this game, we’re going against a very good football team,” Brest cautioned.
Central secured the D-6 championship last week, upsetting previously undefeated and top-seeded Richland (27-22). From 2011 to the present Richland had been 8-2 in the postseason and 36-4 overall. Conversely, after previously appearing in only 3 playoff games in 3 years, Central secured the program’s 1st district championship since ’08.
“I wasn’t surprised — Central-Martinsburg was the much better team,” related Brest, who watched a segment of the game live. “The Achilles heel Richland had this year was they graduated so many offensive linemen. Central-Martinsburg won the line of scrimmage, and that was a key, key thing in that game.
“ ... Their offensive line ... just solid-looking kids, strong ... physical,” Brest praised.
Central has scored 60-plus points 3 times this season. Against Richland it recorded 404 total yards and 23 first downs. Quarterback Austin Cunningham accounted for 293 total yards (154 rushing, 139 passing) and a trio of TDs.
“It all starts with (Cunnigham). To date, he’s the best quarterback we’ll have faced,” Brest began. “Some of the comparisons with this kid is that he’s the high school version of (Texas A&M Heisman Trophy winner) Johnny Manziel. He’s not overly big, but passes and runs. ... We just have to bring him down.
“Conceptually, we have a good feel for what he does tendency-wise. But he’s such a good runner, a good scrambler. ... He’s the total package,” Brest boasted.
Against Richland, Central jump-started its upset with an early fake punt from its own 18-yard line to sustain a scoring series. Later, after Central secured possession via an interception the Scarlet Dragons eschewed running out the 1st-half clock. Cunningham connected with Adam Frederick for 24- and 17-yard pass plays, setting up Zach Slagenweit’s 24-yard field goal that gave Martinsburg a 9-8 margin at intermission. Cunningham also connected with Justin Helsel for a 23-yard scoring strike on a 3rd-and-7, third-period play.
“I thought Cunningham was great,” Central-Martinsburg Head Coach Dave Baker told The (Altoona) Mirror. “I thought our whole team was outstanding, but Cunningham was great. He got first downs, touchdowns ... and just made all the right decisions. The tide could have been turning there, and then we went right down the field.”
Prolific — and versatile — Bradi Moore emerged as an 1,100-yard rusher and also doubles as Cunningham’s primary aerial target.
Third-year Martinsburg mentor Baker brought an old-school scheme from his prior coaching stint with Williamsburg. His Scarlet Dragons’ defense utilizes a 6-2 alignment Baker learned in the 1960’s, according to The Mirror. Richland ravaged opponents for 47 points per game; however against Martinsburg it managed only 272 yards on 44 snaps and committed a trio of turnovers.
Baker coached 31 seasons at Class A Williamsburg. His only prior appearance in the D-6 title tilt, according to The Mirror, occurred in 1989 — a 15-7 loss to Laurel Valley. The win over Richland was his 150th, career-wise.
“I'm generally a pretty conservative person,” Baker told The Mirror. “We’re still doing the same things we did (at Williamsburg) — that it’s easier to have a good defense than a good offense. Maybe we couldn’t score, but we could really try to play good defense. It’s a little easier to coach.
“If you're not very good at offense, you're not very good; but on defense, you can keep working at it and get better.”
Brest said a 6-2 could be considered similar to a 4-4.
“A lot of teams up here run that (4-4). ... Wilmington uses a 6-man box in certain situations,” Brest began, noting, “But the one thing (Martinsburg-Central) does quite a bit more is they’re more active. They’ll use ‘cover-zero’ with man concepts ... edge blitzes. They take a lot of chances defensively. So (offensive coordinator) Jason McElhaney and our coaches have worked hard to zero in on their tendencies in order to try to put our kids in better position.”
Brest broached the cliché “get the monkey off our back” regarding past PIAA playoff losses.
“I really think that first year (2011, Tyrone), it was just an eye-opening experience. This year, the respect for District 6 is through the roof. They play outstanding football there. But we did not get to see Richland live last year, and that’s difficult. Sometimes when you see a team on film, they’ll show a couple different things when you face them live.
“But I think the (Hornets’) perspective this year is one of all business,” Brest continued. “Their attitude, demeanor this (past) Monday, compared to last year on Monday. ... They’re more business-like and they’re focused moreso than the previous two years.”
Focus is foremost for Brest, his assistants’ and players’ preparedness. And while he may not completely appreciate or be fully able to reflect until the campaign has concluded, Brest admitted.
“I’m always excited. But I’ll tell you where the excitement lies — it’s with the kids. ... Right now my excitement’s for the kids and the coaches, the school district and the community. But the excitement is more for the kids; that’s what keeps me pushing,” Brest added.
Perhaps no one more succinctly summarized the statewide stage scenario better than C-M senior Austin Conrath, who told The Mirror following the Scarlet Dragons’ defeat of Richland,
“It's pure ‘awesomeness.’ To get (Baker) his first district championship is just awesome. It goes out to him.”
For Brest, practicing on Thanksgiving Day is “pretty neat,” and takes the edge off the annual turkey-carving and tree-trimming chores. And he’s hoping the bountiful benefits of playing the next day will continue.—Herald sports writer Rob Malsom contributed research for this preview.