HERSHEY – Gavin Garcia gladly helped hoist his Southern Columbia coach, Jim Roth, "onto the top of the Mount Rushmore of all-time winningest coaches."
Garcia ground out 216 yards rushing, including 1-, 89- and 74-yard scoring sprints and also turned a screen pass into a 65-yard TD toss, as Southern Columbia claimed its 4th consecutive commonwealth crown with a 42-14 win over Wilmington in the PIAA Class 2A title tilt.
At Hersheypark Stadium in Saturday's matinee there were a bevy of historical benchmarks for Southern Columbia (12-0).
• The win was its 60th straight, meaning Southern Columbia seniors' scholastic swan songs were sans a single setback. Only Clairton, with 66 straight successes from 2009-13, triumphed more than the Tigers' insofar as a consecutive skein.
• Southern Columbia captured its 11th PIAA pedestal in program annals, the best in state schoolboy standards. It was the 3rd time in 4 seasons Southern Columbia won over Wilmington, which was making its 5th foray to a state championship game.
• Roth, with his 456th career coaching conquest, surpassed former colleague George Curry (455).
"I can't say enough about this senior group and this team as a whole," Roth reflected. "After last year, to perform the way that they did and work to get back and play at this level ... when I look back on all the titles, this one will be special for that reason. After you lose five (NCAA) Division I players in a school our size you would expect some drop-off. So this is really a tribute to our coaching staff ... and certainly the players responded and they just did a tremendous job all the way around.
"We don't have the 'big-time' (college) prospects this year, but just a lot of good high school football players," Roth praised. "They played together as a team, and some special guys made a difference – especially offensively at the skill positions. (Satur)day was the same thing, just a lot of people contributing."
"It's phenomenal for the senior class to end undefeated, especially for the two guys who've started since they were freshman," lauded Garcia, a junior.
Garcia came into the contest with career numbers of 4,568 yards rushing (14.9 per-carry) and 78 TDs. The 5-foot-9, 190-pounder employed his bulk, vision and open-field instincts against the Greyhounds.
"Balance and vision," replied Garcia when asked to describe his running style. "Oftentimes when there's nothing there I try to create as much as I can and try and get the most out of what I can get. Sometimes there's not always a hole and you've gotta do something yourself, and I think I did a great job at that (Satur)day.
"Grit and determination were instilled in me my whole life, and during 'crunch time' you've gotta step up, and I think that's what happened," he added.
A state-caliber 160-pound wrestler last winter, Garcia gleaned some of his style from older brother Gaige, now a University of Michigan football/wrestling standout who set the state scholastic standard for career TDs (159).
"Watchin' him do the same thing in big-time games I just wanted to follow in his footsteps, and I think I picked up where he left off," added Garcia, regarding his family's legacy.
Garcia gouged Wilmington's "Hounds Hammer" defense for a 1-yard plunge on the game's opening drive, a 9-play, 61-yard, 4-minute, 24-second masterpiece; weaved from one hashmark to the other on a bubble screen in the left flat from quarterback Liam Klebon, completing a 65-yard play later in the 1st frame, then Garcia gave the Greyhounds more grief.
A Tigers' turnover gave the Greyhounds their initial score. Cole McCallister recovered Braeden Wisloski's fumble. On the ensuing play Darren Miller ran 12 yards on a trap and Daniel Hartwell's PAT had the 'Hounds within 14-7 just 16 ticks into the 2nd stanza.
Following the ensuing kickoff a chop block penalty assessed against Southern set it back to the 11-yard line. But Garcia got a toss right and tip-toed down Southern's sideline 89 yards for a TD with 2:30 remaining to intermission. Isaac Carter kicked the 3rd of his trio of PAT as the Tigers took a 21-7 halftime edge.
The 'Hounds harvested the 2nd half's first score. On a 4th-and-5 play from Southern Columbia's 17-yard line Caelan Bender and Mason Reed collaborated. Reed outmuscled a Tigers' defender in the left corner of the end zone and Hartwell hammered his 2nd PAT drawing Wilmington within 21-14 with 4:17 left in the 3rd quarter.
But Wilmington's 13-play, 66-yard, 7-minute, 48-second series was silenced by Garcia. On a 3rd-and-5 sweep on the subsequent series he took a toss and skirted Southern Columbia's sideline 74 yards for a score. With 3:22 remaining in the 3rd period the Tigers took a 28-14 edge.
Southern Columbia bellwether Wes Barnes sustained an early ankle injury, which meant more Garcia.
"We leaned on Gavin a little bit more, and why not?" a smiling Roth rhetorically asked. "Because, you know, he took control like he's done in the past and, hopefully, he'll do again for another year."
Garcia ground out 134 first-half rushing yards on only 9 totes and caught both of Klebon's pass attempts for another 76 markers. That offset Ethan Susen's 13-carry, 126-yard 1st-half performance. The Tigers tallied 268 yards on only 20 plays, compared with Wilmington's 29-play, 171-yard output.
The Tigers tacked on two 4th frame TDs. Klebon connected with Jake Davis on a 3rd-and-13 pass from his own 21-yard line, and David darted down the Southern sideline to complete a 79-yard pitch-and-catch. Returning later, Barnes bulled in from 2 yards out with 3:49 remaining to conclude the scoring.
"Southern Columbia's an outstanding football team, extremely talented, extremely well-coached," Hounds' headmaster Brandon Phillian reflected. "But I think one thing that our guys showed (Satur)day is they came out and battled. They never flinched, they never backed down. I thought that we were able to move the football, I thought we were able to do a good job 'tackling' the football.
"But it was just the consistency of it,"Phillian continued. "We were able to do it for a period, for a period, for a period, and then (the Tigers) were able to break one, and that's why they're such a great football team. But I think our guys came down here and I think they fought and I think they battled, and I couldn't be more proud of our football team for the effort they gave on this field.
"They were able to get some big plays on us, and conversely, we were not able to finish drives. Our giving up some big plays on the defensive side of the football and our inability at times to finish off drives ... to come up empty –– get inside their twenty or inside the twenty-five and not score –– I think was one of the big differences in this game," Phillian assessed.
Regarding Garcia, Phillian praised, "We saId coming into the game we felt we've gone up against a lot of great running backs this year, and Gavin Garcia is certainly one of 'em. He's got the combo of speed and power, very elusive, very difficult to get to the ground. So I would say (Gracia ranks) right up there with one of the best running backs that I can recall us having to defend."
For Wilmington (10-1), Ethan Susen sprinted for 150 yards rushing and Miller maneuvered for another 70. Susen surpassed 3,000 career yards rushing (3,244) and Miller manufactured 2,864.
The Greyhounds gained 262 yards on the ground, amassed 17 first downs, and did not take a penalty.
Wilmington seniors include Susen, Darren Miller, Bender, Weston Phanco, Connor Vass-Gal, Jake Chimiak, Morgan Whiting, Jordan Hess, Reed, Braxton Shimrack, Trevor Sturgeon, Aidan Hasson, Ethan Winters, Hartwell, Brody Miller and Xavier McDonald.
"I think, for our twenty-twenty seniors, the fact that their season ended on the field, the fact that they got to have a football season, I think was really a blessing this year," Phillian reflected, adding in regard to his Greyhounds seniors who were part of a trio of teams that advanced to Hershey during their 4-year careers,
"It's a special group. It's a group of seniors that I truly love, it's a group of seniors that I believe I've built lasting relationships with. We get to enjoy them on the football field, but I can tell you, to a man, that as good as they are on the football field, they're even better young men.
"They're high-character young men, that – having a young son myself – I would want him to grow up like. So I couldn't be more proud of this twenty-twenty group of seniors," Phillian continued. "The adversity they had to battle – just with COVID-19 – to just to have a football season, it's a resilient bunch and a group that I couldn't be more proud of."
PIAA CLASS 2A CHAMPIONSHIP
SOUTHERN COLUMBIA 14 7 7 14 42
WILMINGTON 0 7 7 0 14
SC - Garcia, 1 run (Carter kick)
SC - Garcia, 65 pass from Klebon (Carter kick)
W - Miller, 12 run (Hartwell kick)
SC - Garcia, 89 run (Carter kick)
W - Reed, 17 pass from Bender (Hartwell kick)
SC - Garcia, 74 run (Carter kick)
SC - Davis, 79 pass from Klebon (Carter kick)
SC - Barnes, 2 run (Carter kick)
12 First downs 16
288 Rushing yards 236
177 Passing yards 17
4-4-0 Att-comp-int 4-1-0
465 Total yards 253
2-1 Fumbles-lost 0-0
7-51 Penalties-yards lost 0-0
Rushing: SOUTHERN COLUMBIA - Garcia 13-217, Wisloski 6-51, Barnes 6-12, Heim 2-11, Yorks 1-1, team 2-0, Klebon 1-(-4); WILMINGTON - Susen 25-137, Miller 17-67, Bender 15-32.
Passing: SOUTHERN COLUMBIA - Klebon 4-4-0-177; WILMINGTON - Bender 4-1-0-17.
Receiving: SOUTHERN COLUMBIA - Garcia 3-98, Davis 1-79; WILMINGTON - Reed 1-17.