(Statistical Information Courtesy of Professor Briggs' archives and Marc Malkoskie of Bloomsburg Press Enterprise. Coach interviews courtesy Sports Radio 96.7/790 WPIC's Bob Greenburg)


In August, it seemed unlikely to many that the Pennsylvania high school football season would get started, and if it did start, reaching a satisfactory conclusion appeared to be almost impossible due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, after three months and 11 weeks of game action, a dozen teams have advanced to the state championship game in Pennsylvania's respective six classifications.

While there have been plenty of unusual occurrences during the 2020 football season, it will end in familiar fashion for the one remaining Mercer County squad. Wilmington will face Southern Columbia in the Class 2A state title game for the third time in four seasons. The game will be the fourth of six in the two-day gathering at Hershey, and the first of Saturday's tripleheader.



Southern Columbia vs. Wilmington, 11:00 a.m., Hersheypark Stadium

Saturday morning in Hershey, the Wilmington Greyhounds will aim to do what no one has done since December 10, 2016: defeat Southern Columbia. Southern Columbia (11-0) carries a 59-game winning streak into the Class 2A championship game after defeating Philadelphia's Bishop McDevitt, 49-14, in last week's state semifinals. Meanwhile, Wilmington improved to 10-0 with a 20-18 win at District 7 champion Beaver Falls in the other Class 2A semifinal.

"We are beyond excited," Wilmington head coach Brandon Phillian said. "We are blessed and grateful. We are humbled to have this opportunity. When you think about all of the uncertainty surrounding the 2020 football season due to COVID-19, the fact that we are even having a state championship is such a blessing. And not only that we're having it, but that we get to be a part of it, that we've earned the right to go to Hershey and compete for a state championship.

"It's something for our boys, for our school, for our community, it is something that is so special."

The Greyhounds fell to Southern Columbia in the 2017 (48-0) and 2018 (49-14) championship games. Both teams' lineups have had significant turnover since the last meeting due to graduation. For Wilmington, senior halfback/safety Ethan Susen and senior guard/defensive tackle Weston Phanco are the only returning starters from the 2018 meeting. On the Southern Columbia side, junior halfback Gavin Garcia and senior linebacker Wade Kerstetter both saw notable action against Wilmington two years ago.

"This 2020 edition of Southern Columbia football looks to me just like it did when we played them in 2017 and 2018," Phillian said. "First of all, they are exceptionally well-coached. Jim Roth does a great job and he has a great staff with him. They're loaded at the skill positions with athletes all over the field. They do a great job on the offensive and defensive lines. They're very sound with their techniques and fundamentals.

"I think the fact that it's Southern Columbia, with all of the respect that we have for their program and what they have been able to accomplish, I think that definitely adds a little extra motivation."

Wilmington and Southern Columbia both feature prolific rushing attacks. Wilmington has a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in Susen and classmate Darren Miller. Susen (5-foot-10, 170 pounds) leads Wilmington with 1,306 yards and 18 total touchdowns. Miller (5-11, 180) has a team-leading 14 rushing touchdowns to go along with 1,037 rushing yards. Both men average over nine yards per carry.

Susen leads Wilmington with 1,816 all-purpose yards in 2020. He has 3,107 career rushing yards. Thanks to consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, Miller now has 2,797 career rushing yards.

Senior quarterback Caelan Bender has rushed for 454 yards and eight touchdowns. He also has thrown for 530 yards and seven touchdowns on 25-of-48 accuracy. Susen leads the Greyhounds with 14 catches for 326 yards and four touchdowns. Senior split end Mason Reed has 10 receptions for 192 yards and three touchdowns.

"We look at it as three-dimensional," Roth said of the Wilmington backfield. "They have two outstanding backs and their quarterback is also a good running back that they utilize quite a bit. They have a huge, aggressive line, which helps initiate all of that. I've been very impressed with the way that their backs, even though they're not the biggest guys, have been able to run inside."

Garcia, a 190-pound junior, has rushed for 1,697 yards and 27 touchdowns this season on only 96 attempts. He ran for 205 yards and four touchdowns in the semifinal win over Bishop McDevitt. Garcia has scored multiple touchdowns in all 10 games played. He ran for 104 yards and two touchdowns two years ago against Wilmington as a freshman.

"Gavin Garcia's a special back," Roth said. "He's been good the last two years, but he probably improved a bit from last year by getting bigger and stronger. He seems to be a bit more explosive."

Sophomore Wes Barnes has added 736 yards and seven touchdowns on 72 carries while sophomore Braeden Wisloski has posted 449 yards and 13 touchdowns. Both sophomores average 10.2 yards per carry.

Junior quarterback Liam Klebon mirrors Bender's statistics this season. He has 533 yards and seven touchdowns on 27-of-52 passing. Junior Jake Rose leads the Tigers with seven catches. Southern Columbia averages 50.5 points and 407.1 offensive yards per game. The Tigers have outscored opponents, 221-6, in the first quarter.

While both teams operate Wing-T offenses, there are significant differences between the respective systems. Southern Columbia's Delaware Wing-T attack is very similar to the offense used by Sharpsville over the past 25 seasons.

"Their version of the Wing-T is further away from the traditional Delaware Wing-T than what ours is," Roth (455-63-2) said. "Formation-wise, and some of our plays are similar to the textbook Delaware Wing-T, if you will. Wilmington's is significantly different, although you would have to classify it as a Wing-T offense. Theirs is much more power-oriented. They do more with their wings coming back into the formation. They do a real good job at the power running game."

Wilmington averages 357 rushing yards per game. An experienced and sizable offensive line that averages 280 pounds per man has cleared the way for Greyhound backs. Phanco (6-2, 270) and senior Morgan Whiting (6-4, 215) man the guard spots while seniors Jake Chimiak (6-2, 310) and Connor Vass-Gal (6-2, 340) start at tackle. Junior center Brayden Penwell (6-2, 260) is the lone first-year starter up front.

"It really is a special group," Phillian said. "It's a group that has worked extremely hard. They have been so dedicated and so committed to the weight room and to their craft. They're relentless when they're working in the weight room. They've been dedicated to become as strong as they can, as quick as they can and as explosive as they can be. I think that it's really paid off for this group."

Southern Columbia has allowed only 102 points this season. The Tigers held Bishop McDevitt to six rushing yards and 138 total yards in the semifinals. Safety Ian Yoder and Jake Davis both recorded interceptions.

The Tigers hold opponents to 2.9 yards per carry. Ten of Southern Columbia's defensive starters are one-way starters. Only split end/cornerback Davis starts on both sides of the ball.

The Tigers' front four averages 201 pounds per man. At 205 pounds, inside linebacker Kerstetter is the third-heaviest man on defense. He has 3.5 sacks and 58 tackles this year. Junior defensive end Derek Berlitz (6-1, 225) leads Southern Columbia with seven sacks. Freshman inside linebacker Garrett Garcia paces the team with 89 tackles.

"Defensively, our front four has to have a real good game," Roth said. "We're not nearly as big as Wilmington. It's one of the smaller fronts that we've had in years. We have to do a good job with gap control. With their scheme, if your front four doesn't hold their ground and do a good job of controlling gaps, it's going to be difficult for the linebackers and the defense as a whole to slow this offense down."

"A key is establishing the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball," Phillian said. "We want to win the battle in the trenches. I think that establishing the line of scrimmage could very well be a key in this game."

Wilmington has eight two-way starters, including Chimiak, Phanco, Vass-Gal and Whiting on the defensive line. Senior tight end/defensive end Jordan Hess also plays extensively up front. Miller and junior Skyler Sholler anchor the linebacker posts. Susen shares the county lead with four interceptions and Reed has three interceptions. 

"On the defensive side of the ball, they're huge up front. They're aggressive and they get off the ball," Roth said. "Regardless of what front they were in, they were solid defensively, both against the run and the pass. They've had a strong year defensively. It doesn't look like there's any weakness anywhere. They have those good athletes playing in the secondary."

Wilmington allows an average of 111 rushing yards per game. Beaver Falls ran for 167 yards in last week's state semifinal game, averaging 6.0 yards per carry.

Senior guard Jaxon Purnell (6-1, 220) and senior center Derek Wertman (5-8, 220) anchor Southern Columbia's skilled offensive line, which has four men over 220 pounds.

"I think that's a big key in this game, our offensive line against their defensive line, and how we match up," Roth said. "With our running game and our backs, it's going to be so critical for us to be effective up front. It's not the type of thing where we expect to dominate, but we at least have to be able to hold our own to give our backs a chance." 

Overall, the Tigers have 29 takeaways this season. Southern Columbia owns a plus-18 turnover margin. Davis leads the Tigers with five interceptions and Yoder has four interceptions. Wilmington has a plus-11 turnover margin, thanks to a Mercer County-low five turnovers this season.

Wilmington has been flagged for 58 penalties this year and averages 54.3 penalty yards per game. Southern Columbia has committed 56 infractions, good for 511 penalty yards in 10 games.

"We want to take care of the football," Phillian (35-3) said. "If we're on offense, we cannot afford pre-snap penalties. Against a team as good as Southern Columbia, you don't want to get behind the sticks. Whenever we're on defense, we cannot afford to give them free yardage."

Wilmington defeated Farrell in the District 10 championship game October 31, 19-13. In the state playoffs, the Greyhounds earned a 42-14 win over Karns City in the first round, then rolled to a 56-29 victory over Chestnut Ridge in the quarterfinal round. The state semifinal at Beaver Falls marked Wilmington's first game away from home in the postseason.

Southern Columbia defeated visiting Line Mountain in the District 4 Class 2A semifinals, 49-7. The next week, the Tigers bolted to a 42-0 halftime lead on the way to a 49-14 win over South Williamsport in the district title games.

Southern Columbia opened state tournament play November 14 with a 57-30 win over Richland in the state quarterfinals at Altoona. Southern Columbia led 27-22 at the halftime and then broke open the game with 23 points in the third quarter.

Last week's win over Bishop McDevitt moved Roth into a tie for first place on Pennsylvania's all-time coaching wins list. Roth's 455 wins tie him with the late George Curry. Curry coached Berwick to Class AAA state championship victories over Sharon in both 1994 and 1995.

Roth is in his 37th season as Southern Columbia head coach. He spent four years as defensive coordinator at Southern Columbia before being promoted to head coach in 1984.

"It's a humbling thing that really hasn't sunk in and it probably won't until sometime down the road," Roth said of tying and potentially passing Curry on the wins list. "I don't look at the individual stuff too much. My perspective is more about the team and the program. I look at it from a program perspective that we've had so many people involved in helping us be this successful the last 35 years. I have a tremendous staff. Some of these guys have been with me the entire time and others for 20-plus years. So, a lot of continuity there.

"(Curry) was such a fierce competitor on gameday, but away from gameday, he did a lot for high school football in the region, in the state and beyond," Roth continued. "I saw first-hand that he would reach out to programs and coaches and do what he could do to help promote high school football and to help people out. I learned a good bit from him in how to operate and run a program."

Wilmington owns a 24-14 all-time record in the state playoffs, including a 1-3 mark in championship games. Wilmington played in the inaugural Class AA state championship game in 1988 against Bethlehem Catholic, dropping a 26-11 verdict. Twenty years later, Wilmington upset West Catholic, 35-34, in the "AA" title game. 

Southern Columbia owns 10 all-time state championships and is 10-8 in the title round. The Tigers will be making their sixth straight title game appearance, having won in 2015, 2017, 2018 and 2019. Southern Columbia lost to Farrell in both 1995 (6-0) and 1996 (14-12) in the Class A state finals. The Tigers downed West Middlesex, 56-14, in the 2006 Class A title game. Southern Columbia won five straight state championships from 2002 to 2006.

Berwick (1994-97) and Clairton (2009-12) are the two other Pennsylvania high school programs to have won four consecutive state championships. Southern Columbia would be the first program to twice accomplish that feat.

Both respective school districts cross a county border. Wilmington High School is in New Wilmington, Lawrence County. However, Wilmington Township in Mercer County is also part of the district. Wilmington's baseball field is located in Mercer County.

Meanwhile, Southern Columbia High School sits in Catawissa, Columbia County. Catawissa Boro and five townships in Columbia County help comprise the Southern Columbia Area School District. Students in Ralpho Township, Northumberland County, also attend Southern Columbia schools. Catawissa is located just south of Bloomsburg, close to Interstate 80. Catawissa is approximately midway between Harrisburg and Scranton.

The game will be heard on Sports Radio 96.7.