Eight Is Great
Tigers finish off perfect season for state gold
Last season, Southern Columbia walked off of the field at Hershey Park Stadium with their tears of defeat soaking into the turf in Chocolate Town, suffering a lopsided defeat in the PIAA Class 2A State Championship. Just 363 days later, the Tigers returned to that same field and this time left absolutely no doubt of what they were trying to accomplish. “These guys, especially the senior class, took that loss personally. This team is a true example of a team not settling for anything less than what they wanted. I’m very proud of the way that they reached it and it feels great to win another one,” said Tigers coach Jim Roth.
Behind a defense that stepped up to the plate and delivered for all 16 weeks, the Tigers celebrated a 48-0 Mercy Rule victory to beat previously unbeaten Wilmington. The win to cap off a perfect season, brings home a state record 8th State Championship to Southern Columbia. “We worked so hard for this and weren’t going to let it slip through our grasp. This team was on a mission since the end of last year and the final outcome, it was well worth it,” said senior Tyler Bendas. The Greyhounds marched through the western part of the state, but they just simply couldn’t compete with a Tiger squad that was on a golden mission. “This Southern team was certainly in a class of their own this season. Our guys didn’t face anything of that caliber, so it is a credit to their program,” Wilmington coach Terry Verrelli said.
The Tigers won the opening coin toss, and they put the trust into their defense to make a play, and they did just that. “The goal this year from the beginning of the season was to make sure nobody had success running the football on us. I think it’s safe to say that we accomplished that goal and our defense was just lights out and the scoreboard shows it,” two-way lineman Andrew Bell stated. Wilmington got a long pass play to Colton Marett on the game’s opening drive and he looked like he was going to score. Julian Fleming, never giving up on the play, caught up to Marett and punched the ball out after a 47-yard gain. After two bounces on the turf, Southern’s other cornerback Brett Szuler was there to scoop up the ball to give it to the Tigers dangerous offense.
Fleming, who started out the 2016 State Championship game by fumbling the opening kickoff, made another huge play by pulling in an 11-yard touchdown pass from Stone Hollenbach to give the Tigers an early 7-0 lead. “I was definitely disappointed with the outcome last year. I fumbled on the opening kickoff and then gave up a big pass early on, so it was definitely rewarding to make a positive impact early in this game. I mean it’s just a team that had a dream and we achieved it,” Fleming said. Southern made the score 10-0 on the final play of the first quarter thanks to the reliable right foot of Elijah Hoffman when he converted on a 31-yard field goal.
In the second quarter, the heart of the Tigers defense really started to put it in gear. A linebacking core that is as fast as any in defensive coordinator Andy Mills’ 30+ year tenure. “We had great leadership this year from the seniors, and the rest of us just came out and did our jobs. We played hard every play and made sure to win each battle,” said Max Tillett who finished with a game high 12 tackles and was nearly decapitating heads in the process. The quadruplets of Cal Haladay, Anthony Scicchitano, Preston Zachman, and Tillett combined for 11 tackles (five for loss) and three sacks in the quarter to propel the defense. “They had a good group of running backs coming in. We just made sure to stay disciplined and carry out our assignments. As linebackers, I thought the four of us played really well together all season long and we just all played with confidence every down,” said the Tigers leading tackler for the season Cal Haladay.
Southern Columbia went up 17-0 with 4:36 remaining in the half on a 14-play drive. Zachman caught a seven yard pass for the score. “Our line did a great job of giving the receivers time to get open and then once we found openings, Stone was very accurate in the passing game for us,” Zachman said. After the teams traded punts, the Tigers got help from their special teams when Hoffman kicked a punt that was downed by Szuler at the one yard line. The defense did the job again, forcing a three-and-out and a punt out of the Greyhounds end-zone. “This defense has delivered for us all season long. Wilmington came in with a very strong running attack and balance, but I have to give credit to our guys for being physical and flying to the football,” Roth said.
After a nice Fleming return on the line drive punt, the Tigers set up shop at the 15-yard line. Then, the next play was a good summary of SCA’s season. The two Tigers that will be the candidates for the Class 2A Player of the Year, Garcia & Fleming, combined for a touchdown. Garcia caught a pass around the five with three Greyhounds draped on him. The bull kept his legs churning and showed the will to get into the end zone. Fleming helped make sure of it with a final push across pay dirt. The touchdown put the Tigers up 24-0 right before the half and the SCA fans, that outnumbered the Wilmington fans three to one, showered the team with applause heading to the locker room. “This community just shows unbelievable support. The coaching staff makes everyone better, and I know that they have helped me make incredible jumps as a player and others would say the same thing. There’s just nothing like being a Tiger,” Hollenbach said.
On the first offensive play of the second half, Garcia ripped off a 57-yard touchdown run to put the Tigers up 31-0. That was the point in the game when reality started to settle in for this workhorse. “Last year was just devastating having to watch from the sidelines. I remember crying bad after the game. Now I just feel so good for this team. I just really can’t even describe how happy I actually am,” said Garcia. The sophomore had to watch last year’s state final defeat from the bench after breaking his ankle the week prior.
Hoffman kicked a 21-yard field goal on the next possession and then the fat lady started to make her way out of her taste testing adventures across the street at Chocolate World. Another three-and-out by the Tigers record-setting defense, and Jeff Cox put the game into the Mercy Rule, 41-0, on a one-yard plunge at the 2:17 mark of the third quarter. “As the game went on, we just seemed to get more motivated. I just tried to run as hard as I could each play because I knew how hard the offensive line was working to open up holes,” said Cox
Cox added the game’s final touchdown in the middle of the fourth quarter on a four yard carry and the defense was able to keep the shutout to put a final stamp on the 48-0 shellacking. “We were just really persistent. Our coaching staff did a great job in game-planning for this one and I think we executed as well as we could,” Connor Fulmer said. Wilimington who made a living all season long on running the football, ran into a juggernaut. “They just shut us down. What had worked for us all season to get to this point just simply didn’t work against Southern’s defense,” said Verelli. The Tigers held the Greyhounds to less yards rushing than they had carries. In total, Wilmington ran the ball 32 times for just 31 yards.
To put the season into perspective, this Wilmington squad wasn’t a slouch by any means. They pretty much marched right through the entire western part of the state up until last week. It was just the dominance of Southern Columbia that made it look so effortless. In fact, the stadium vibe for what seemed to be the entire second half seemed to be one filled with boredom with the Tigers just continuing to dominate in every facet until the clock struck zero. The 48-point margin of victory was the third largest in PIAA State Championship game history and the largest in the Class AA field.
As the Tigers received their state championship trophy, and celebrated with photos and hugs from fans, the emotions started to set in for the seniors of Southern Columbia. “Lacing up the shoes and strapping up the helmet one last time, and then being able to win a state championship in a blowout fashion, there’s just really no other better way to end your career. This team is like a family and I won’t ever forget a single one of them, all of the players and coaches, we just had a special bond and it ended great,” said an emotional Scicchitano in his final game as a captain leader.
Southern Columbia ends the 2017 campaign on top for the eighth time, and they certainly through their name in the discussion for arguably the best Tiger team of all-time. After going 16-0, this year’s team set a new record for the most points score in a season, the least amount of rushing yards per game allowed in a season, and they scored more special teams points than any school in the history of PA. “It’s really a privilege to see the work that all the players put in each season, and when you end with a win in the final week it makes it that much more rewarding,” Roth said. Regardless of who you think is the best team, there is one thing that is for certain as a Tiger: Eight is Great, and more than any other school in the state.
Stay tuned for later on in the week on a final recap article on the 2017 State Championship season for the Tigers.
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