State College football’s seniors have undergone a long journey to get to their current position in the PIAA Class 6A semifinals.
Head coach Matt Lintal has had the seniors for the entirety of their career, overseeing their development from junior varsity to varsity and building them up all of the way through. He maintains a strong conviction in each of them, trusting them to blaze their own path to glory in Saturday’s semifinal matchup against 13-0 Mount Lebanon.
“It’s awesome. It’s a great group of kids that have obviously been through ups and downs of life, of a pandemic, of a season, of two seasons and to wind up with this opportunity — they’ve worked extremely hard for it,” Lintal said Tuesday at practice. “I couldn’t be any more proud of a group of young people.”
This year’s seniors played just six games in 2020 during the onset of COVID-19, going 3-3 on the year. This year, they’ve continued to deal with the pandemic, with some affected by the virus and suffered a number of tough losses through their senior year.
Senior Branden Price serves as a wide receiver and defensive back and had COVID-19 earlier in the season, taking him out for few matchups. Price has 12 catches for 182 yards and two touchdowns, serving as the foil to fellow senior wideouts Jashaun Green and TJ Yoder.
“It’s a lot different,” Price said of the 2021 season. “Last year, we only got six games in the regular season. It went by so quickly and it felt like we hardly got to play that much. This year with the full season, unfortunately I missed one game with COVID, but besides that we’ve really fulfilled everything we’ve wanted to do.”
Following its 21-14 loss to Carlisle on Oct. 15, State College had to regroup. The Little Lions needed to bring in a new identity — one that included smash mouth football from the front lines to their quarterback on offense. Their defense just needed to continue to hold steady, having allowed just 16 points per game in the previous two contests.
A change in mindset
The Lions changed their mentality prior to the first game against Harrisburg. Despite the 15-13 loss on Oct. 23, they felt that they played physically enough to win the game. Since then, they’ve won four straight games against Altoona, then Williamsport in the District 6 Class 6A title game, Delaware Valley in the subregional and a rematch against Harrisburg in the quarterfinals.
At the forefront of their winning ways is a stout defense. They’ve held teams to 10.75 points per game over their last four games. Senior cornerback Calvin Roan is one of the major leaders on the team’s defense and has stepped up and made tackles like a linebacker. Roan is third in total tackles (117) on the team behind junior linebacker JW Scott (129) and senior linebacker Jack Roeshot (120) and has tightened a lid on big running plays. He also has two interceptions on the year with seven pass deflections.
“I feel like it comes down to reading whether or not it’s a run or pass and when you do that, don’t hesitate with it all,” Roan said Tuesday. “You just (have to) know your instincts and trust your gut. Last year and two years ago, I looked up to Sammy Knipe a lot — my old teammate — whenever we were playing. He played safety and he was just really good at playing aggressive, especially north and south and not just worrying about getting burned deep. He had a lot of good instincts.”
Roeshot has been the man in the middle for the Little Lions. Not only has he generated 120 total tackles, but he has a sack, nine quarterback hurries, seven tackles for loss on the year, two fumble recoveries and a forced fumble on the year. He’s seen the team alter its playbook to fit players on the defensive side of the ball and as the middle linebacker, he’s had to make sure that the younger players understand their assignments.
Roeshot said he’s seen the defense and their plays grow.
“Our team works well,” he said. “I feel like we’re all healthy — my entire defense is healthy. We’ve had a few hiccups in the season, but after Harrisburg, we’re back at it. We have another burst of life, so I feel great.”
On the offensive side of the ball, things changed significantly. Starting quarterback Finn Furmanek went down with a leg injury following the team’s matchup with Central Dauphin East. Junior quarterback Jack Morris and sophomore Owen Yerka saw their time increase with an offense that emphasized running the ball north and south with more downhill running.
That took an adjustment from the receivers as well, as players had to step up and build a rapport with new quarterbacks. For Yoder, the transition has been seamless, even with the swapping among the three, now that Furmanek returned for the Harrisburg game.
“It’s a lot, but we’re just getting used to as many guys as we can,” Yoder said. “It’s fun every day just working with everyone.”
They’ve been a ground and pound team for most of the year now, with Yerka and senior running back Brady Bendik taking a vast majority of the carries. Bendik has 196 carries for 831 yards and six touchdowns on the ground, while Yerka has 124 carries for 517 yards and four touchdowns on the year. As a 6-foot-3, 215-pound running back, Bendik softens up the defense with his bruising style and allows Yerka to slash through them with precision and speed.
It all centers on the cohesion that the runners have with their offensive line. If they are able to follow the blocks of their linemen and the linemen are able to hold their blocks, they can be successful.
“I feel like our offensive line is where we’ve gotten better at over the season and we’ve really created a bond, especially on the offense,” Bendik said. “We’ve been able to create a lot of plays that have been successful on the field and the credit goes to every offensive lineman. They’ve done really well all season and without them, none of this would be possible.”
One last hurrah for the seniors?
Toby Brennan, a senior offensive tackle, has seen how much injuries can cost a team. His position group saw injuries to a number of players, including standout junior left guard Michael Dincher, and they rallied together to pave the way for Bendik and other rushers.
Like many offensive lines across the country, this one is a brotherhood. It’s a brotherhood of players who have had their knees rolled up on in a pile, twisted ankles, blows to the head and a litany of other ailments. This is also a brotherhood of fun-loving, bantering teenagers who would give their all to one another.
“If you look back and just seeing the fact that we’re still standing and that we’re still fighting harder than ever now, it’s just a sight to see,” Brennan said. “Just being able to fight next to my brothers is just an honor and I’m glad I’ve chosen this path.”
The same fight that they’ve shown throughout the season is derived from Lintal, according to the players. Green is one of the major examples. The senior wide receiver and defensive back missed two games against Central Dauphin East and Central Dauphin in back-to-back weeks with a head and neck injury. He’s since returned to catch 33 passes for 533 yards and five touchdowns, adding 20 carries for 155 yards and a touchdown on the year, to go with his interception, two pass deflections and 14 total tackles on defense.
Green was front and center for Tuesday’s bone-chilling practice. He felt the energy coursing through his veins and he credited it to the way his coaching staff prepares them.
“If the coaches weren’t here for us, pushing us every single day, we wouldn’t be where we are right now,” Green said. “It’s up to Matt Lintal having us out here, 35 degrees out here, practicing out here and just coming out here and getting better.”
State College tight end and defensive end Kyle Kurzinger’s brother, Kevin, was part of the 2019 State College team that made it to the PIAA quarterfinals with an 11-2 record. Kevin Kurzinger is now at Duquesne and playing defensive end. While the elder Kurzinger’s team couldn’t progress any further, Kyle has eclipsed his brother’s team accomplishment as a senior by making it to the semifinals. The hope is to go two steps further by hoisting the state championship trophy at Hershey Park.
“Making it farther than my brother was a goal of mine,” Kyle Kurzinger said. “Just playing until December, that’s something that’s unheard of (for us) and it’s an awesome feeling to be outside and playing in the cold with the boys.”
State College will head to Altoona at Mansion Park on Saturday at 1 p.m. to take on Mount Lebanon.