Bellefonte has been waiting almost a year for this opportunity.

Moments after his football team’s 35-7 loss to Johnstown in the District 6 championship game last season, juniors Ian Myers and Mike Hewett told Bellefonte coach Tom Gravish that they wanted to be the ones holding the district championship trophy this year and that they wanted to host a first-round playoff game.

Now, 355 days later, the Red Raiders have met half of their goal. Top-seeded Bellefonte hosts No. 4 seed Johnstown at 7 tonight in the first round of the District 6 Class AAA playoffs.

And if Bellefonte (8-1) can avenge last season’s loss, it will be even closer to the second goal. Another shot at the Trojans (4-5) is something that the Raiders have been anticipating all season.

“We thought coming into the season – both players and coaches – that if we were to win a district title, we would be playing against them,” Gravish said of Johnstown. “We’ve kept tabs on them for awhile.”

Myers and Hewett are two of nine senior starters that Gravish credited for helping Bellefonte go from 6-5 last season to 8-1 this year.

“We were a junior-oriented team last year,” Gravish said. “ Our kids have grown up a little bit.”

Johnstown, on the other hand, is much less experienced than last season.

“We lost seven starters from one side of the ball and eight from the other side of the ball,” Johnstown coach Bob Arcurio said, comparing this season’s squad to last year’s. “We have some seniors playing, but they didn’t play regularly last year as a team.”

Bellefonte runs a shotgun-oriented offense that is similar to what the Trojans saw in their 24-0 loss to Bishop Carroll. Senior quarterback Chris Snare leads the option attack. He has thrown for 601 yards and rushed for 637 with 13 total touchdowns. Snare truly is multitalented. He was the team’s leading receiver last season and has two catches for 34 yards and a touchdown this year.

Junior tailback Josh Gentzel is the workhorse for the Red Raiders. The 5-foot-10, 205-pounder has rushed for 1,169 yards and 16 touchdowns. He averages nearly 7.5 yards per carry.

“They have an excellent tailback,” Arcurio said. “You can’t let him run north/south. If you let him do that, he’s hard to bring down.”

Nate Carson is the team’s leading receiver with 386 yards and five touchdowns on just 20 catches. He averages an outstanding 19.3 yards per catch.

The Red Raiders are putting up almost 30 points a game and can cause problems for a defensive coordinator. So how does Arcurio plan to stop the Raiders?

“Use 12 people,” he said with a laugh. “I’m thinking about that. I’m hoping we don’t get caught.”

All joking aside, Arcurio must be somewhat worried after his team gave up 40 points in losing its regular-season finale at Bedford. Mostly he is hoping that the Trojans can avoid the pre-snap penalties – on both offense and defense – that have plagued them all year.

“We need one mistake-free game,” Arcurio said. “We’ve been looking for that for nine weeks. Our kids need to play emotional, like they did against (Bishop) McCort. That’s my job to get them up, to be emotional.”

Johnstown features one of the top sack artists in the state, according to MaxPreps.com, which tracks high school football statistics. The Web site lists Aaron Brezovic’s 13 sacks as the second-highest total in Pennsylvania, behind only Sheffield’s Randall Warren, who has 16.

Scott Corson leads Johnstown with 82 tackles, while Andre Morrison has 76.

Offensively, the Trojans still have plenty of weapons to use against Bellefonte. The two biggest – literally – are on the offensive line. Seniors Mike Kush (6-4, 290) and Corson (6-5, 280) give the Trojans plenty of muscle up front.

They open the holes for running back Antwaun Reed, who has rushed for 733 yards and seven touchdowns. Morrison is second on the team with 231 rushing yards and three touchdowns, while quarterback Brandon Hody has run for 112 yards and four scores.

Hody has thrown for 869 yards and nine touchdowns. Xavier Thomas is his favorite target, with 27 catches for 437 yards and four touchdowns.

“Xavier Thomas is about as fast as anyone you’d find in the state,” said Gravish, who is paying particular attention to the screen passes that Johnstown likes to run.

“They’re one of the better wide-receiver screen teams that you’ll see in high school. We’ve worked a lot to counter that,” Gravish said.

Zach Robbins leads Bellefonte with 60 tackles, while Gentzel has eight sacks.

Despite their record, Arcurio is confident that his team still has a chance to defend its district title.

“We’ve had good practices this week,” he said. “I get the feeling that they want to go into this playoff and defend the District 6 championship. You can’t do it by talking. You’ve got to do it on the football field.”



Eric Knopsnyder can be reached at 532-5080 or eknopsnyder@tribdem.com.

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