By Ed Farrell
Herald Assistant Sports Editor
MERCER COUNTY AREA —
While Saturday will serve as his Sailors’ first foray into the PIAA playoffs, Lakeview High head football coach Dan York is going along for the ride, taking it all in stride.
Stopping shy of stifling a yawn, York calmly said, “We consider the playoffs the playoffs. When you make the playoffs out of our region (1-A), you’ve already gone up against some of the better teams in the state. So whether it’s the districts or state, it’s still the playoffs.”
District 10 champion Lakeview (12-1) collides with D-9 counterpart Clarion (13-0) 1 p.m. Saturday at Slippery Rock University’s Mihalik-Thompson Stadium.
Earlier this week York was more preoccupied with the weather forecast and where his Sailors were going to practice, rather than the novelty of practicing on Thanksgiving Day for the first time.
“I’m not even sure where we’re at (this morning),” York related after going to Grove City College’s indoor facility earlier this week. “Where exactly, when exactly, I don’t know. Maybe Hickory, but they have their own practice scheduled.”
An Oil City native, York utilized Oil City High’s synthetic surface stadium last week for workouts. But when his players broached the idea of returning there this week, York told them, “Fine, but every one of you has to bring your own shovel. We got, like, 18 inches of snow up there last Saturday and Sunday. ... But sometimes (when you change the practice venue) you lose concentration from the kids and lose concentration from the coaches,” York noted.
The Sailors will have to concentrate on Clarion, which has outscored opponents by a nightly norm — and statewide best — 55.8 to 3.8 points per game (even better than prolific WPIAL champion (South Fayette), according to d9sports.com. The Bobcats bludgeon opponents for 317 yards rushing and 475 total yards per game.
Keying Clarion is running back Damien Slike (school single-season standard 1,836 yards rushing, eclipsing Kyle Cathcart’s 1,822 in 2001), and Ian Corbett (1,091). The 1,000-yard tandem is a single-season first in Clarion grid annals, according to d9sports.com. Corbett collected a game-opening 99-yard kickoff return in last week’s rout of Redbank Valley.
“The first person we have to stop is (Slike), that’s number one,” York noted. “He’s a pretty good athlete, a 200-pound kid who can run, too. But their quarterback (John Katis) throws a nice ball and has some speed, too.
“Our defense has played well all year,” York noted.
Katis has connected for 20 TD tosses without having thrown an interception this season, according to d9sports.com. His go-to guy has been Cody Hearst, who has hauled in almost 1,000 aerial yards.
Following the Bobcats’ blowout of Redbank Valley (55-0) in last week’s D-9 title tilt, Slike — who has slashed for more than 3,000 career yards rushing — told Rich Rhoades of d9.sports.com, “The real driving force, I have to say, is the offensive line. You could drive a Mack truck through (the holes).
“Everyone just plays their heart out every week, and that’s why we’re doing so well because we’re playing as a team, and not individuals,” added Slike, who also is approaching D-9 single-season record for TDs (Clearfield’s Dave Richards, 45, in 2002).
Clarion Coach Larry Wiser (25th year; 3rd in his 2nd stint) and the Bobcats boast 3 straight district championship game appearances (5 in 6 years; winning just once, 7-0 over Coudersport in ’09), losing 47-8 last year and 35-34 in 2011, both times to Port Allegany, according to d9sports.com.
Ironically, Wiser sees similarities between the Sailors and his Clarion club.
“Lakeview is a very similar team to us,” Wiser told Rhoades.“They have size and their running back (Blake Reddick) is pretty fast from what I saw. It’ll be a challenge for us defensively to handle their running back and their offensive line ... I told (his assistants) when we went out to scout (Lakeview) they might want to leave me behind. I’m a jinx,” Wiser said with a laugh, relating,
“I’ve had some great teams that have been here before, and I feel for those guys who didn’t get the trophy … We’ve had some tough endings, but overall I’m pretty proud to be the Clarion football coach and be part of this team again this year (after a hiatus in 2010).”
York, regarding his Sailors’ sentiments, said,
“This has been enjoyable. The kids are excited, having fun, as well they should.”
Regarding the program’s initial appearance on the statewide stage, York admitted uncertainty as to how his players will respond to the moment.
“I really don’t know. But I hope, since they got through the district, there’s not a little bit of a letdown. We haven’t done that all year. But we just have to put our noses back to the grindstone.”
While winning the 2013 PIAA Class AA heavyweight wrestling championship was a thrill, Sam Breese believes a football commonwealth crown could be comparable, perhaps better. Following Lakeview’s D-10 championship-clinching shutout of Sharpsville, Breese, serving as spokesman for the Sailors’ sentiments, said,
“This feels pretty good, but we still have a lot more work to do if we want to get a state title for football, too.”
This is the most successful season in Sailors’ annals. Lakeview has been led by Breese the beast, an athletic 6-foot-1, 280-pounder two-way lineman, and running back Reddick. En route to the Mercer County and District 10 single-season rushing record (2,738) Reddick roared past the career curbstone (6,312), as well, in last week’s win.
“Just amazing!” Breese gushed. “A heckava football player. ...You have to account for him on any play. Just an amazing player.”
Quarterback Zach Bigley and versatile Zach VanDusen are another pair of Sailors’ standout seniors. York reported both Bigley and two-way lineman Hunter Armstrong’s ankle injuries are “getting better.”
If Bigley becomes big, both running and throwing, it could keep Clarion from clogging the line of scrimmage in hopes of reining in Reddick.
“It depends on the weather,” York said. “If (Saturday afternoon) is like last Friday, it’ll be hard to do anything through the air with weather like that. We’ll see. But Bigley can throw the football.”
“We’re just very athletic and have a lot of drive in us. We want to be the best around,” Breese explained. “Right from when we started, we had a very good chemistry in Midgets, and we knew we were gonna have something special, something great. We just had to put all the work in, and we got it done.”
It remains to be seen if this will be a once-in-a-lifetime for Lakeview’s program, but Breese related following the D-10 title tilt,
“This feels amazing! I’m so happy for my brother, my family, myself. We put a lot of work into it this year, and we finally got it done.
“ ... Beyond excited! Just an amazing feeling,” Breese concluded.— Herald sports writer Rob Malsom contributed research for this preview; Chris Rossetti contributed d9sports.com notes.