Tom Dickenson might feel like a guy walking past a row of carnival barkers, all trying to entice customers by making them believe they have a chance to win a prize.
The North Penn-Mansfield football coach will take his team south to Southern Columbia’s Tiger Stadium on Saturday night.
“This is no doubt an impossible battle,” Dickenson said, “but we hope to get some positive takeaways from the game and learn from it for next year.”
The fifth-seeded Panthers (5-6) and No. 1 Tigers (11-0) tangle for the second time in three years in the District 4 Class 2A semifinal.
Despite the long odds against them, Dickenson’s Panthers got a boost of confidence last week when they pulled an improbable upset at No. 4 Wellsboro. One week after losing to the Hornets 21-7, their third consecutive loss, the Panthers beat the Hornets, 17-14.
“Wellsboro is our archrival and we went to their place last week and our defense played well,” said Dickenson, noting that one of the two Wellsboro touchdowns came on a punt return. “Our kids were excited, No. 1, to avenge the loss from the week before, and, No. 2, to play another week in the playoffs.”
Southern Columbia is a star-studded, senior-dominated team that is ranked not only No. 1 in Pennsylvania, but No. 1 in the nation. The Tigers have outscored their first 11 opponents by a remarkable 610-26, including a 75-0 thrashing of Towanda in last week’s quarterfinal.
“They know what’s in store for them, but I don’t think you will see them back down, and it’s a chance to gain experience for a team that has a lot of players coming back next year, and watch the way (the Tigers) play, and learn from it,” Dickenson said.
Southern Columbia coach Jim Roth knows his team will face another pass-oriented offense, but the Panthers, he said, go about it differently than most.
“The one thing they do that is a little bit different is they run a ton of perimeter plays like quick bubble screens and swing passes to the backs out of the backfield,” Roth said. “They’re hitting them behind the line too.”
Dickenson said his quarterback, junior Colton Litzelman, must get the ball out quickly.
“We will have tiny goals, get first downs, things like that, and just try and battle them the best we can,” Dickenson said.
Litzelman has completed 166-of-277 passes for 1,701 yards, 14 TDs and just two interceptions. Six of his teammates have accumulated double-figure receptions, led by junior slotback Koleton Roupp (38 for 327 yards, five TDs) and senior wide receivers Logan Tokarz (26-258, two) and Kaelan Matczak (24-247, one).
The Tiger halfbacks, brothers Gaige and Gavin Garcia (senior and sophomore, respectively) each have more rushing yards than the entire Panthers team. Gaige, the state’s all-time leader in touchdowns, has run for 1,511 yards and Gavin has 1,183, each with 22 TDs.
As if that’s not enough, the Tigers also feature the nation’s top-ranked wide receiver, Ohio State University commit Julian Fleming, the state’s all-time reception and receiving TD leader. Fleming has 52 catches for 1,151 yards and 15 TDs this season.
“We are trying to take the same attitude we took two years ago (Southern won 63-26),” Dickenson said. “We know what we’re up against. We have to play fast, play hard and try to give them a game. Many times, they don’t have those kinds of games, but we will just try to compete against them.”
Roth said his defense, which has only given up 286 rushing yards all season, has exceptional speed this year which has allowed the Tigers to do a good job against teams that have tried to do a lot of perimeter plays.
“That’s the emphasis again this week and hopefully we can do a good job against their team as well,” he said, adding that, based on scores, it appears that North Penn-Mansfield is playing its best football at the end of the season.