The most anyone in the Central Susquehanna Valley knows about Richland High School is that Selinsgrove played there twice in state playoff games in the last 10 years.
However, Brandon Bailey has built quite the program just outside Johnstown. They’ve won 112 games in Bailey’s 14 years at the helm with three District 6 Class 2A titles, including winning its second in a row earlier this month, beating previously undefeated Ligonier Valley.
“We have a proud tradition here. We had a pretty big nucleus back from last year (a team that lost in the state quarterfinals to West Catholic),” Bailey said. “Those opportunities really helped our team get to this point (this year).
“Our expectations as a staff and the players were conference championship, district championship and let’s see what we can do in the state playoffs.”
The Rams (13-0) will face Southern Columbia (14-0) in the Class 2A state semifinals at 7 p.m. tonight at Harold L. Bolig Memorial Field at Selinsgrove High School and won’t be intimidated by a Tigers’ team that’s chasing a third straight state title, a state-record 10th overall state title and a 47th consecutive victory.
Richland has its own stud receiver in senior Caleb Burke, who has back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. Burke has 66 catches for 1,336 yards for 22 touchdowns this season, and ranks in the top 10 in state history in receptions (186), yards (3,347) and touchdowns (42).
“We’ve gone all over the state and the eastern part of the country to 7-on-7s. Bigger schools in the Pittsburgh Area like Penn Hills or Gonzaga Prep in Washington D.C., and Caleb has always been able to hold his own,” Bailey said. “We hope he can rise up and play a great game.”
Southern Columbia’s Julian Fleming already owns the state career yardage record (5,248) and touchdown receptions (75), but not many teams test him on the defensive side of the ball either. That will probably change tonight as Southern Columbia coach Jim Roth said that Fleming will line up on Burke as often as possibly.
“I think Caleb is looking forward to the challenge,” Bailey said.
“(Burke is) a good athlete. He’s definitely their No. 1 receiver and defending him will go a long way in defending their passing game successfully,” Roth said. “We’ll have to have good coverage on him, so Julian will be locked on him (for the game). Most likely, they’ll see a lot of each other (tonight) because (Burke) plays corner, too.”
Roth did notice one wrinkle in the playoffs for the Rams. Kellen Stahl, Richland’s sophomore quarterback, has thrown for 2,732 yards and 40 touchdowns this season, but the Rams have opted to run the ball more in the playoffs.
“They throw the ball a lot for a high school, but they’ve run the ball more in the playoffs,” Roth said. “I don’t know if they’ve developed more confidence (in the run game) as the season’s gone on, or it’s something else.”
Bailey says his team will do what the other team’s defense dictates to them and tonight won’t be any different.
“If they put eight guys in the box, we might not run the whole the game,” Bailey said. “If they only five or six guys in the box and play double coverage, we’ll run the ball.”
The Rams use a wide variety of backs in the running game. Senior Trevor Tustin leads the team with 490 yards and five scores, while Stahl adds 449 yards and five scores. Five running backs have at least 225 yards on the ground for Richland.
“They are tough to prepare for in the sense that they throw a lot of different formations at you — two-back to empty,” Roth said. “They really like to run the quarterback as well, not as much as Upper Dauphin, but it’s something our guys are accustomed to seeing this season.”
For Bailey’s defense, he feels his team can’t throw too many resources at either part of the Tigers offense.
“You have to hope everybody on defense just does their assignments,” Bailey said. “If you spend too much time on Fleming, the Garcia brothers will do some damage.”
Gaige Garcia has run for 1,930 yards and 28 touchdowns this season, and holds the state career record for rushing TDs (134) and total touchdowns (154). Garcia topped 8,000 career yards in the win over Upper Dauphin and should finish in the top five in Pennsylvania. Gavin Garcia has 1,454 yards and 26 touchdowns this season.