Avonworth will ‘relish’ underdog role against 9-time PIAA champion Southern Columbia

Thursday, December 5, 2019 | 5:00 AM

Avonworth coach Duke Johncour acknowledges the apparent mismatch his football team is walking into Friday when the Antelopes make their first state championship appearance.

Waiting for them at Hersheypark Stadium will be nine-time PIAA champion Southern Columbia, a team that’s won 47 games in a row and has players committed to Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State.

“We’re coming from polar opposite ends of the spectrum,” Johncour said, “in terms of a first-time WPIAL champ and a first-time state title appearance to a nine-time state champ and 18 state title appearances.”

WPIAL champion Avonworth (15-0) faces District 4 champion Southern Columbia (15-0) in the PIAA Class 2A championship at 1 p.m. Friday at Hersheypark Stadium. Southern Columbia is making its fifth consecutive trip to Hershey and has won state titles in three of the past four seasons.

That’s enough to cause anxiety for any opponent, but Johncour’s message is simple: Focus on us, not on them.

“We’re just doing what we do,” he said. “We’ve stressed that the last two days at practice. We’re going to worry about what we do and not worry about them. Focus on the task we have at hand. Focus on each play. Focus on each drive.”

Avonworth certainly earned its trip to Hershey. The Antelopes celebrated a 28-6 victory over Washington in the WPIAL finals, and then defeated District 10 champion Wilmington, 33-21, last week in the state semifinals.

Combined, Antelopes senior Jax Miller rushed 70 times for 421 yards and five touchdowns in those two wins.

“It has been exciting,” Johncour said. “It’s been really special to see our community and our players and our students be so excited about the opportunity.”

Wilmington was the state runner-up the past two seasons, losing each time to Southern Columbia, 48-0 and 49-14. The last team to defeat the Tigers was Steel Valley in the 2016 state championship.

In the past five seasons combined, Southern Columbia is 77-2 with three state titles and one runner-up trophy.

Asked what he noticed while watching scouting video, Johncour chuckled.

“Just talent everywhere,” he said. “They’ve got talent at running back. They’ve got talent at receiver, quarterback, linebacker. There’s no real weak links. They’re just a solid football team.”

Southern Columbia’s talent starts with wide receiver Julian Fleming, who’s ranked as the No. 1 overall recruit in the nation by ESPN in the 2020 class. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound senior committed to Ohio State in May. He has 69 catches for 1,421 yards and 21 touchdowns.

But defensively, Fleming won’t be Avonworth’s top priority.

“You’ve got to stop the run,” Johncour said. “Fleming gets open and he makes some big splash plays — I don’t want to minimize his role on that team — but they throw him the ball because they can. They don’t throw him the ball because they have to.”

Southern Columbia has two brothers leading its wing-T offense. Gaige Garcia, a Michigan wrestling commit, has rushed for 1,898 yards and 31 touchdowns on 116 carries. Younger brother Gavin has 1,602 yards and 27 touchdowns on 97 carries.

Gaige is a senior and Gavis in a sophomore.

Southern Columbia’s roster also includes senior linebacker Cal Haladay, who committed in June to Michigan State.

“They hand the ball off and they want to gouge you,” Johncour said. “And when they see a mismatch out there for Fleming, they line up and just throw him the ball. So it’s not rocket science.”

Miller has 2,328 rushing yards and 29 touchdowns for Avonworth. Antelopes quarterback Park Penrod has 1,997 passing yards and 30 touchdowns.

“We definitely need things to go our way,” Johncour said. “We need turnovers. We need opportunities to present themselves for us to take advantage of them. If they play a great game, it’s going to be really hard for them to be beat. But if they make mistakes and have some penalties and we capitalize on those, who knows what could happen. That’s high school football.”

Southern Columbia started its season with a 36-0 victory over Hammond School of Columbia, S.C., which won a South Carolina Independent School Association title both this season and last.

The Tigers also own a 42-0 victory this season over Wyoming (13-1), that team that will face Central Valley in the PIAA Class 3A final Saturday.

“We’re definitely underdogs, we’ll take that role and we’ll relish that role,” Johncour said. “They’re expected to win. They’ve been there four years in a row and have one loss in that four-year span. They’re definitely, as their coach put it, a team of a lifetime.”

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at charlan@triblive.com or via Twitter .


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