Support swells for surprising Southmoreland football team

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Saturday, September 14, 2019 | 6:51 PM


A dozen turkey vultures make wide circles high above Russ Grimm Field at Southmoreland Stadium.

Aerosmith’s “Dream On” blares over the loudspeaker, and players practice a trick play they had yet to use in a game this season.

“They fly over the dump over there,” Scotties football coach Dave Keefer said, looking up at the birds of prey. “They’re probably looking for something to eat or some junk to pick at.”

Kind of like those starved fans who have waited eons to see good football. Southmoreland’s program was a scrap yard for decades, a pushover teams often passed over on their schedules.

This year, the community is getting its wish: a reason to come to the stadium Friday nights.

“Every practice, we come around with a different energy, and we’re coming out with more positive attitudes,” junior quarterback Zach Cernuto said. “Everybody knows what we can do now, so we have to go out there and prove it.”

Even celebrated alum Grimm showed up to a game.

“He was in line for a ticket,” Keefer said. “I’m like, come on Russ, you don’t need to pay to get in.”

After a 62-16 victory Friday at Beth-Center, Southmoreland is 4-0 for the first time since 1991 and is nearing its first playoff berth since 1979.

Support swells

The Scotties have not had a winning season since 2003.

That can be a lot to unpack for a young group. But they appear to have had about enough of a four-decade drought and are more than ready to be taken seriously.

“We want that weight lifted off our shoulders,” Cernuto said.

This is one of those classic culture rebuilds — a house-flip of epic proportions in Alverton.

Line coach Ron Frederick, a Southmoreland alum who played at Tulsa, said he has noticed an uptick in support.

“I’ll be pumping gas down in town and people will come up to me and say good things about the team,” Frederick said. “I’ve had people asking me for tickets. It’s great that people are excited about Southmoreland football again. Like coach Keefer says, no more S.O.S. — Same Old Southmoreland.”

Fan buses are being organized for this week’s game at Brownsville, a potential playoff-clincher.

Law of averages

Numbers are up on and off the field. The Scotties are averaging 48.3 points with a roster of 38. There were a measly 20 players just a few years back.

“It’s pretty neat going out and people saying, ‘Hey coach, keep it going,’ ” Keefer said. “The kids are excited, the teachers, the student body, everyone.”

Sooner or later, Southmoreland has to break through. Friday night’s win at Beth-Center gives the Scotties an inside track to a postseason spot in the Class 2A Interstate Conference.

The WPIAL’s move to six classifications surely helped teams like Southmoreland compete for postseason spots. The school’s softball team is proof with its WPIAL Class 3A title two years ago.

More classes equals more opportunities.

But the Scotties are confident enough to think they could be competitive in 3A.

They went from saying, ‘Make it stop,” to saying, ‘Bring it on.’

“New coaches, new attitude,” junior center JP Poole said. “Everybody loves football around here. The first time I really saw a crowd here was last year at the Mt. Pleasant game. That really sparked a fire for us. We had a decent season last year but (this year) we’re ready to go . We push winning everything.”

Heads held high

The fast start has been thrilling but not perfect, and the team knows it. There have been penalties and some turnovers, but the Scotties only have punted once.

“Even if we make a mistake, we’re always coming for the next play,” Cernuto said. “Our attitude is more positive. We don’t dwell on it like we did in the past. (Before) we’d put our heads down and quit.”

That being said, the defense has been improved, surrendering 16 points a game compared to 33.5 last year when the team went 4-6.

“I have never seen anything like it,” senior fullback and linebacker Bret Huffman said. “My freshman year was the last time I played, and it was under the old coaches. The atmosphere was just terrible. Nobody cared about winning. Nobody expected us to win. It’s been a complete 180. There is now an expectation to win. Everybody is pumped up for football which has never happened before.”

Huffman wasn’t going to play football this season. He is a wrestler and had planned to train for that sport.

“The coaches were on me in the weight room. Colt Harper talked me into it,” Huffman said. “It’s our senior year. I expected the old atmosphere, but it has been really great.”

Cernuto and senior wideout Riley Comforti have been a big-play passing combination while the rushing of bruising senior Colt Harper (6-1, 220) has led to a more balanced attack.

“I thought we’d throw the ball more,” offensive coordinator Tim Bukowski said. “Our line has been really good.

“Last year, we put in our base offense, and, this year, we’re building off of it. Riley is one of the best wide receivers I have ever coached. Zach Cernuto is the smartest quarterback I have ever coached in my 28 years doing this. There are times he corrects me.”

Bukowski has seen plenty of talented athletes come and go. He used to coach at Clairton when Tyler Boyd and others were leading the Bears to a number of WPIAL and state titles.

Every time Poole snaps the ball, he knows it can lead to a big play — and another win.

“Every game is like the Super Bowl,” Poole said. “We can’t let up.”

The next Derry?

About 26 miles northeast, another Westmoreland County program knows all about turnarounds. Derry has done an about-face in the six years since Tim Sweeney and his staff took over the Trojans.

The team dashed an 18-game losing streak and saw gradual improvements — 4-6, to 5-4, to 11-1 and the WPIAL semifinals (2016).

Last year, Derry went 11-2 and reached the WPIAL finals at Heinz Field.

Keefer told Sweeney he would like to emulate what the Trojans have accomplished

“You look at what they did,” Keefer said. “To go from 0-10 to being in the playoffs every year. He’s done a great job.

“Every coach in the county has been very supportive. There is a brotherhood among coaches in the county.”

Frederick said the Derry blueprint works for the Scotties.

“We’d be fine with being Derry South,” he said.

“I’m proud of their players, coaches and community,” Sweeney said, adding a cautionary disclaimer:

“There is still a lot of football to be played,” he said.

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Bill by email at bbeckner@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

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