Battle in the trenches will decide NW-ACC winner
Northwestern seniors Derek Hebelka and Robert Goldberg lead their team onto the field before last Saturday’s district playoff game against Lehighton. NANCY SCHOLZ/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS
When Northwestern reached the District 11 Class 4A playoffs last season, the first team it encountered was Allentown Central Catholic.
The Tigers downed the Vikings easily in the quarterfinals, beating them 50-14. A year ago, that Central Catholic team had reached districts despite having a 3-7 regular season record.
This season, the two teams meet again in districts — this time in the semifinal round. Another difference is that the Vikings had a significantly better regular season, as they posted a 6-4 record. ACC improved that mark with a D-11 quarterfinal round victory over Saucon Valley last week.
A big part of the change in records from one season to the next has been the improvement of the Vikings offensive and defensive lines. Both are stocked with big, experienced players, and will be one of the bigger lines that Northwestern has had to face this season. The good news is that Northwestern cornered the market in experience on its offensive line, with five senior starters, and have good size as well.
“They’ve definitely got size up front, and they are going to be tough on both sides of the ball,” said Northwestern coach Josh Snyder. “I think a lot of this game is going to depend on the play of the lines, and who can control the play up front. We put a lot of faith in our guys up front, and they’ve handled everything that’s been thrown at them, and I don’t think this will be any different.”
Junior Matt Rauscher, who transferred from Northwestern to Central Catholic a few years back, took over at quarterback for his brother Frank, who led the Vikings against Northwestern in last year’s game. Rauscher and another junior, running back Jayden Williams, have taken advantage of the offensive line to improve the Central Catholic offense. Rauscher also has multiple wide receiver weapons at his disposal.
After scoring more than 30 points just once in its first six games this season, Central Catholic broke the 30-point barrier three times in its final four regular season games, and did it again last week in a 42-18 win over Saucon Valley in the district quarterfinals.
“They’re playing really well right now, and our defense is going to have to work hard to slow them down,” said Snyder.
Meanwhile, the Northwestern offense averages 40 points per game, while its defense holds opponents to an averge of 17 points per game. Senior quarterback Deven Bollinger has established himself as the school’s all-time passing leader in yards, and threw three TDs last week to break his previous school record of 30 touchdown passes in a season. He now has 32 this year.
“We think that maybe we can find a big play or two offensively, and that could be a big part of the game against them,” said Snyder. “We’ve got guys who can make things happen, and we’ll put in a few wrinkles to look to make something happen.”
One concern for the Tigers is the availability of Nick Henry, who went down with an ankle injury in the win over Lehighton last week and will be a game-time decision for Snyder against Central Catholic. Just in case, Snyder has put in some different personnel packages that the team can draw from if Henry is out.
Snyder believes that not only will the play of the offensive and defensive lines be a key component in the rematch between the two teams, but the outcome could come down to just one or two key plays, possibly on special teams.
“We haven’t had to talk too much about special teams this season, and when you’re not talking about them, that means they’re doing their job,” Snyder said. “Andres [Garrido] has done a nice job on extra-points and kick-offs this season and Paul Huff and Justin Rodda have done their job returning kicks. This would be the week for someone to make a big special teams play that could turn things around in this game.”