York Catholic running back/defensive back Greg Bennett takes the ball during practice on Tuesday. Bennett and his Irish teammates take on Camp Hill in the District 3-A title game on Saturday in Hershey. (BIL BOWDEN — For The York Dispatch)
A week ago, the talk among this bunch of York Catholic High School football players was proving the Fighting Irish could stop the run in a District 3-A semifinal against a ground-oriented Steel-High offense.
The Irish, of course, answered the call en route to a 23-8 victory to advance to the district title game for the second year in a row.
Now, the York Catholic defense will have to prove it can stop the pass this Saturday at Hersheypark Stadium in the District 3-A championship game (noon kickoff) against Camp Hill’s third-year starting quarterback Michael Schuster. The junior phenom entered this year having thrown for 3,800 yards the previous two seasons. In 11 games this fall, Schuster has tallied 2,932 passing yards on 63.8 percent passing, throwing 36 touchdown passes to only eight interceptions.
Although No. 2 seed York Catholic (8-3) has only allowed 100-plus passing yards three times this season (to Hanover, Fairfield and Littlestown, all blowout wins by the Irish), it hasn’t encountered anything like top-seeded Camp Hill (9-2).
“A lot of people are saying ‘Camp Hill is bringing something we haven’t really seen. What are you guys gonna do against that?’ Well, we think we’re all right,” York Catholic senior running back/cornerback Greg Bennett said before Wednesday’s practice. “We definitely want to prove that (we can stop the pass).”
It’s a bit surprising to think there are still question marks for a team 13 weeks into a football season. But for this York Catholic defense, do we truly know if it can, indeed, defend the pass? Sure, the Irish have the second-best passing defense in the 23-team York-Adams League this season, holding opponents to 72.5 passing yards a clip. But they’ve mostly faced ground-and-pound offenses. And against the few teams with a strong passing game, York Catholic had no trouble winning.
York Catholic running back Jack Burnside takes the ball during practice on Tuesday. Burnside, who is also a defensive back for the Irish, will try to stop a high-flying Camp Hill passing attack on Saturday. (BIL BOWDEN — For The York Dispatch)
But even those teams usually had a one-sided offense with one star receiver.Camp Hill, meanwhile, has four receivers with at least 20-plus receptions, led by 6-foot, 1-inch senior Michael Hope (67 receptions, 1,176 receiving yards, 17 touchdowns). The remaining cast of receivers includes 5-5 sophomore Bill Williams (31 receptions, 746 receiving yards, 12 TDs), 6-7 freshman Zach Kuntz (35 receptions, 462 receiving yards, 3 TDs) and 5-11 junior Logan Vallati (22 receptions, 372 receiving yards, one TD).
Williams is also Camp Hill’s leading rusher with 1,046 rushing yards and 12 TDs, six times going for 100-plus yards this season. Plus, Schuster is agile and fast enough to run for first downs if no one is open on pass plays.
“What we’ve seen on him is he (Schuster) gets that corner, that edge … that’s something we can’t allow to happen,” York Catholic coach Eric Depew said.
Not unstoppable: Still, this Camp Hill offense can be slowed. Steel-High and Delone Catholic have proven as much. Those are the only two teams to hold Camp Hill under 200 passing yards this season. Camp Hill went 1-1 in those matchups, losing to Steel-High in Week 6, 20-14, and beating Delone in last week’s semifinal, 17-0. The Squires, though, had their top-two running backs — basically their entire offense — out with injuries. So, while the Delone defense showed up, the offense couldn’t generate anything offensively.
That shouldn’t be a problem for York Catholic, with York-Adams Division III Player of the Year Hakeem Kinard (1,448 rushing yards, 1,606 passing yards, 31 total TDs) at QB and a supporting cast of talents, such as wideout Qua’Shawn Grooms (536 receiving yards, six touchdowns). And Camp Hill, which finished runner-up to Milton Hershey in the Mid-Penn Capital Division in the regular season, doesn’t exactly rely on its defense to win. The Lions have given up 20-plus points eight times this year.
Oh, and York Catholic this season owns victories over Delone and Steel-High, the two opponents Camp Hill had trouble with. In addition, the weather forecast in Hershey on Saturday is calling for temperatures around 40 degrees and 5-10 mph winds, something Depew said could be in York Catholic’s favor.
“In this weather, you get into the playoffs it’s more teams that can run the ball. It is gonna be harder to throw when it’s colder, especially if you have wind,” Depew said.
Still, the difference between gold and silver for the Irish this Saturday will likely come down to their secondary.
“I like our secondary. That was our strength going in (to this season),” Depew said. “They’re a senior-oriented group of guys. We just have to be sound in coverage, know where we’re at in certain formations. When that ball is in the air we have got to treat it like it’s ours. Force some turnovers.”
Coaching connection: Depew coached under Camp Hill coach Frank Gay at Red Land when Red Land won the District 3-AAA title in 2006. Gay was hired at Camp Hill and Depew at York Catholic the same year (2011) and they faced each other for the first time in the District 3-A semifinals that season, with Camp Hill winning, 27-0.
“Eric won’t let me forget it,” Gay said by phone earlier this week. “He keeps needling me, saying we ran up the score.”
Experienced: That was the last year Camp Hill competed in the district title game until now. As a result, York Catholic senior running back/safety Jack Burnside believes competing in the district title game for the second year in a row will gave the Irish an edge over Camp Hill.
“We got a little more experience from last year, so we know how to handle the hype a little better than they would,” Burnside said. “So that will be an advantage for us.”
District 3 history: Camp Hill last won a district championship in 2004, completing a run of three district titles in four seasons — the Lions beat York Catholic in the 2002 District 3-A championship game, 25-13. Camp Hill has won seven district titles overall stretching back to 1986. York Catholic is 1-4 all-time in the District 3-A title game stretching back to 1982, the only year the Irish won district gold.
“It would mean the world,” Bennett said of possibly winning district gold. “We’ve been wanting that ever since we started playing high school football. That’s the goal every year. Especially after getting a silver medal last year, it’s would mean everything to us getting a gold medal.”
— Reach John Walk at firstname.lastname@example.org.