Mission almost accomplished as Juniata returns to D6 title tilt

Coach:?Defense is key to stopping the Scarlet Dragons

Sentinel file photo Juniata running back Spencer Page (32) follows lineman Ryan Reynolds (79) along the sideline Nov. 12 in Mifflintown.

MIFFLINTOWN — Juniata football coach Gary Klingensmith waited a year to get to this moment.

Last November, the Indians made it to the District 6 Class 2A title game only to fall to Central, 27-7. After the game, Klingensmith set two goals for his 2016 squad: Get back to the district championship — and beat the Scarlet Dragons.

Scratch one off the list because Juniata, after a 45-6 thrashing of Bedford last week, is back in the title game with a chance for redemption. Central is making its third straight district championship appearance after handing Huntingdon a 27-6 defeat.

The Indians, 8-3 on the season and seeded second, take on the top-seeded Scarlet Dragons (10-1) for the District 6 Class 3A championship tonight at Mansion Park in Altoona. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.

“This was one of our goals coming into the season — to get back to the finals and get a rematch with Central. I know they have a great reputation and if we beat this team we can beat anybody,” Klingensmith said. “The kids are looking forward to it. Last year, we weren’t ready for their quickness. I think we match up better this year. We don’t have Chantz Swartz but we are more diversified and have more balance.

“Our defense holds the key once again. We will have to play a near flawless football game. That means minimizing penalties and not making mental mistakes. We have to be mentally ready. It’s going to be a tough game. They burned us last year and we want to be the one getting the medals this year.”

A one-man offensive machine named Alex Hoenstine leads Central, with its only loss coming to Districts 6-9 Class 4A finalist Clearfield, 30-28. The senior has 1,950 yards rushing with 33 touchdowns. In addition, he has 21 receptions for 274 yards and five scores. Hoenstine also collected 319 yards passing for three touchdowns.

His 2,224 yards from scrimmage is a school record and Hoenstine has 38 of his team’s 55 total touchdowns. Last week against Huntingdon, he rushed for 164 yards and three scores.

“He’s a great running back. Extremely fast. We did okay against him last year. It was the QB (Noah Benton) who did the most damage and he’s gone,” Klingensmith said. “The Hoenstine boy is the key. He’s very fast with tough, big linemen in front of him. We have to be in the right place at the right time. His speed can cause problems. He’ll be tough for us to stop.”

Central averages 36 points and 404 total yards per game — including 273 yards on the ground. Junior QB Preston Karstetter has solid, if not spectacular, numbers with 974 yards passing and nine TDs. Besides Hoenstine, juniors Jared Smith (425 yards) and Trystan Detwiler (255 yards) contribute in the backfield. Senior Chase Smith is Karstetter’s favorite target with 27 catches for 373 yards and two scores.

Defensively, the Scarlet Dragons surrender only eight points a game. The stingy defense held the Bearcats to just 161 yards of total offense last week, including six yards passing. Hoenstine leads the secondary with five picks and 53 tackles, while linebackers Cam Norris (5.5 sacks, 12 tackles for loss), Jared Smith (65 tackles, 18 TFL) and Kyle Dodson (four interceptions) smother opposing offenses. Defensive lineman Austin Garner leads the team with 7.5 sacks.

“Last year they had Benton who could run and throw. He killed us and I’m glad he’s gone. They have a nice quarterback but not quite what they had last year,” Klingensmith said. “Hoenstine also lines up at QB in the wildcat. We’ll have to be careful. We don’t want to just key on him because the other boys can hurt you too. Their defense is very good. They are fast and physical. We have a nice plan for them. If everybody executes properly and doesn’t miss tackles, we have a good chance.”

The Indians also score at a high rate — 40 points a game and 367 yards of offense per contest. Senior QB Tyler Clark had a near perfect game last week against Bedford, completing 17-of-22 for 273 yards and three touchdowns. For the season, Clark has 1,574 yards passing with 21 TDs and only five interceptions.

Senior tailback Fletcher Hart (1,189 yards, 16 TDs) paces the ground game with Spencer Page (391 yards, seven scores) contributing. Juniors Bryson Clark (26 catches, 429 yards, three touchdowns) and Ben Lauver (24-380-6), along with Hart (20-226-4) are the big guns of the Indian aerial attack.

Juniata surrenders only 14 points per game and it’s the D-line that makes the defensive engine hum. DTs Josh Parson (84 tackles, two sacks) and Wade Moore (57 tackles, three sacks), along with Lauver (67 tackles, six sacks) have been dominant all season. LB Bryson Clark cleans things up with 79 tackles and four sacks. Manuel Rodriguez snagged four interceptions from his defensive back position.

Klingensmith said the game will come down to what it always does — who can win the line of scrimmage. The biggest keys to victory are the Juniata defensive line against Central’s rugged offensive line and a balanced offense from the Indians.

“It’s nice that Tyler Clark’s arm is full strength now. He missed some games and was subpar for a couple of games when he first came back. He’s back at full strength and throwing the ball well,” Klingensmith said. “We have a nice line but it’s not overly powerful. I don’t know if we can stand up to them and try to outslug them. We need to loosen them up and be more diversified and multi-dimensional. Our boys have to play tough and be mentally ready for a slugfest.”