Defense has been vital for Juniata

MIFFLINTOWN — After losing 13 seniors — including one of the best quarterbacks in program history — many people thought the Juniata high school football team would be in rebuilding mode for 2017.

Gary Klingensmith, now in his 49th year at the helm of the Indians, had other ideas. The 295-game winner knew his team would be competitive even without some of his big dogs from the previous season.

“I definitely expected this kind of year from our team. We lost some good athletes, but we had solid players coming back,” Klingensmith said. “I knew we were going to struggle a little bit offensively because we don’t have a dominant line and we lost our quarterback to graduation. We have two young quarterbacks I knew would make mistakes early on, but they’re starting to come around, and our line is getting better.”

Despite losing quarterback Tyler Clark, running back Fletcher Hart and defensive standout Josh Parson — the Indians are 4-3 on the season with their only losses coming to state-ranked Williams Valley, Huntingdon, and Newport. Juniata is currently fourth in the District 6 Class 3A rankings and closing in on a fourth straight playoff berth.

“We lost a great deal. Tyler Clark broke every passing record, Josh Parson was phenomenal on defense, while Fletcher Hart and Spencer Page, and a few other quality kids graduated,” Klingensmith said. “I knew we had a nucleus of quick kids coming back who could get the job done. They’ve done a good job so far.”

The big reason for Juniata’s success is its defense. The Indians have allowed 13.8 points per game. They held Newport to 14 points, contained Huntingdon for long stretches and posted three shutouts on the season. It’s a defense that forces turnovers and wreaks havoc on opposing quarterbacks. The defense is built to be fast, agile and aggressive. The type of defense needed in the modern era with the proliferation of the spread offense.

“We’re still lagging a bit on offense, but our defense has been phenomenal. Josh (Parson) was the backbone of our defense last year. We did everything based on what he could do,” Klingensmith said. “We had to change things this year and get more aggressive with our front four. So far, it’s paid off. Football is changing. On defense, you have to be quick and fast. It doesn’t matter how big your kids are up front anymore – it’s how quick they are off the ball. Because of the offenses spreading everybody out, you have to be quick and make big plays.”

The Indians defense has 21 sacks on the season to go along with nine interceptions. The group is dominately led by experienced upperclassmen junior linebacker Bryson Clark (59 tackles, five sacks, four interceptions) and senior defensive ends Ben Lauver (37 tackles, six sacks) and Zac Piper (58 tackles, six sacks). Senior defensive tackle Wade Moore (55 tackles, three sacks) and senior cornerback Bryce Leonard (four interceptions) are stalwarts.

“The big thing with us is our pass defense. With Piper and Lauver coming from the edge, they are quick, athletic, and can make plays,” Klingensmith said. “Piper is no longer our best-kept secret. He is so quick and tough. People look at him and think he’s too little, but he’s like Mighty Mouse. He puts a lot of pressure on the quarterback. Our front four is tough, and you anchor it with one of the best linebackers around in Bryson Clark – they are the cornerstones of our defense.”

With three games left against Halifax (3-4), Line Mountain (5-2) and Upper Dauphin (3-4) Klingensmith wants to win out, improve his seeding, get a home playoff game and make his second district final in three years.

“It doesn’t show on our record, but our three losses were to state-ranked teams. They are all undefeated and we were in the game with all three of them,” Klingensmith said. “We have a good chance to win the last three games, finish 7-3 and get a home game in the playoffs. That’s our goal right now. If we do that, we will finish third or fourth in the rankings, get the home field advantage, and that will be exciting for our boys. Not to get too far ahead of ourselves, but I think we can surprise some teams in the playoffs.”