Juniata looks to ride momentum into state tournament
MIFFLINTOWN — Throughout the course of the 2021 season, the Juniata High School football team has had that always coveted “it” factor.
Whether it’s the team’s hard-nosed defense, the ability to grind out yards on the ground or to dig deep and get a key turnover, score or whatever “it” may be on any given day, the Indians have found their winning formula.
Juniata (10-2) enters Saturday’s PIAA tournament matchup with the District 10 Class 4A champion Meadville (8-3) red-hot, having defeated Bellefonte and University Prep in the District 6 Class 4A championship and the District 6-8-9 Sub Regional game, respectively, to earn the right to play against what is almost certainly Juniata’s biggest challenge to date in the Bulldogs.
The Bulldogs possess a unique offense that relies heavily on the run. That emphasis is even more glaring to the naked eye when looking over Meadville box scores, as quarterback Gavin Longstreth has attempted just 31 passes all season. Longstreth threw just one pass in Meadville’s district final — an incompletion.
As a team, the Bulldogs have rushed for a mind-boggling 4,158 yards (9.1 yards per carry) and 64 touchdowns.
Meadville’s heavy commitment to the run is understandable with the standout ability of backs Khalon Simmons and Griffin Buzzell. The 1-2 punch in the Bulldogs backfield is perhaps the best in the state, with the two combining for an eye-popping 2,908 rushing yards through 11 games. The duo combined for 336 yards and seven scores alone in a 52-19 thrashing of General McLane in the District 10 championship game.
“They are both great running backs that complement each other and their system very well,” Juniata coach Kurt Condo said.
Buzzell is a big part of what Meadville does on the defensive side of the football as well, as the senior has 118 tackles at the linebacker position. Along with Buzzell, Amarri Lewis, Brady Walker and Brighton Anderson complete an excellent linebacking corps.
“They are a physical team offensively and defensively,” Condo said. “Their linebackers flow to the ball quickly and make a lot of plays.”
Juniata, which enters Saturday’s contest having won 16 of its last 20 games dating back to last season, has put an emphasis on riding the momentum it has right now and Condo said that he’s looking for his team to stay hungry and seize the moment.
“We always emphasize to take advantage of the opportunity, there are a lot of teams that wish they were still playing right now,” Condo said.
Juniata is just as balanced on the ground with Zachary Harr and Seth Laub both rushing for more than 550 yards, while Waylon Ehrenzeller has 425 rushing yards and eight scores. Harr leads Juniata with 647 yards and nine scores while Laub has 553 yards and eight TDs. Quarterback Jacob Condo also emerged as a running threat at times last week, picking up some big first downs against University Prep.
Offensively, both teams have somewhat similar approaches to grinding out yards on the ground, so possession will be key as methodical drives that take lots of time off the clock could keep opportunities at a premium, shortening the game.
“We will really need to take care of any advantages that we get,” Condo said. “That includes turnovers and field position. We have a game plan in mind, but it’s important not to force things that aren’t there either. It will likely be the same as always, keep chipping away until we can find something that opens up.”
Of course, the Indians’ bread and butter has been their defense this season. Juniata’s starting defense has not given up points since Oct. 1 and the Indians’ front seven has lived in the opposing backfield, recording 12 sacks in two postseason games thus far and countless tackles for a loss.
“Our kids have worked hard throughout the offseason and regular season and are still passionate about playing and wanting to win,” Condo said. “Our team is full of confidence right now, which is the exact mindset that we want. They are doing great with making calls and adjustments for what we are going to see from their offense.”
The Indians will have a bit of a college feel to this weekend’s game as the team left Friday night with a three-hour plus ride out to Meadville. The Bulldogs got to host Saturday’s game as District 10 was the host district. The PIAA allowed home-field advantage for the opening round of the state playoffs this season under the condition that the host team has an artificial turf field. The decision, while not discussed publicly, was most likely made in an effort to get more money from ticket sales.
Condo said that his coaching staff decided it would be best for the team to get out to Meadville on Friday night in order to avoid having to spend hours on a bus before Saturday’s 3 p.m. kickoff.
“We discussed as a staff the travel situation and we were concerned about having the kids wake up early for a lengthy bus ride,” Condo said. “We looked at all of our options and we felt that heading there the night before gives our kids the best chance to play to their ability.”
Condo also noted the community support the team has received throughout its playoff run, as the 2021 team has gone farther than any of Juniata’s football teams before it.
“The community support has been tremendous and quite humbling,” Condo said. “There are a lot of loyal fans that have been reaching out to us to say how proud they are of this team’s competitiveness and accomplishments. Just this week, there has also been a lot of generous financial donations to help us with the travel expenses. We are so grateful for their support and excited to represent the school and community on this stage.”
Overall, Condo is just looking for his team to apply some pressure on the Bulldogs and in a winner-take-all game, set itself up to have a chance to win it at the end and see what happens.
“(The key) is to control the momentum of the game and put the pressure on them,” Condo said.