BRADFORD, Pa. (EYT/D9) — When the schedule first came out featuring the new region alignments in District 9 this summer, Brockway coach Jake Heigel scanned the list of opponents his Brockway football team would have to face.
Every week, a staunch test.
Just the way he wanted it.
“Our schedule has allowed us to be prepared for anything and everything,” Heigel said.
(Pictured above, Brockway’s Jendy Cuello/photo by Madison McFarland)
Brockway, as well as many of the other teams throughout Region 2, had to run a gauntlet. It toughened up the Rovers. It also forced the team to constantly evolve.
That evolution was no more evident than on Saturday in the D9 Class A semifinal against Redbank Valley. Pass-oriented Brockway (8-4) took to the ground with shifty and punishing runner Jendy Cuello and churned out a 7-3 win over the two-time defending Class A champ Bulldogs to advance to the title game on Friday against No. 1 seed Port Allegany (10-1) at Bradford High School.
“I’m really pleased with how far we’ve come and with what we’ve been able to do,” Heigel said.
What the Rovers have been able to do recently is hurt teams in a variety of ways.
On Saturday, that meant a steady diet of Cuello behind a physical and aggressive offensive line.
Cuello carried 41 times for 166 yards against Redbank. He was quick. He was elusive. He also was physical, lowering his shoulders to plow through tacklers for key yardage to keep the chains moving.
Port Allegany coach Justin Bienkowski has also seen the change from Brockway since his Gators squared off against the Rovers on Sept. 24.
“He’s a great running back,” said Port Allegany coach Justin Bienkowski of Cuello. “He plays the game of football the right way. He’s not very outgoing from the perspective of look at me. He’s very complimentary of his team and is just a hard-nosed young man.
“They’re so much better,” Bienkowski said of Brockway since the last time Port saw the Rovers. “They’ve grown so much. Jake runs a really solid program. He’s really good people. Smart football people. He’s a good dude.”
Brockway still has the threat of the pass with sophomore quarterback Brayden Fox at the controls.
He only completed two passes against Redbank, but one went for a 45-yard touchdown — the only TD of the game.
Fox has thrown for 2,516 yards and 32 touchdowns on 190-of-337 passing. He’s only thrown nine interceptions.
His favorite target is Alex Carlson, who has 85 receptions for 1,010 yards and 13 TDs.
Carlson didn’t have a catch in the semifinal win, but he did have a huge interception at the 1 that thwarted a late Redbank drive. Carlson has six interceptions to lead Brockway.
“I continue to say that it’s a team effort in all facets of the game,” Heigel said. “There’s a ton of names I could rattle off that have had some big games throughout the year. We might not have the best player defensively or offensively, but I feel like we have one of the best teams collectively. That’s how we go about it. We don’t try to put all of our eggs into one basket.”
Brockway will have a challenge this week against a Port Allegany defense that has been smashing eggs no matter what basket they are in.
The Gators have only given up more than 20 points in one game this season — a 29-24 loss to Class 2A champ Central Clarion in Week 2.
In the other 10 game, Port has surrendered a measly 68 points.
“It starts 100% in the offseason,” Bienkowski said. “The extra film study in the man cave in his basement that defensive coordinator Chad Saltsman does. The work our defensive line coach Brian Neal — those two are in sync. We’ve worked on the same concepts since the snow melted. Our kids just committed themselves to the weight room and they are smart kids. It’s a good thing for us. We’re proud of it.”
Port’s defense makes team earn it. The Gators hope somewhere along the line their defense can force a mistake.
That has happened a lot.
“It’s very difficult in high school football to go the length of the field on 12-, 14-, 16-play drives with no penalties or no turnovers,” Bienkowski said. “As much as on the offensive side of the ball we want to drive down the field and we want to earn it and churn clock, we know that’s difficult. We focused on that.”
That formula has worked for Port Allegany this season.
The formula has also included the Gators’ version of the Big Three — Drew Evens, Blaine Moses and Noah Archer.
The trio’s impact has been felt on both sides of the ball.
And also off the field.
“These kids are all about community, family and faith,” Bienkowski said. “They are good peers, students, multi-sport athletes. They are phenomenal human beings. I’m not giving coach speak or anything like that. These kids are incredible human beings and all three of them are the hardest workers. When your hardest workers are your core group and your best athletes, you have a special thing.”
Evens, a quarterback and defensive back, hasn’t put up eye-popping numbers, throwing for 1,130 yards and nine TDs. But he has chosen his moments, making key plays — pivotal plays — with his arm or his feet in just about every game.
He also has 449 yards rushing.
Moses is the bulldozer at running back and linebacker. He leads Port with 890 yards on the ground and 17 touchdowns.
Archer is the slasher, rushing for 719 yards and also leading the team with 42 receptions for 569 yards.
“Drew is the definition of a gamer,” Bienkowski said. “He’s as goofy as anybody. I love the kid to death. These guys complement each other so well, whether it’s Blaine with the power game or Drew with his arm and legs and Noah with his quickness. But Noah has also gotten behind our big line and run with power this year. He’s also lined up at quarterback for us in a Wildcat concept.
“I’ve never been around a group of kids who it doesn’t matter who gets 20 touches or 10 helmet stickers or whatever,” Bienkowski added.
Heigel said Port’s offensive line is also a big reason for the Gators’ success.
“I don’t think they get enough credit,” Heigel said. “They are really, really good. They have the offensive and defensive lineman of the year in Miska Young and that’s for a reason. You watch them and they’re just so physical. It’s the way you should play offensive line. When you watch them on defense, Moses really stands out. He’s fast and big and strong and I don’t think he gets enough credit for being a smart football player.”
Ultimately this matchup may come down to a battle of strengths. Both teams are strong in the trenches.
“I think we’re putting together a good game plan,” Heigel said. “We’re the type of team that we’re not going to have the same game plan every week. You have to adjust bases on your opponent and you have to adjust based off what you’ve been doing well lately.”
What Port has been doing well lately is winning.
There were some lean years until recently. The Gators went 6-5 last season, laying the groundwork for the big year this season.
But there were also two-win seasons. And even a winless season between the last sustained run Port made in 2012 — the last year the Gators won a district crown.
“There are so many moving parts in a football program, so many spokes in the wheel, even in a small town Class A program,” Bienkowski said. “Friday night in Bradford is going to be a very good thing for our program. I’ve been fortunate enough to be around this program as an assistant coach when we won two district titles and beat some prominent teams. We’ve built back up, literally and figuratively, layer by layer. It’s just really cool to be a part of it.”