CLARION, Pa. (EYT/D9) — Midway through the 2021 season, not much was going right for the Central Clarion football team.
Games were postponed. A new opponent scheduled at the last minute. A loss. Then another. And another.
An 0-4 start.
Since, fortunes have shifted dramatically for the Wildcats.
(Pictured above, from left: Central Clarion seniors Connor Kopnitsky, Ryan Hummell and Ashton Rex and head coach Dave Eggleton pose with the District 9 Class 2A football championship plaque in the locker room)
Central Clarion finished strong last year, falling to Karns City in the District 9 Class 2A playoffs.
This year, the Wildcats started 9-0 before falling to Redbank Valley in the regular-season finale, and won the first D9 title since Clarion-Limestone joined the consolidation with Clarion and North Clarion to form Central three seasons ago with a convincing 35-0 win over Brookville.
“The adversity last year, it was easy to see real quick which guys were going to fold when things got tough and which guys were going to keep fighting and pushing through,” said Central Clarion coach Dave Eggleton. “We had a solid group and a lot of them were coming back. We knew last year they really were the catalyst for the turnaround we had. We were very, very optimistic coming into the season.”
That optimism was justified.
Sophomore quarterback Jase Ferguson made a huge leap from his freshman year. Ashton Rex developed into one of the most dangerous receivers, in not only the district, but the state. Connor Kopnitsky returned from a year off to solidify the running game and Dawson Smail also returned from a season away to provide a perfect compliment to Rex on the outside.
The ingredients formed the perfect recipe for success for the Wildcats.
“As a head coach, I’ve never made it to the district title,” said Eggleton, who is in his second year at the reins of the Central Clarion program and was once the Clarion-Limestone head coach. “I’ve had a few runners-up as an assistant coach, and finally getting over that hump was fantastic.
“I’m happy for the guys. They’ve worked hard since last season to get here,” Eggleton added. “Obviously, last season didn’t go the way we wanted it. At the end of last season, we had a solid group of guys who just put a ton of work in the weight room and that’s why we’re here. That’s why we’ve accomplished what we have so far.”
Last season didn’t sit well with many of the returning seniors.
They were determined not to experience that again.
“The feeling after the Karns City game last year when we lost in the first round, we didn’t like it at all,” said senior linebacker Ryan Hummell. “A bunch of us all went to the weight room every day. We all knew we wanted to win.”
“The work we put in through the offseason coming into this season, hitting the weight room, it was big,” Rex added. “I think our coaches mentally prepared us and physically prepared us.”
Central Clarion cut a swath of destruction through its schedule this season, starting with a 42-7 win over Brookville in the season opener.
A close win against Port Allegany, which will play Friday for its own D9 title in Class A with just that one loss, also went a long way in solidifying the Wildcats were for real.
“We knew probably the first game,” Rex said. “The coaches were putting us in the right spots and it definitely showed.”
Rex has put up gaudy numbers this season with 58 receptions for 1,516 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Ferguson, still only a sophomore, has thrown for 2,638 yards and 32 touchdowns.
Defensively, Hummell — who is playing despite a torn ACL — has a staggering 134 tackles, including 15 for a loss.
As a whole, the Central Clarion defense has forced 37 turnovers.
It’s been a complete effort on the way to a 10-1 record, a district title and a showdown with undefeated District 8 champ Westinghouse (11-0) in the first round of the PIAA Class 2A playoffs on Friday night at Cupples Stadium in Pittsburgh.
“Obviously, Ryan has had just a fantastic season,” Eggleton said. “Braylon Beckwith as a sophomore has played great this year. He’s kind of stepped up to try to match Ryan at times. It does start with the defensive front, eating up blocks, and they’ve done a great job this year. Ryan probably reads an offense better than any linebacker I’ve coached. He just flies to the ball. He seems like he’s in every single tackle. Just amazing.”
The seniors like Hummell have also helped the team with their leadership, Eggleton said.
“It’s just been a great mix of physical guys and speed guys and these seniors — we don’t have many of them — have been fantastic at leading by example.”