KARNS CITY, Pa. – Continued improvement.
(Cover photo of Cullen Williams. Photo by Mike Schnelle. Check out more of Schnelle’s work here)
That’s what Karns City head coach Ed Conto sees from his team as it heads into a PIAA Class 3A quarterfinal showdown with District 6 champion Central-Martinsburg at 7 p.m. Friday at DuBois’ Mansell Stadium.
“I really see them trying,” Conto, who has won 196 games as a head coach including 160 at Karns City, said. “There is good and there is bad. There are some things we didn’t do well (in a 35-17 win over Hickory last week). That’s bad. But I also saw they were really, really trying which means we can get better. Each week it gets a little bit better with certain techniques.”
For Karns City (10-2) this week is an opportunity to get past the quarterfinals and into the PIAA semifinals, something the Gremlins have never done. In fact, it is something no District 9 team higher than Class 1A (remember the PIAA only had four classifications before expanding to six this season) has done since 2003 when Bradford lost to a Neil Walker-led Pine-Richland team in the 3A semifinals.
“I feel pretty good about where we are at,” Conto said. “It’s a long haul. You go throughout the season and some kids get injured, some kids come back and you lose some others. It’s tough on those kids. It’s really interesting to see who is gutting things out and who is surviving the grind and who can stay focused. This is a definitely a good life lesson for kids down the road.”
Focus was a big theme with Conto this week.
“Going outside in the weather, you have to be able to go out and focus because it’s downright terrible out there,” Conto said. “You can go out there and get nothing out of it or are you going to stay focused and try to improve? There are things we can obviously do better. This is really where kids can learn of things they can really use down the road in life.”
On the surface, it’s hard to see where Karns City can get much better.
The Gremlins dominated on both sides of the football against previously unbeaten Hickory last week outgaining the Hornets 526 to 234 and knocking Hickory’s star running back, Chuck Carr, from the game right before halftime.
But beneath the surface, some old bugaboos popped up in the game for Karns City, as it had a pair of red zone turnovers, a bad snap punt that led to a Hickory touchdown and a touchdown of its own wiped off the the board because of a penalty. All that led to the Gremlins losing, 17-14, at halftime in a game they were dominating.
“When I went into the locker room, I could see their eyes were on me and they were willing to listen and was nobody hanging their heads,” Conto said of how his team was able to overcome the first-half mistakes last week. “You knew they were still upbeat and knew they could still go out there and do this. Sometimes you can tell. I could still tell they were hungry to go and fight through it. It showed in their eyes.”
Conto hopes to see the same thing in the Gremlins eyes this week against a Central-Martinsburg team that has lost only once, to Clearfield (30-28 Sept. 9), a team that beat Karns City 35-28 Oct. 28.
Since that loss to the Bison, the Dragons (11-1) have rolled off nine straight wins including a 49-0 win over Juniata last week and have outscored their opponents 353-42 during the win streak.
“They have a nice size line,” Conto said. “They have a back who runs hard. They seem very solid, they seem like they have good techniques. They are very, very similar to Hickory. Just different things that they do that are similar to what Hickory did. They are going to be physical. It should be a good matchup.”
Like Hickory, Central-Martinsburg has a stud running back in Alex Hoenstine.
A 6-foot-2, 184-pounds senior, Hoenstine has rushed for 2,124 yards and 36 touchdowns on the year while also catching 21 passes for 274 yards and five scores and going 24 of 38 passing for 366 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions while running the Wildcat. He has 4,061 career yards and 72 touchdowns in three years and helped carry the Dragons to the PIAA semifinals a year ago.
“He plays running back most of the time, but he’s everywhere including in the Wildcat,” Conto said. “He’s a lot like (Chandler) Turner. He’s going to run straight at you with power. He’s going to give you some little moves. He’s not going to give you how Chuck Carr or (Armstrong’s Zane) Dudek ran. He’s a little different style than them. But he’s going to fight for every inch and every yard. You can’t let up on him.”
The Dragons are more than just Hoenstine, though.
Quarterback Preston Karstetter is 71 of 26 for 1,070 yards, nine touchdowns and three interceptions with Chase Smith catching a team-high 32 passes for 516 yards and three scores.
Jared Smith is a nice compliment to Hoenstine in the backfield and has 437 yards rushing and two touchdowns while catching 11 passes for 152 yards and a score.
While Central-Martinsburg offense is dangerous, so too is Karns City’s.
The Gremlins average 40.5 points per game and the scary thing for opposing defenses is that those points come from a variety of players.
Three Gremlins have scored in double digits in touchdowns and two more have each scored five times.
Using a running-back-by-committee approach that seldom sees any one back as the focal point, the Gremlins are led by Turner’s 1,049 yards and 15 rushing touchdowns. The 6-3, 181-pounds senior rushed for 97 yards on nine carries with a pair of touchdowns last week and averages 11.9 yards per touch. He also has 11 catches for 276 yards and three more scores.
But Turner isn’t the only problem for defenses.
Kaiden Powers is just shy of 1,000 total yards of offense with 984 with 14 scores.
Powers, who also kicks for the Gremlins, has 670 yards rushing and nine touchdowns on just 54 carries while averaging a sick 12.4 yards per carry. He also has 18 catches for 314 yards and five touchdowns.
Cullen Williams chips in 619 yards on the ground with 11 scores while also adding a receiving touchdown and 12 catches for 188 yards.
Eric Dodd, who had a team-high 15 carries last week, has 489 yards rushing and five touchdowns, while Jimmy Thompson has 21 catches for 379 yards and five scores. He is coming off a four-catch, 107-yard day with a touchdown.
Senior quarterback Jacob King quietly is having a nice season going 82 of 148 for 1,385 yards, 11 touchdowns and four picks. He has taken a banging this year and was forced from the Hickory game momentarily in the first half before returning after halftime.
“I’m excited about playing this game,” Conto said. “We can see how much more we can grow.”