After blowing out Northern Lebanon in the first round of the District 3-AAA playoffs, Northeastern will host No. 7 Susquehanna Township in the quarterfinals on Friday night.
The atmosphere at Northeastern's football practice on Wednesday hardly resembled a team preparing for a District 3-AAA quarterfinal game.
Players were laughing and joking around, with the coaching staff joining right in on the banter. The mood was light, indicative of a team coming off a 48-12 thrashing of Northern Lebanon last Friday. The players are carrying the swagger of a team that is the No. 2 seed in the Class AAA tournament. Regardless of how confident the Bobcats are after just one win, they know that this Friday will present an even larger challenge when Susquehanna Township rolls into Manchester.
"We got a pretty tough opponent this week," Bobcats head coach Jon Scepanski said. "And we're going to need play a perfect football game, but they're playing really well and I'm excited for them."
Last week's win over the Vikings was the first district win in program history, so this team is already the most successful in school history. But there's also a sense with the Bobcats (8-3) that, even with that achievement already in their back pocket, stopping at just one win wouldn't do this team justice.
All year long, Northeastern has earned praise around the mid-state as being a legit threat to make a deep run in the district tournament. With the long-running struggles that the big-school teams from the York-Adams League have endured during the postseason, seeing a team such as the Bobcats emerge as real title contenders came as a surprise to some — but not to the players on the team.
Northeastern was one of the most consistent teams all season long in league play, only losing twice on the road to Dallastown and South Western. So, there will be no resting on any laurels after a first-round win over Northern Lebanon because this team has much bigger plans.
"After the win, coach said 'it's nice to celebrate,'" junior quarterback Shannon Valenti said. "But, at the same time, you can't get too stuck on just that one win. It's all right that we were the first team to win (a district game) in Northeastern history, but we still got plans to keep going."
In order to do so, the Bobcats will need to take down a red-hot Indians team.
Susquehanna Township rolled into the District 3-AAA postseason as one of the hottest teams in the class, winners of six straight after beginning the year 1-3. During that winning streak, the Indians knocked off some impressive teams, as well, including wins over Class AAA top seed Bishop McDevitt and Class AAAA playoff teams Cedar Cliff and Carlisle. Their only losses came in three consecutive weeks between Weeks 2-4, all to quality opponents in Central Dauphin, Central Dauphin East and Lower Dauphin, all of which are in the Class AAAA quarterfinals.
In Susquehanna Township's first round match-up against Conrad Weiser, the Indians had little trouble, cruising to a 42-3 victory, the third-largest margin of victory in the Class AAA first-round slate of games.
"We've watched a lot of film on them," Scepanski said. "They're a very good football team. They got a lot of speed. They're big up front. They move the ball. They're able to stop offenses. So, we got our hands full, but our kids are going to be up to the challenge."
On offense, Susquehanna Township has scored 438 points through 11 games, or 39.8 points per game. But, it also only allows 19.7 points per game, which is impressive when you consider how many AAAA schools the team faced. That defensive figure also includes back-to-back shutouts late in the season. So the Indians are a team that knows how to start fast and finish faster, which presents a lot of problems for teams who have to try to keep pace with them.
Northeastern is more known for its defense than its offense, but that's hardly a knock on its offense. The Bobcats are putting up 30.4 points per game, while allowing just under 12 per game. Last week, Anu Johnson was virtually unstoppable on the ground, rushing for more than 200 yards and scoring twice, something Northeastern will need again if it wants to hang tight with Susquehanna Township and continue its season.
The Bobcats firmly believe that, while this entire season has been special, their best football is happening now. They're peaking at the right time and will need that to continue if it wants to make it to Hersheypark Stadium on Black Friday.
"We're all executing at the right time," Valenti said. "We've been having a good season all year, but that last game pushed everything up to a whole 'nother level. And this week, we have a much tougher team, so I feel like our mindset is there and we're ready to go."
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at email@example.com.