By Chris Rossetti
KANE, Pa. – Its unchartered territory for one team in Friday night’s AML Championship game, while the other team is trying to continue a tradition of success when AML North champion Sheffield travels to AML South champion Kane for a 7 p.m. game.
For Sheffield (5-4 overall, 5-1 AML North), it’s the first-ever appearance for the Wolverines in the AML Title game, which is in its 28th season.
“For Sheffield to win the AML North for the first time and advance to the AML Championship game was huge for our players, the program, the coaches, the school and the community,” Dave Fitch, Sheffield’s second-year head coach said. “The kids are learning what it takes to win, and we will go into the AML Championship game with one goal in mind and that is to win the game. The last conference title in football at Sheffield was in 1964, which was a long time ago. So we are in unchartered water. We are expecting a huge showing from the community Friday. The community support has always been there, but in the last few weeks the fan support has been amazing. I will prepare this team to be ready for Kane Friday.”
Kane (9-0, 5-0 AML South) has a little bit more experience in big situations having won three AML Title since 2002 (2002, 2007 and 2008), although the Wolves are back in a championship setting for the first time since 2008 and for the first time under second-year head man Todd Silfies.
“Getting another victory would be an amazing accomplishment for our guys,” Silfies said. “Winning the AML Championship is a goal of every team in the league when you open camp in August. While the PIAA counts this week as a regular-season game, we find there is nothing ‘regular’ about the AML Championship. It’s a special opportunity for our player and fans, and we are treating it as such. We aren’t necessarily looking at it in terms of what it means coupled with our first nine victories but rather what it means in itself. That being said, anytime you have an opportunity to win double-digit football games in one season that is a special thing that just doesn’t happen very often. The most important part of the entire experience, however, is winning the game and returning the AML plaque to our hallway. We have several members of our staff that have held that plaque as player and/or coaches, our kids have not had that opportunity. There is nothing else like it, and we are excited for the opportunity we have Friday night.”
This is the second meeting of the season between the two clubs, as Kane rolled to an opening week 34-6 victory.
“We don’t necessarily want our guys to forget week one,” Silfies said. “We played well against Sheffield in the opening game. But our players know this is a very different Sheffield team coming into Friday night. They are much improved fundamentally and schematically. They also have some different personnel then we played against early in the season. They have had time to gel as a team over the last eight weeks and have become a very solid football team.”
Fitch would agree with his counterpart’s assessment of his football team.
“We are a completely different team from week one,” Fitch said. “Anytime you have a co-op (Sheffield coops with Abraxas), it takes time for new players to gel with established players. In week one, some of our co-op players as well as some of our Sheffield players were new to the offensive scheme, and we lacked varsity game-time experience by many of our players. That will be the biggest thing Kane will have to deal with. Our offensive is much improved and advanced, and we will throw the whole ‘kitchen sink’ at Kane Friday.”
One of the players who wasn’t a factor in the opening week but has been for a lot of the second-half of the season for Sheffield is sophomore running back Jareke Jackson. Jackson, who carried the ball just five times for 12 yards in the opener, has rushed for 809 yards and 12 touchdowns on the year while rushing for at least 100 yards in four of Sheffield’s final six games.
“He is a very talented man from North Carolina and is only a sophomore,” Fitch said. “In the first week, he was still learning the playbook and the calls we make in the spread offense. It was his first varsity game, and it showed. He is much more experienced with the tailback position. He is also our leading tackler with 86 tackles after moving from cornerback to linebacker in week three.”
Dustin Holden (375 yards, 1 touchdown) gives Sheffield a good one-two punch out of the backfield, as his power style compliments Jackson’s speed. Meanwhile, quarterback Adam Higby is 82 of 159 passing for 963 yards, seven touchdowns and 11 interceptions with Noah Heeter his favorite target (29 catches, 448 yards, 5 touchdowns).
“To win a game against Kane, which is a very talented team, we have to keep our mental mistakes to a minimum,” Fitch said. “We can’t afford to take any dumb penalties, and we can’t turn the ball over. I remember specifically we had six turnovers against them in week one. One on their 5-yard line in the first half still lingers in my mind.”
Kane has a lot of skill offensively as well led by first-year starting quarterback Kevin Cleer.
Cleer has been one of the top quarterbacks in District 9 all season and is completing 65 percent (105 of 161) of his passes with 27 touchdowns and just three interceptions while throwing for 1,447 yards.
Another newcomer to the starting line, running back John English, who missed last week’s game vs. Coudersport, has also been spot on all season rushing for 921 yards and 11 touchdowns, while Jeff Kocjancic, one of the holdovers from last year’s District 9 Class AA runner-up team, has 47 catches for 677 yards and 13 touchdowns. Andrew Pierson (32 catches, 388 yards, 5 TDs) and Tyler Rolick (16 catches, 219 yards, 5 TDs) compliment Kocjancic well.
“I think the key to the success our new guys have had this season is hard work,” Silfies said. “Like anything else in life, if you want to succeed you have to work. The hard work our guys have put in started in the weight room the Monday after the D9 championship game last season. You look at a young man like Kevin Cleer who hadn’t played a meaningful varsity snap in his career prior to this season. It’s important to note his success isn’t by accident. Kevin worked individually with offensive coordinator Tyler Smith throughout the spring and summer to become a better fundamental quarterback.”
Silfies credits a lot of his players’ individual success to a team-first approach.
“Our players genuinely don’t care who scores, who makes the play on defense or who has what stats in a game or for the year,” Silfies said. “The only stats that matters to our guys is the one under the win column, and they do whatever it takes to make that happen.”
NOTES – Both teams have qualified for the District 9 playoffs with Sheffield entering the Class A field and Kane the Class AA field … This game has significant seeding ramifications for both squads. With a win, Sheffield will be the No. 2 seed in the Class A tournament and get a home game in the first round. A loss would drop the Wolverines out of a home playoff game … Kane needs a win and potentially some help to grab the top seed from Karns City. The Wolves are guaranteed a top two seed in the Class AA field and a home playoff game with it … With Sheffield’s appearance in the AML Title game this year, Otto-Eldred is the lone current AML school to never play in the championship tilt.