COMMENTARY: Some final thoughts on football
The stadium lights have dimmed on another football season in these parts.
And while the finale was entertaining, it was less than satisfying.
With Southern Columbia's loss to Old Forge in the first round of the PIAA state playoffs Friday night, the streak of seasons without a state champ in an area that has a total of 11 state titles runs to seven. The longest previous streak without a title coming to this neck of the woods was from 1988, the first year a state title was awarded, to 1994, when both Southern and Mount Carmel brought home gold.
As with the end of every football season, there's a malaise and an ache. For us at The News-Item, the season lasted 15 weeks, during which we produced around 200 stories relating to current high school or collegiate players, game coverage or other features. For the players we cover, the season is a year-long commitment and whenever it ends, there has to come a bit of a sigh, but the realization that the frantic schedule, the hard work and the excitement of Friday nights is over and that always hurts.
I look at the premature end of the season as a denial of the chance to write about area athletes pursuing what they're passionate about.
One such player is Southern Columbia's Nate Hunter.
In 2012, Hunter suffered a knee injury against Selinsgrove that ended his season. Without his unique skill set as a runner with good vision and even better hands, the Tigers lost to Dunmore in the first round of the playoffs.
Hunter made a tremendous recovery and returned to play baseball in the spring and looked to be back to his old self once the football season rolled around.
His presence gave the Tigers three seniors in the backfield, if that's how they wanted to play, and added a fire to reclaim what he felt he missed out on his junior season.
Hunter ran for 470 yards and caught 10 passes for another 161 and scored touchdowns in 11 of the Tigers' first 12 games.
Hunter was back, the Tigers were poised and everything seemed great before he went down with a similar, but less severe, injury against South Williamsport in the District 4 final.
As a senior, Hunter wouldn't let anything less than an amputation keep him from playing Old Forge, and his presence, his drive, was a reason Southern went up 14-0 early on. He gained 34 yards on six carries and scored the Tigers' first touchdown.
Then with 5:05 left in the second quarter, Hunter's season ended on a downer for the second straight year. He sat on the turf until he was attended to by Southern's medical staff and although no one knew it at the time, when Hunter limped off, Southern's heartbeat in its biggest game of the year went with him.
Close but no cigar
Fans may have had lumps in their throats as Southern drove down the field in the closing minutes, but historians were probably doubting whether the Tigers would pull it out.
Recent history hasn't been kind to Southern in close games.
Since 2000, Southern is 7-13 in games decided by a touchdown or less. Four of those losses have been in the playoffs and now in back-to-back years in the first round of the state playoffs. The Tigers have only lost a total of 26 games in that same span.
Now consider the decade before that. Southern played in 24 games decided by that same margin and went 16-7-1.
The point is, when the Tigers win, they win big.
While the Tigers' regular-season dominance was never in question, the lack of close games, aided by the fact that their opponents only won a combined 45 games (and 10 of those were by South Williamsport), and Southern was never really tested in 2013 until Friday night.
But what about the previous years of the new millennium?
In order to know how to play in big games, you have to play in big games. Since 2000, the Tigers have on average played in 1.4 close games a year. In the '90s, that number was 2.6. That's at least six less quarters a year to test their mettle and it's showed in the biggest games recently.
The solution is to play tougher opponents. With Southern moving back up to Division II in the Heartland Conference that should begin to fix itself.
In the always changing world of technology and media, it's tough for some older farts (said with the deepest affection and respect) in the business to adjust.
In order to stay relevant to the demographic that uses Facebook and Twitter, we put a renewed vigor and emphasis on creating conversation and community and this season was wildly successful from that standpoint.
And we owe Ken Schetroma a tremendous amount of thanks for his efforts roaming the sideline and being a great representative and fan of the area and the newspaper on those social media outlets.
(Dan MacArthur is a sports writer for The News-Item)