By Matt Popchock
The 2005 reality series “Bound for Glory” was a forgettable one in the sense that its stars, the Montour Spartans, won only one game in the presence of a farcical celebrity coach and ESPN camera crews. In the school’s defense, however, it raised new funding and new awareness for the program, and five years later, under accomplished head coach Lou Cerro, Montour became appointment television.
Unfortunately, they saw their dreams of ending a championship drought that has now entered its 47th year get swept away, dare we say, in November sweeps. After a brilliant march to the Parkway Conference crown that included a character-testing win over newcomer Central Valley, the Spartans worked their way to Heinz Field and, when they got there, found themselves in an unfamiliar position: as the favorite.
That wasn’t the case in 2007, when they were routed by Thomas Jefferson, though this trip to the Class AAA title game didn’t turn out much better. The 14th-seeded Warriors enjoyed the last laugh and upended the top-ranked and previously unbeaten Parkway champs 24-7.
The silver lining? Montour remains the preseason favorite in its section, returning a galaxy of highly-motivated stars from the 2010 squad, and remains a popular pick to win its first outright WPIAL championship since 1964 and fourth in program history (Montour and Avella shared the Class A title in 1957).
Last year South Fayette QB and William & Mary recruit Christian Brumbaugh captured our attention throughout the fall by rewriting the WPIAL record books as a senior. Now that he’s moved on, it’s time for Montour’s senior signal-caller, Dillon Buechel, to take center stage.
Perhaps the premier high school quarterback in the area, Buechel finished fourth in Class AAA and eighth in the WPIAL in regular season passing yardage. Although his junior season ended on a sour note, it also ended with 2,221 yards, 24 TD’s against just six interceptions, and a first-team nod on the All-Parkway Conference team, as he connected on over 60% of his attempts.
Buechel and his mates won’t be shy about trying to stretch the field this season either. Of Montour’s 18 returning starters, ten played offense regularly in 2010, including senior wide out Darren Massey, who caught 44 passes for 726 yards and nine touchdowns, and fellow speedster Devin Wilson, who looks like a D-1 stud in the making. He ended a breakout sophomore season with a team-high 757 yards and 12 TD’s on 55 catches, earning first team all-conference honors.
If you’re reading this, and you happen to be a punter for some other team in the Parkway Conference, we suggest you don’t kick the ball in Wilson’s general direction either. He racked up just under 1,000 yards on special teams, averaging nearly 30 per return.
But even more eyes will be glued to the Spartans’ backfield, because senior tailback and 2010 first team All-Parkway selection Julian Durden will likely battle conference rival Rushel Shell of Hopewell for the 2011 district rushing title.
After transferring from North Catholic last summer Durden made a world of difference in Cerro’s offense, finishing fifth in the WPIAL (second behind Shell in Class AAA) in regular season rushing yards, while tying North Allegheny’s Alex Papson as the No. 4 overall scorer during the regular campaign. Durden ended 2010 with 2,033 yards and 25 TD’s on the ground, averaging over 7.5 per carry and 25 per kick return, and can also cradle the rock in the open field; he caught 15 passes for 216 yards and another touchdown. He and Buechel give Montour a double-barreled attack that may be unmatched by any team in the classification.
Lost in the allure of Montour’s offense, which tied for fifth in the classification at an average of 32.1 points per game and is expected to put up ridiculous numbers again, is the fact that the silver medalists could be and should be just as athletic on defense.
As a sophomore Wilson showed why he’s also getting Division I looks for basketball by covering both ends of the field effectively, contributing 52 tackles and 11 pass deflections in Montour’s secondary. Massey averaged 6.4 tackles per game as a DB and led the team with four interceptions. Fellow senior Sherrod Naylor had 57 tackles and 23 pass deflections last year. The graduation of leading tackler Evan Pass raises a red flag at linebacker, but this team can still be strong at that position as well. Aaron Reed is back after finishing second on the team with 104 tackles (28 solo) as a junior, and Aaron McGee registered 79 tackles and 4.0 sacks as a junior.
Furthermore, the Spartans’ “D,” which allowed a conference-low 16 points per game in 2010, can be just as deadly for the same reason the offense can be just as deadly: few teams in the WPIAL will be stronger along the lines. Montour averages around 270 pounds on both sides, with talented juniors Tyler Haddock and Matt Barone, and seniors Matt Christiansen and Dom Martinelli leading the way. All four are expected to play D-1 football, and McGee is a very competent tight end.
It’s no secret that Montour’s most immediate competition will come within the Parkway Conference. All but two of its teams, Moon and Ambridge, finished with winning (overall) records in 2010. Beyond that, Franklin Regional looks strong, but the Keystone Conference has fared horribly in the postseason since the turn of the century. Knoch and Hampton could fly under the radar, but the Greater Allegheny Conference hasn’t produced a Class AAA champion in over 30 years. That leaves Thomas Jefferson, the traditional favorite in the Big Eight Conference, a team that has reached at least the Semifinals 13 years in a row. The Jaguars may be the only match for them in terms of raw talent.
So if Montour can stay healthy, 2011 is as good an opportunity as Cerro, now in his seventh year, will have to get his first gold medal since his Seton-LaSalle days, and it’ll be as good an opportunity as his team will have to re-write the ending to last year’s script.
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)