Penn Cambria entered the season facing the high expectations that accompanied the LHAC coaches’ preseason No. 1 ranking.
Veteran Panthers coach Ernie Fetzer wasn’t entirely comfortable with the top billing in the weeks leading up to Friday’s contest against visiting Greater Johnstown.
The Panthers eased their coach’s mind a bit with a dominating 38-0 victory over the Trojans.
“We ran a various amount of plays through different formations,” said Panthers senior safety James Mardula, who had four tackles and was part of a defense that shut out the traditionally formidable Trojans offense. “We just pounded the ball through them. We just played great defense and that set us up.”
Penn Cambria has experience, leadership and numerous skilled athletes such as Mack Behe and Devin Lawhead, two of the LHAC’s top performers on both sides of the ball last season.
Johnstown returned only three starters – one on defense – after losing more than 20 players from a group that won two 6-AAA titles in three seasons.
“We’re a young team and we had a great camp and the kids are working their tails off,” Johnstown coach Tony Penna Jr. said. “We had our chances. We just weren’t sharp enough in the red zone. That’s on me. I call the plays. We’ve got to get back to work and find ways to pump it into the end zone and keep our defense off the field. We left them out there for a long time.”
The Panthers rushed for 321 yards on 44 attempts. Ten players had carries, including quarterback Mark Mardula (four carries, 77 yards), Mike Eckenrode (9-60, one TD), Lawhead (10-50) and Justin Fuller (5-45, two TDs).
Three different quarterbacks presented the Trojans with different challenges. Brendan Eckenrode passed for 95 yards, and Chad Tsikalas threw for 15.
Fetzer’s team collected a whopping 21 first downs – 16 rushing and five passing.
“We ran the football. We threw the ball well,” Fetzer said. “We played great defense. We bent a little bit but when we had to we were able to suck it up and do it.
“Hey, it’s 38-0 against Johnstown High School, and they’re a good program.”
Penn Cambria dominated the first half despite turning the ball over three times.
The Panthers rushed for 167 first-half yards as eight different players combined for 25 carries. Penn Cambria rotated three quarterbacks and quickly ran plays before the outsized Johnstown players could react.
Justin Fuller capped a 72-yard, 10-play drive with a 12-yard touchdown at 4:39 of the first. He ran his own conversion to make it 8-0.
Johnstown advanced to the Penn Cambria 24 on its next drive but stalled.
On the ensuing play, the Trojans’ Jesaiah Wilson recovered a Panthers fumble at the 14-yard line. But a false start, three plays for no gain and a short pass ended the possession.
“That was huge,” Fetzer said of the stand. “We have seven kids back on that side of the football. Their experience came forward and it showed.”
Penn Cambria’s Jake Schwaderer intercepted Brody LoBoi’s pass at the Johnstown 34. One play later, Brendan Eckenrode tossed a 34-yard scoring pass to 6-foot-6 senior Nathan Keagy, who had the height advantage over his defender. Fuller ran the conversion for a 16-0 lead.
Penn Cambria appeared to be stopped as time was running out. The Panthers had a fourth-and-5 at the Johnstown 15-yard line with 14 seconds on a running clock. A Panthers time out gave quarterback Tsikalas one more play, and he connected with Behe over a defender in the end zone. Eckenrode threw to Behe for the conversion and a 24-0 halftime lead.
“Keagy is 6-foot-6 and has great hands, and Behe is just a great athlete,” Fetzer said. “Behe just took that football out of the kid’s hands in the end zone. They’re both great athletes and you’ve got to take advantage of that.”
Penn Cambria didn’t relent in the second half. After a Johnstown punt, the Panthers marched 80 yards in nine plays. Fuller ran 26 yards for the score, and Devin Lawhead ran the conversion to make it 32-0 midway through the third quarter.
Sophomore reserve running back Mike Eckenrode carried nine time for 60 yards and a 1-yard touchdown run on Penn Cambria’s final scoring drive that put a running clock into motion with 6:34 left.
“They’re a good football team,” Penna said. “I felt my kids battled and played their hearts out.”
Johnstown’s LoBoi threw for 80 yards, with three interceptions. Freshman Terrell Jones ran for 51 yards, and senior Shaquan Jones gained 41 on the ground. Johnstown rushed for 130 yards on 33 carries, with 55 yards gained in the final 6:30 against the Panthers reserves.
Despite the one-sided setback, Penna remained upbeat.
“This book isn’t a one-chapter book,” Penna said. “It’s a 10-chapter book. It’s our time to write it. Last year’s season is over. That team’s gone. This is their turn. We don’t like the first chapter but we’ve got nine more. We’re going to come back, see what’s wrong and get it fixed up and go after it.
“We’ve been preaching resiliency since January. Tonight’s a bump in the road. We’re going to come back and see what this team is about next Friday.”
Johnstown hosts Central Cambria. Penn Cambria travels to Bedford.