The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

High School Sports

August 30, 2013

Portage, North Star highlight Week 1 clashes

Portage and North Star have played some close, dramatic games for more than a decade, with the Mustangs’ 13-10 comeback road win last season the latest chapter.

Cougars coach Stacy Schmitt appreciates how the two programs elevate their game for each other and show mutual respect.

Schmitt also knows the Mustangs have had his team’s number in a string of close contests.

“We’ve had some classic battles. Every year it’s us and Portage,” said Schmitt, whose Cougars visit Portage in tonight’s season opener. “I look for this to be another great football game.”

Portage was a decided underdog last season in Boswell but managed to produce a series of big plays on offense and defense in a win that sparked an enthusiastic celebration.

“All the years in coaching I’ve been involved in a number of close games with Portage,” Schmitt said. “We’ve come out on the wrong end of the stick a lot of times. We’ve had some great games against them. Seven or eight years ago they kicked a field goal in the freezing cold at Portage and we lost by (three) points. There have been a lot of great games.”

Portage has defeated North Star in 10 consecutive games dating to the Cougars’ most recent win in 2000 (34-28).

But the series isn’t as one-sided as the record would indicate. Five of the Mustangs’ wins were by eight or fewer points, with two decided by three points.

“It’s definitely going to be a great game. They’ve got a great program and great players,” Porage coach Gary Gouse said. “It’s been a battle between us the last couple of years. It’s been an exciting football game and I don’t think this is going to be any different.”

Last season North Star was considered a favorite in the WestPAC with a strong cast led by Division I recruit Tony Strasiser, a 6-foot-6 receiver. The Cougars finished 10-3 as District 5-A runner-up.

This time, Portage is the coaches’ preseason selection to win the conference, picking up seven of nine first-place votes after a 9-2 season and 6-A playoff appearance.

The Mustangs’ running game is led by junior Caleb Kephart and seniors Scott Giles and senior Chris Onder. Kephart ran for 1,195 yards and 15 touchdowns as a sophomore.

“We have some good playmakers like Caleb and (quarterback) Luke Dividock,” Gouse said. “We have more  this year than in the past. We’ve got to let those guys make the big plays.

“Caleb is just so explosvie. You can throw him a little swing pass or screen pass, it looks like nobody’s blocking and the next thing he’s 70 yards down the field. He has that knack for taking it.”

Schmitt respects the ground attack.

“We have to stop their running game,” he said. “We’ve got to keep them from controlling the ball. They seem like they have a very strong defense this year so we’ll have to find a way to put some points on the board.”

North Star also has a deep backfield with junior Shawn Costas back after gaining 826 yards, and senior Thomas Miller coming off a 793-yard season. The duo combined for 1,619 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. Junior Zac Maluchnik also has emerged as a back.

“They’re going to be a running team. They’ve got the horses to do that,” Gouse said. “We’re going to have to force them into third-and-long. That’s our goal. Put them in a situation where they can’t use the run to their advantage. That’s where we have to win the battle. That’s where the battle will be won.”

A large crowd and big-game atmosphere is the norm in Portage, where the historic, stone stadium is complemented by a large video scoreboard.

“It will be packed. Opening night at Portage is huge,” Gouse said. “Our scoreboard and video board, that whole atmosphere and our band and our community, it’s a great place to play for anybody, even away teams like the atmosphere. It’s a fun place to play, no doubt.”

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