Sept. 5, 2012
The Port Allegany High School football team played to rave reviews in 2011. Headlined by a flashy, showstopping offense, the Gators (12-2) rolled to their first Allegheny Mountain League title since 1988, then claimed the first District 9 football championship in school history in a 35-34 thriller over Clarion.
A second-half surge by District 10 champ Sharpsville brought the curtain down on Port’s season in the state quarterfinals, but with most of last year’s cast returning, the stage seems to be set for another extended playoff run.
So with the spotlight aimed squarely at Mike Bodamer’s team, what does he do for an encore? The Gators’ eighth-year head coach smiled at the question, then turned serious as he answered.
“Make them focus,” he said. “I mean, they definitely have the talent to do what they did last year. Great senior class; I think we have 17 seniors. Offensively I think we’re starting 10 seniors, and defensively, I think we’re starting nine as of right now. So the experience is definitely there. They just need to focus and take every game as it is – can’t look ahead, can’t look back. Last year is forgotten as of now. I told the coaching staff at the start of the season, that’s probably going to be my biggest job as the head coach is to make sure that they’re focused every single week. Because it’s easy to look past somebody.”
To emphasize that point, Bodamer need only remind his squad of last year’s lone regular-season defeat, a 25-19 setback to Elk County Catholic in Week 4.
“Elk County was a good team. They were extremely athletic, and we just came off beating Curwensville for the first time ever (a 35-13 victory after eight straight losses to the Golden Tide, including the 2010 D-9 championship game),” he said.
“I think the kids as well as the coaching staff were kind of stuck in that week against Curwensville, and when we saw Elk County play against Coudersport they weren’t overly impressive. But when they played us, they played well. They shut our offense down, they kept the ball, they killed the clock – everything that hurt us – and they beat us fair and square.”
Lesson learned. The Gators wouldn’t lose again until December, ripping off a nine-game winning streak before coming up just short against Sharpsville.
“After that game the kids realized that anybody can beat us, especially in the playoffs – one and you’re done – and they didn’t want that to happen,” Bodamer said.
While the old “on any given day” caution still applies, Port should be a clear favorite to repeat as AML champs and make another trip deep into the postseason. Eleven starters return from a team which rolled up a staggering 582 points (41.6 per game), trailing only Brockway (621 in 2010) for the District 9 record. And with a year’s worth of experience in the no-huddle, count on the Gators to light up area scoreboards again this season.
“Some of those games last year, we were kind of tight the first and second quarter, but by the end of the third quarter we were up by quite a bit. I think defenses just got tired of chasing us around,” Bodamer said. “It’s so high-paced, that unless you’re used to it … I’ll never go back to a huddle offense. The no-huddle is just so much of an advantage. On defense, you don’t have time to call in plays or anything, you just have to have basically one defense set. It puts a lot of pressure on them.”
Having a four-year starter at quarterback doesn’t hurt, either. Big 30 Player of the Year Matt Bodamer put together one of the best seasons in PIAA history in 2011, throwing for 3,766 yards (third all-time to Derek Buganza’s 3,824-yard 2010 campaign at Brockway) and 49 touchdowns (tied for second with Clearfield’s Chad Kroell, just one shy of Lancaster Catholic’s Kyle Smith) to earn All-State honors. Charlie Buchanan (62 catches-813 yards, 13 touchdowns) and Trevor Neal (34-643, 9 touchdowns) have graduated, but Bodamer still has his favorite target, fellow All-Stater Tyce Miller (74-1,248, 15 touchdowns), plus tight end Rick Bova (44-695, 4 touchdowns), and District 9 hurdling champ Nick Conway (7 touchdown catches in an injury-shortened season). Trey Miller and Tyler Shaffer will have the first crack at filling Buchanan’s role, while Conway was already splitting time with Neal.
“We still have six or seven kids that can catch the ball,” Mike Bodamer said, “and (Matt) has a good rapport with Nick and Tyce. He looks over at them and they know exactly what he’s thinking, so that makes it real simple for us. A lot of those guys, we call out the plays, they don’t even need to look at their wristbands. They already know most of it by heart.”
More than 90 percent of the rushing offense is also back, led by Bodamer (148 carries-806 yards, 14 touchdowns) and Trent Neal (121-682, 9 touchdowns), giving opposing defensive coaches yet another headache to deal with.
“Trent really came on at the last part of the year. You could see him reading the holes and finding them a lot better,” Mike Bodamer said. “So we’re definitely going to have to rely on him a lot more.”
Another four-year starter, left tackle Nick Budd, anchors the offensive line along with center Rex Windsor. They’ll be joined up front by by guards Victor Bandish and Logan Warnick and right tackle Brandon Raymo to replace graduated seniors Tyler Burr, Kyle Austin, and Brock Taylor.
“Logan’s not the biggest kid, but he’s extremely aggressive and that makes up for his size. Victor played a little bit of line last year, so he knows that, and Bubba (Raymo) has worked harder probably than anybody in the offseason. He’s bigger and stronger, and he understands the game. So offensive-line wise, the starting five, I see no step-back whatsoever from last year. I think we’ll be just fine there. Billy Downey will be our next guard in, and he’s another senior. So with those six kids, I feel pretty comfortable that we’ll be okay,” coach Bodamer said.
The depth chart on defense lists Budd (3.5 sacks in 2011), Raymo, and Warnick at tackle in the base 4-3 set, with Windsor (4 sacks), Bova, and sophomore Christian Moses at end. Bandish (5 sacks, 3 fumble recoveries) and Johnny Sena should split time at middle linebacker; Neal and Alex Gular (team-leading 113 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 fumble recoveries) return on the outside. There’s plenty of experience in the backfield, with Conway and Tyce Miller on the corners and Bodamer and Trey Miller at safety.
There’s a three-way battle at placekicker, where incumbent Scott Brookens (36 PATs) is being challenged by soccer teammates Sam Kysor and Tyler Kittilson. Tyce Miller will continue to handle punting duties.
Port catches a break this year with Curwensville and ECC – the last two District 9 teams to beat the Gators – rotating off the schedule, but coach Bodamer anticipates seeing one or the other of them in Week 10 (the AML championship game). However, the team has loftier goals, signified by the “Something To Prove” motto seen everywhere from Twitter hashtags to some players’ cleats.
“The first 10 games, it doesn’t really matter,” he said. “Starting with Week 11 is what you’ve got to worry about, because once you lose there you’re done. If something happens in the regular season where we stumble once or twice but we still make it to the playoffs, as long as from Week 11 you keep winning, that’s all that matters. That’s the main goal. It would be nice to win all your games, but you can never say that that’s going to happen. Once those playoffs start, you just have to win every week and see how far you get.”
Aug. 31 Johnsonburg A 7:00
Sept. 8 Kane H 1:30
Sept. 14 Ridgway A 7:00
Sept. 21 Coudersport A 7:00
Sept. 29 Otto-Eldred H 1:30
Oct. 6 Smethport H 1:30
Oct. 13 Sheffield A 1:30
Oct. 19 Cameron Co. A 7:00
Oct. 27 Brockway H 1:30