While the success is striking, it’s never assumed. And the appetite for more is insatiable.
“ ... You know, ‘Humble and Hungry,’ one of our favorite lines ... “ related third-year Wilmington High football coach Brandon Phillian.
When Wilmington welcomes Chestnut Ridge for a PIAA Class 2A state quarterfinal-round contest Friday at 7 p.m., the proud program’s legacy will continue. The 2020 season’s 16 seniors have experienced an aggregate 47-4 won-lost ledger, four District 10 championships, a pair of PIAA championship game appearances, and another statewide Final Four berth.
“I think this is certainly a very special group of seniors. I believe I’ve developed lasting relationships with a number of the seniors on this year’s team,” related Phillian, a former Wilmington player under legendary coach Terry Verrelli. “They’re extremely coachable, they’re great leaders, they have great character — both on and off the field. It’s a group that’s shown tremendous potential the whole way coming up through our program.
“There’s no doubt that I feel blessed and humbled to be playing in a state quarterfinal matchup this Friday night,” Phillian continued. “I think it says a lot about the young men on our football team, and it says a lot about the work that they have put in to get to this point. But I know I would speak for all the players on the team when I tell you that they’re very excited, they’re very grateful for this opportunity ... but they’re not satisfied. They want to continue to grow and improve and get better every time they take the practice field or the game field.”
Not unlike facing Farrell three times this season, this will serve as Wilmington’s third encounter with Chestnut Ridge (7-2). Coach Max Shoemaker’s Lions are led by senior signal-caller Logan Pfister, who has 5,115 career passing yards and 36 TD tosses and has compiled 2,574 rushing yards and 44 touchdowns.
In last season’s 35-20 Wilmington win at Somerset High, the Greyhounds built a 21-0 halftime lead and extended their edge to 28-0 in the third period before the Lions roared back.
Pfister finished 22 of 38 for 300 yards passing, hitting Jordan Hillegas for a 33-yard TD pass. However, the Greyhounds’ ground game outgained Chestnut Ridge, 283-42. Darren Miller manufactured a game-high 21-carry, 172-yard, two-touchdown performance that included a 53-yard scoring sprint. Also, Ethan Susen sprinted for 77 yards rushing and caught a 41-scoring strike from Caelan Bender. In addition to rushing for 35 yards, Bender was 8 for 11 through the air for 170 yards.
In the 2018 game at Slippery Rock University’s Mihalik-Thompson Stadium — won by Wilmington 40-33 — Pfister finished with 417 total yards. He rushed 14 times for 120 yards, including 44- and 35-yard scoring sprints, and completed 19 of 29 pass attempts for 297 yards, tossing a trio of TDs (36, 80 and 75). Wilmington won on a late 10-yard TD toss from Robert Pontius to Junior McConahy.
Cam Marett motored for 290 yards rushing and 2 TDs on 39 carries and Susen scooted for 70 on 10 totes. The Greyhounds’ ground game outgained Chestnut Ridge, 431-164 (505 total); however, the Lions mauled the normally stout ‘Hounds Hammer defense for 461 total yards.
“If I’m being totally honest, I think that Logan Pfister and Coach Shoemaker and Chestnut Ridge are right back this year where we expected them to be,” Phillian related. “Coach Shoemaker does a fantastic job. And Logan Pfister’s a special football player. So they’re, pretty much, right where we expected them to be this time of year.”
A classic run-pass option quarterback, the 6-foot-2, 190-pound phenomenal Pfister has passed for 1,514 yards (95 completions in 158 attempts, 60.1 percent) and eight touchdowns, though intercepted five times. He also leads the Lions in rushing (86 carries, 744 yards, 8.7 per-carry, 15 TDs).
However, focusing on Pfister and forgetting his talented teammates invites trouble for an opposing defense. Chestnut Ridge’s run game includes Nick Presnell (55-290, 5.3, three TDs) and Hillegas (49-202, 4.1 4 TDs). Also available for Pfister are aerial targets Matt Whysong (40 catches, 719 yards, 18 yards/catch, 6 TDs) and Trevor Weyandt (32-441. 13.8, 2 TDs).
“If you put too much emphasis on Pfister, Matt Whysong is an outstanding receiver, and Chestnut Ridge will get the ball to him in a multitude of ways — they’ll throw it to him, they’ll hand it to him, they’ll pitch it to him. They want the ball in his hands, and I can see why. He’s a terrific football player,” Phillian analyzed, adding, “Also, Trevor Weyandt lines up in a lot of different places — again, throw it to him, toss it to him. They want the ball in his hands, too, and good things happen when he touches the football.
“So, yeah, if you overload too much on Pfister, they’ve certainly got a number of players who can make you pay,” Phillian forecasted.
Defensively leading the Lions are Weyandt (74 tackles, 4 for loss), Pfister (44, 3 for loss), Hillegas (43), Joe Gardner (39) and Whysong (37, including 2 interceptions).
Last week, Wilmington walloped District 9 champion Karns City (42-14). Accounting for 201 of the Greyhounds’ 378 total yards, Bender scored on touchdown runs of 2, 60 and 8 yards and also collaborated with Susen on a 36-yard scoring strike. Miller motored for 85 yards rushing, including a 44-yard scoring sprint, and Mason Reed returned the second-half kickoff 76 yards for a TD, his second splash play in as many weeks. The Hounds’ Hammer yielded just 231 total yards, Wilmington was penalized just once, and it did not commit a miscue.
“One of the things you hear a lot in sports is you want your team to peak at the right time, and I think the good thing about our football team is we are continuing to ascend, we are continuing to get better each and every week. And that’s certainly where you want to be in the playoffs,” Phillian observed. “We’ve gotten better from the end of the regular season, to playing Farrell for the District 10 title. I think we took another step when we played Karns City a week ago, and we’ll certainly look to continue ascending, to try to peak at the right time as we move through the state playoffs.
“It’s certainly a big challenge, but I would love to see it happen, I would love to see us continue to grow and get better and improve each and every week,” Phillian added.
The senior-laden success of this season’s squad — in spite of COVID-19 pandemic uncertainty — while expected as one of Wilmington’s finest, is not taken for granted.
“I don’t know that there’s necessarily any more pressure this year than any other year,” Phillian said. “I think, when you’re fortunate enough as a team and a program to be in the state playoffs, you relish those opportunities each and every year. You focus on your vision. We’ll take it one week at a time — ‘one-week Super Bowls,’ as we like to say.
“So I don’t know there’s necessarily more pressure this year than any other year. But one thing I will say is it is a special group of seniors. It’s a group that I feel very blessed to have the opportunity to coach them and to build lasting relationships with them.
“And as gratifying as it is to get into the final eight (of the state), I know the mind-set of our team is to have a great performance against Chestnut Ridge on Friday night and ultimately to advance to the Final Four and get into the state semifinals,” Phillian added.
Having served as an assistant to the venerable Verrelli for a dozen years and now continuing the great Greyhounds’ tradition, Phillian observed regarding November football,
“I think it means that we’ve had a great season, and I give the credit to our players — I give the credit to the work and the dedication that they’ve invested — and I give credit to the families of these players and the community that so strongly supports our football program. It’s a great program and a great culture that we’ve been able to be a part of here at Wilmington.
“Whenever you’re still practicing in November, you’ve had a great season and you have a lot to be thankful for, and we’re certainly thankful, we’re certainly grateful,” Phillian continued. “But at the same point in time, being thankful, being grateful I think speaks to the humility — you know, ‘Humble and Hungry,’ one of our favorite lines. But while we’re humble about where we’ve gotten and our accomplishments to this point, I think we’re still certainly hungry to have a great performance against Chestnut Ridge, and to try to continue to advance.
“One of the things I would say to the seniors,” Phillian concluded, “is, each and every week that you play in the playoffs, you want to win the game, of course. Nobody wants the season to end. So, part of winning is you buy yourself another week together, another week of ‘brotherhood’ and camaraderie, and that’s something we certainly keep in mind as we approach each and every playoff game.”