Just four teams remain in the PIAA Class 2A football bracket.
And for the fourth consecutive season, Wilmington High is in that mix.
The Greyhounds reached the state semifinals with a 45-27 win over Ridgway-Johnsonburg on Friday. They will meet Avonworth at 6 p.m. Friday at Slippery Rock High School for the right to play for a state championship.
Wilmington (12-0) has represented Lawrence County by playing in the state championship game each of the last two years, falling both times to eastern power Southern Columbia.
“There’s no substitute for experience,” second-year Greyhounds coach Brandon Phillian said. “Through experience comes a calmness or quiet strength.
“The stage doesn’t feel so big with that experience. I think the fact that our team does have experience will serve us well.”
With Thanksgiving the day before the game, juggling practice with holiday festivities can be a bit of a challenge for a coaching staff.
“Any time you get to practice on Thanksgiving, that always stands out as the most special day of the season,” Phillian said. “To come up there to the field in the morning with so much to be thankful for is special; any time you get to practice on Thanksgiving, that’s a highlight of your season.
“With the holidays and working around gatherings, it could get you out of the routine. But you have to focus on your vision not your circumstance. I have no doubt the guys will be very focused.”
The Antelopes (14-0) advanced to the PIAA semifinals by winning the WPIAL championship on Saturday, 28-6, over Washington. It was just the second district title in school history for Avonworth. In fact, the Antelopes’ only other district title came in 1960 in a 13-13 tie with Union.
Avonworth owns a 21-7 week zero home win over Neshannock among its 14 verdicts.
“The thing that jumps out at me is the coaching staff is doing a great job,” Phillian said of Avonworth’s staff. “They play very sound football. They’re sound in their schemes and fundamentals.”
This marks the first state playoff game this year for Wilmington that isn’t a rematch from last season.
The Greyhounds topped Chestnut Ridge in the first round and Ridgway-Johnsonburg last week, while knocking both off last season en route to Hershey.
“I think it kind of in some ways has its advantages and in some ways has its disadvantages,” Phillian said. “While we don’t know them, they don’t know us as well. They’re a totally different component.
“Aside from the films we’ve traded, we don’t know a lot of about them. But that adds to the challenge.”
Park Penrod, a 6-foot-3, 181-pound senior quarterback, directs the Avonworth offense. Penrod is 122 of 218 through the air for 1,851 yards with 27 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
“He’s a very solid quarterback with a good arm,” Phillian said. “He throws it well down the field and he’s not afraid to take shots down the field.
“He puts the ball on the money and he does a nice job running the offense. They’ll give you a variety of spread out looks. Penrod is a very solid quarterback.”
Jax Miller, a 6-1, 183-pound senior running back, is the team’s workhorse ball carrier. He has rolled up 2,230 yards on 275 attempts with 29 touchdowns and a pair of two-point conversions.
“The second thing that jumps out is Jax Miller,” Phillian said. “He’s a do-it-all running back.
“They will put in wildcat packages. He’s a fantastic runner and a capable thrower. He presents challenges for us.”
Last week, Miller carried the ball 43 times for 291 yards and four scores against the Little Prexies. He also played every snap on offense and defense against Washington.
“He’s the total package,” Phillian said of Miller. “He’s got power and he’s got a variety of moves with great balance.
“He’s got the power to break tackles and he can elude defenders. He’s difficult to get on the ground.”
Avonworth is outscoring the opposition 36.6-10.3.
“They’ll show a three-down lineman look,” Phillian said. “They will play a 3-3 stack, too.
“They don’t stay in the same coverage all the time. They’ll throw different blitzes at you. They’re very multiple. They won’t let you look at just one coverage.”
Caelan Bender and Darren Miller are a strong one-two punch for Wilmington’s offensive arsenal.
Bender, a 5-10, 175-pound junior quarterback/safety, has completed 64 passes in 115 attempts for 1,274 yards with 20 touchdowns and no interceptions. Bender also has scored seven touchdowns.
“Ridgway cut it to 10 (31-21 last week) and we called a play for Caelan. He burst through the air and carried a defender for 10 yards,” Phillian said of Bender. “He will make good things good happen.”
Miller, a 5-10, 175-pound junior running back/linebacker, has amassed 1,337 yards on 166 rushes with 19 touchdowns.
“I thought Darren did an outstanding job (last week),” Phillian said. “Darren played multiple positions and he played them extremely well. I thought he saw the field really well.”
Injuries mounted in the quarterfinal last week for Wilmington. Luke Edwards (sophomore running back) and Weston Phanco (junior lineman) both sustained knee injuries and they left the game without returning.
“They’ve had doctor appointments,” Phillian said of the duo. “It seems like Luke’s is more severe. But nothing is official. We’re certainly hopeful that they can play.”
Phillian recognized what his team needs to do to qualify for a third straight trip to Hershey.
“We want to play a disciplined football game, win the turnovers and limit the penalties.
“The second thing is the tackling. Miller is difficult to bring down. I think tackling in space will be key. Offensively, it comes down to establishing the line of scrimmage. They have some big guys on the offensive line.”
Wilmington is outscoring the opposition, 43-9.7. The Greyhounds have shut out five opponents.
The winner moves on to the state championship game to battle the survivor of the Southern Columbia-Richland contest at 1 p.m. Dec. 6 at Hersheypark Stadium.