In football, it can be the loneliest place on the field. No protection and no teammates in sight, just you on an island in the open field against an approaching ball carrier.
When State College (1-1) hosts Martinsburg (2-0) on Friday, the three-time defending West Virginia Class AAA state champion’s zone-blocking scheme will likely force the Little Lions to make solo, open-field tackles.
Corralling a shifty runner on your own can be a tricky proposition, but senior linebacker Zach Damian enjoys the challenge.
“It’s a great feeling because it’s just you and him and everyone’s watching,” Damian said. “It’s up to you if you make it or break it. It’s just one of the greatest feelings to hit him, hit him hard and take him to the ground.”
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Opportunities could be plentiful Friday night at Memorial Field.
Martinsburg quarterback Malique Watkins rushed for a game-high 119 yards and two touchdowns in a victory over Sherando last weekend. The Bulldogs, who have lost only one game in the last three seasons, held a 20-0 advantage in the third quarter before Sherando made it respectable in the fourth.
Eric Brown and Deamonte Lindsay are also speedsters that can change the game with one play.
That’s where Damian and the Little Lions defense must step up.
“He’s a strong kid,” head coach Al Wolski said of Damian. “Probably our strongest kid (Last year) he was a little suspect in making reads, but this year he’s been a really pleasant surprise as an inside linebacker.”
Damian intercepted a pass and forced a fumble in last week’s 71-28 victory over Central Mountain.
After playing behind starter Ryan Goeke as a junior, Damian hit the weight room in preparation for what he hopes is a memorable senior season.
He is getting plenty of help from teammates thus far. Fellow senior linebacker Ben Roeshot helps to direct traffic and adjust reads, while senior defensive ends Pat Begg and Lon Koudela anchor the front.
Wolski has been pleased with some of his defense’s play, but lapses on long-yardage plays are an area of concern.
The Little Lions gave up several third-and-long, and even fourth-and-long conversions to Central Mountain.
Damian took responsibility for some of those breakdowns saying, “I think it’s just mental, really.”
Attention to detail will also be a key for the State College offense.
Quarterback Patrick Irwin and Anthony Paffie-Misher led an explosive attack last week. Irwin threw for two scores and Paffie-Misher added another on a halfback toss that found John Weakland.
Paffie-Misher also added rushing and receiving touchdowns. Sophomore Jordan Misher also chipped in with 73 yards rushing on eight carries and two scores.
Seniors Paffie-Misher and Irwin both praised the offensive line for creating gaping lanes, however the Little Lions will have a much more difficult test this week.
As talented as its offensive is, Martinsburg’s defense is equally skilled. And while the prescription for success is simple, the execution won’t be.
“Blocking them,” Wolski said. “There’s no question about it. Being able to block them. They are fast. They’re pretty much the same guys who play offensively.”
Wolski said Jordan Good has been a leader on the offensive line. Jake Stauffer and Austin Peck will also be critical up front.
However, if the team needs an open-field tackle to secure the game, Damian will stick to the fundamentals.
“I always try to read his hips and figure out if he’s trying to cut back or full-out sprint to the side,” he said. “I was taught to stay half a man behind that way if he cuts back you’re right there.”
That willingness to make a big play sounds born from what motivated him this offseason.
“I guess it was me kind of realizing that this was my last year of high school football and could be my last year of football ever,” he said. “And I want to make it my best season.”