Ligonier Valley prepares for different Cambria Heights team
The Ligonier Valley football team has walked off the field disappointed only one time over the past two seasons — at the PIAA Class 2A semifinals in 2016.
The Rams' goal this season is to win one more game than last year's team to punch a ticket to the PIAA championship game Dec. 8 in Hershey.
But to accomplish that, the Rams (11-0) have to survive some tough opponents over the next few weeks, starting Friday at home against streaking Cambria Heights in the District 6 semifinals. The Highlanders (8-3) stroll into the valley with a five-game winning streak.
“We're playing our best football of the season now,” Cambria Heights coach Jarrod Lewis said. “We've come together as a team and are playing with confidence. We're doing the little things well.”
The two squads squared off in the opening round of the 2016 playoffs, and Ligonier Valley won 37-0.
But the Highlanders' offense is much different this year. They are throwing the ball more. Senior quarterback Brandon Bearer has completed 82 of 147 passes for 1,330 yards and eight touchdowns.
They no longer are relying on a ground-and-pound offense.
“We can't load the box on them like we did last year and dare them to throw,” Ligonier Valley coach Roger Beitel said. “They like to push the ball downfield.”
Beitel said Bearer has three capable receivers who are making plays: Nick Brawley (31 catches, 505 yards, six touchdowns), running back Lucas Fox (24-411-2) and tight end Damon Maul (16-280).
Fox is the team's leading rusher with 700 yards and two touchdowns. Running back Alex Hite has rushed for 390 yards and a team-high eight touchdowns.
“I would say they're the best team we'll see so far,” Beitel said. “They're big, and (Evan) Bobby is the best two-way lineman in their conference. They still will play smash-mouth football.
“Defensively, they like to put pressure on you. They like to bring five or six on a blitz. Last year, Aaron Tutino had a big game against them.”
Cambria Heights has 32 quarterback sacks and 13 interceptions.
Lewis said his team must try to control Tutino and Jackson Daugherty.
“Ligonier Valley is big, physical and very fast,” Lewis said. “Even though they graduated quarterback Collin Smith (West Virginia), I'm impressed how (John) Caldwell and Daugherty are handling things. They don't turn the ball over. (Aaron) Sheeder is very good.
“We'll be better prepared for them this season. We only graduated five starters, and I'm hoping the experience will help us. I believe it will.”
Ligonier Valley opened defense of its District 6 2A title last week by racing past West Shamokin, 52-26. The result was expected; the points allowed by the Rams defense was a shocker.
Ligonier Valley had allowed only 26 points all season.
“We have some things to work on,” Beitel said. “Our kickoff coverage wasn't good, and we allowed short fields. The last two scores were against the reserves, but we'll get better.”
The Rams have been dealing with injuries. Starting quarterback Sam Sheeder was lost for the season in Week 4, and a few weeks later tackle Jacob Neiderhiser was sidelined with a knee injury. Beitel's son Zach went down in the Appalachian Bowl title game with an elbow injury.
“Of our 22 starters, I believe only three haven't been dealing with some sort of injuries,” Beitel said. “We've been battling through a lot of adversity. Our motto is next man up.”
Still, the Rams have continued to march on. Junior John Caldwell and Daugherty have shared the quarterback duties.
Caldwell has completed 62 of 88 passes for 1,135 yards and 15 touchdowns. Daugherty is 20 of 28 for 446 yards and seven touchdowns. Tutino has 45 catches for 917 yards and 15 touchdowns, and Daugherty has 32 receptions for 684 yards and eight touchdowns.
Daugherty is the leading rusher with 891 yards and 14 scores, and Aaron Sheeder has rushed for 831 and 12 touchdowns.
“Aaron (Sheeder) has been a warrior. He had his best game of the season last week,” Beitel said. “He's a punishing runner and was finishing his runs with power.
“This game is going to be won in the trenches. They like to control the line of scrimmage.”
And Beitel hopes his experienced and physical line is ready for the challenge.