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Homer-Center riding momentum after upset victories

Paul Schofield
| Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017, 1:12 p.m.
Homer-Center's Mike McCracken (35) runs the ball against Ligonier Valley in the fourth quarter on Friday Oct. 06, 2017 at Homer-Central.
Christian Tyler Randolph | Tribune-Review
Homer-Center's Mike McCracken (35) runs the ball against Ligonier Valley in the fourth quarter on Friday Oct. 06, 2017 at Homer-Central.
Homer-Center's Jesse Lee (34) reacts to a fumble by Homer-Center's Ben Schmidt (3) in the first quarter on Friday Oct. 06, 2017 at Homer-Center.
Christian Tyler Randolph | Tribune-Review
Homer-Center's Jesse Lee (34) reacts to a fumble by Homer-Center's Ben Schmidt (3) in the first quarter on Friday Oct. 06, 2017 at Homer-Center.
Homer-Center's Jesse Lee (34) runs the ball against Ligonier Valley in the first quarter on Friday Oct. 06, 2017 at Homer-Central.
Christian Tyler Randolph | Tribune-Review
Homer-Center's Jesse Lee (34) runs the ball against Ligonier Valley in the first quarter on Friday Oct. 06, 2017 at Homer-Central.
Homer-Center's Mike McCracken (35) runs the ball against Ligonier Valley in the fourth quarter on Friday Oct. 06, 2017 at Homer-Central.
Christian Tyler Randolph | Tribune-Review
Homer-Center's Mike McCracken (35) runs the ball against Ligonier Valley in the fourth quarter on Friday Oct. 06, 2017 at Homer-Central.

Homer-Center football coach Greg Page said it has been a little crazy around Homer City and Center Township in Indiana County the past few weeks and rightfully so.

The Wildcats will try to finish off what has been described as a “Cinderella season” when they play WPIAL champion Jeannette in the PIAA Class A title game Thursday.

The craziness hit its peak Nov. 24 when Homer-Center knocked off three-time defending PIAA champion Bishop Guilfoyle, 20-14, in the District 6 championship game to snap the team's 59-game winning streak. It continued last week when the Wildcats took down District 3 champion Steelton-Highspire, 20-14.

But to end this dream season, Homer-Center (13-1) must take down another traditional power, the WPIAL's all-time winningest team, Jeannette (14-1), at 1 p.m. at Hersheypark Stadium.

Jeannette moved past New Castle on the WPIAL's all-time wins list by defeating District 10 champion Farrell, 17-6, in the PIAA semifinals. The Jayhawks now have 735 victories. This is the Jayhawks' third trip to the state finals, winning in 2007 by defeating Dunmore and falling in 2006 to Wilson.

“It's been exciting to play these teams,” said Page, a 1987 graduate of Laurel Valley where he played for his dad, Jerry. “We keep building on the momentum, and we have one more step to go.

“I've admired the Jeannette program over the years. I can't say enough about their program. They have tremendous athletes and play tough football.”

So does Homer-Center, which is the first Heritage Conference team to reach the championship game. Ligonier Valley, the District 6 Class 2A champion the past two seasons and only team to defeat the Wildcats this season (35-6), reached the semifinals in 2016 before losing to Southern Columbia, and Page's dad's 1993 Laurel Valley team fell to Duquesne in the semifinals. Penns Manor reached the semifinals in 2013.

Page recalls how tough it was to see his dad's team lose to a good Duquesne squad, 25-12. He hopes he doesn't experience the same feeling.

“It was heart-breaking,” Greg Page said. “We're riding the momentum right now, and we want to keep it going for one more game.”

Homer-Center is an old-time ground-and-pound team. The Wildcats have a huge offensive line and used that size to rush for 322 yards against Steelton-Highspire. The Rollers also hurt themselves with turnovers and numerous unsportsmanlike conduct penalties.

Running behind that line is the one-two punch of seniors Jesse Lee and Michael McCracken.

Lee rushed for 125 yards and two touchdowns against Steelton-Highspire and McCracken for 126 yards and a score.

Lee has carried the ball 205 times for 1,376 yards and 21 touchdowns while McCracken has 166 carries for 1,099 and 13 scores.

Freshman quarterback Ben Schmidt has completed 73 of 133 passes for 1,099 yards and eight touchdowns. He's thrown nine interceptions, including three last week against Steelton-Highspire when he completed only 2 of 8 passes for 17 yards.

“These guys love to play the game,” Page said. “They are loose and focused.”

Page said he hopes playing Steelton-Highspire and its athletes prepared them for an athletic Jeannette team, led by Robert Kennedy.

“They have more than just Kennedy,” Page said. “He's a tremendous player and makes them go, but you also have to worry about (Seth) Howard, (Marcus) Barnes and (Tre) Cunningham.”

With the schools only 35 miles apart, Page said some of his fans don't understand why two teams from Western Pennsylvania are playing for the state title in Hershey. Some fans wonder why this game isn't played somewhere between the schools.

“Our fans are football crazy like the Jeannette fans,” Page said. “I'm sure the game would draw a lot of casual fans to it if it were closer. It's great to have such fan support from the communities.”

Paul Schofield is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at pschofield@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Schofield_Trib.

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