Knoch hopes to slow Mars with home-field advantage
Knoch is one of the few Class AAA football teams in the WPIAL that still plays on a natural-grass field.
Every team in the Greater Allegheny Conference has turf except for Knoch and Derry.
Being in the minority comes with its jabs.
Knoch coach Mike King often gets teased by coaches who jokingly claim that he waters down the field the night before games to muddy-up opposing game plans and that he lets the grass grow higher than U.S. Open rough at Oakmont Country Club.
“It's not like that,” King said with a laugh. “You hear those type of stories over the years. We let Mother Nature take care of our field.”
In that case, Knoch (3-3, 2-3) hopes fans will need umbrellas Friday night when No. 5 Mars (5-1, 4-1) visits Knoch Stadium.
King probably isn't going to call for help if the Fighting Planets get stuck in the mud. Knoch has prevented Mars from gaining traction in the long-time Butler County rivalry by winning the last two meetings, including a 21-0 upset of then-undefeated Mars last season.
If the field can help, so be it.
“I think (teams with grass) feel like there's a home-field advantage,” King said. “The thing is today there are so many turf fields so when teams play on grass, it's like being in a foreign country. People don't know how to act.”
The Route 228 rivals, who began playing each other in the 1950s in the Butler League before joining the WPIAL, will meet for the 32nd time Friday. Knoch is 22-9 in the all-time series, which was dormant from 1983-2007.
Mars is 3-2 since the rekindle.
Although considered friendly, the rivalry never lacks emotion. Last year, Knoch's players were still talking about their win over Mars after the season.
“When you have schools that are close together like us and Mars you are bound to have some tension,” Knoch senior lineman Connor Shinsky said. “There's not magic to getting ready for this game. All you have to say is, ‘It's Mars week,' and we're ready to go.”
Some teams that play on turf get cleats to use in preparation for games on grass.
Mars doesn't plan to switch shoes but will work out this week on the grass practice field behind the high school, not at Mars Athletic Complex, which has artificial turf.
A Knoch graduate and former lineman, King has memories of the Knights planning for mud even when all teams played on grass.
“That element of the game is missing now,” King said. “I remember when you had a muddy field gameplan in place, just in case it got bad. If A, B and C aren't there, you had D and E.”
Knoch has moved the football well in recent weeks, and has done so via the run and pass. The problem has been open-ended scoring drives that are devoid of points.
Knoch has managed just nine points across the last two weeks. It was blanked by Franklin Regional last week 28-0 despite offensive success.
King has talked about the team finding an identity, although right now, the Knights are up for adjusting on the fly.
“Maybe we'll work in a new scheme here and there,” King said. “We're not a Wing-T team. We live in a world of concepts. We have concept plays out of our formations. For us, it's week-by-week.”
There are nine teams in the Greater Allegheny and five will make the playoffs. Knoch is tied for fifth with Hampton, but lost to the Talbots in Week 5.
“It's a three-game season for us and it starts with Mars,” King said. “Our kids always get excited to play this game.”
Mars has cruised to five straight wins following a season-opening loss to Franklin Regional. The Planets are averaging a conference-best 39 points per game and allowing 9.2.
Mars can makes teams envious with its efficiency.
“You see it in their seventh- and eighth-grade programs,” King said. “Their kids play disciplined football. You don't see a lot of blown coverages and things like that.”
Mars is powered by junior running back Josh Schultheis, who has rushed for 903 yards and 12 touchdowns. In last year's game against Knoch, he was limited to 72 yards on 17 carries and Knoch recorded six sacks while holding Mars to just 150 yards of total offense.