Nobody said it would be easy.
It wasn’t easy for the Derry Area football team last Friday, but the Trojans held on for their first victory of the season, defeating Freeport Area at Derry Stadium during their WPIAL Class 3A Big East Conference opener.
It won’t get any easier for the Trojans this Friday when they step out of conference play for a 7 p.m. road exhibition tilt at South Park. Derry Area also could be without standout lineman Max Malis.
“I don’t think Max is going to play this week,” Derry Area coach Tim Sweeney said. “We won’t know for sure until (today).”
Malis led the way on defense during DA’s 35-27 victory against Freeport Area on Friday. He had two sacks, a fumble recovery and a significant 13-yard tackle for loss on second-and-1 in the third quarter, forcing a punt.
Malis left the game with 11:24 to play in the fourth quarter with a right ankle injury. It’s the second significant loss for the Trojans, as lineman Justin Fallat is out for the season with a knee injury.
“(Malis) is another senior captain,” Sweeney said. “We lost Fallat, who is a two-way starter, and now you’re losing Max as a two-way starter. It’s hard when your numbers are low and you don’t have much depth.”
Sweeney said Derry Area started the season with 36 players, but injuries have affected the Trojans in the early part of the season.
“When you’re limited in terms of your depth, now you’re asking a sophomore to go two ways when most of the guys who are seniors haven’t gone two ways their entire careers,” Sweeney said. “That’s a tough spot for a sophomore.”
The Trojans prevailed against Freeport Area following a season-opening home loss against backyard rival Greater Latrobe. Derry Area raced out to a 28-point lead and then held on down the stretch, shutting out a late Freeport Area charge to hang on for an eight-point win.
“It was good to get on the winning track,” Sweeney said. “I think we played better and with more of a sense of urgency against Freeport. It was a tough game, but we’re onto South Park, so we have to turn the page and continue to get better.”
Derry Area avoided losing back-to-back games since Sept. 4 and Sept. 11 in 2015, against Washington at home, and at Mount Pleasant, respectively. The Trojans also avoided dropping consecutive home games since the 2015 season, as well — vs. Washington on Sept. 4 and Laurel on Sept. 25.
Derry Area scored four of the first five touchdowns against Freeport Area, jumping out to a 28-7 lead only to watch the advantage nearly evaporate as the Yellow Jackets closed the game with three of the last four scores.
“The kids are gutting it out right now,” Sweeney said. “We had to gut it out because of our depth.
“It’s going to be that type of season based on our numbers. We’re a team that has to play with a lot of guts.”
Justin Huss guided Derry Area offensively against Freeport Area with 33 carries for 259 yards and four of the Trojans’ five touchdowns. He set the tone with 12 carries for 127 yards and two touchdowns in the first quarter alone. Huss also had a third-quarter interception defensively, which led to his third touchdown of the game.
“That’s what you get out of Huss,” Sweeney said. “You’re going to have an outstanding effort from him because he’s very athletic. He carried over 30 times, which is probably a few too many, but he’s a workhorse and he does it on both sides of the ball.”
Sweeney would like to have the luxury of giving Huss a break, particularly on offense. He said the Trojans are currently looking for others who can step up and run the ball. Matt McDowell rushed eight times for 32 yards against Freeport Area while Amari Graham and Mike Kelly also had carries.
Sweeney seeks to cut down on fumbles, as the Trojans have fumbled five times in the first two games, including two that were lost in the opener against Greater Latrobe.
“We need more guys who are able to carry the ball without fumbling,” Sweeney said. “We got them all back against Freeport, but you can’t fumble the ball. If you’re going to fumble, you’re not going to carry the ball.
“We need to find guys in practice who will carry the ball because ball security is paramount to us, and that’s where it starts. After that, it’s hitting the holes in the line and things like that. We’re hoping to bring some younger kids along for the purpose of getting Huss some rest.”
Sweeney was happy with his quarterback, Paul Koontz, who was an efficient five of eight for 53 yards and a three-yard rushing touchdown against Freeport Area. Koontz went 11 of 17 with a touchdown and three interceptions against Greater Latrobe.
“Paul made good decisions on Friday,” Sweeney said. “His touchdown was initially a pass, but the receiver wasn’t open, so he didn’t force anything. He took it and ran with it. I was much more pleased this week than after the Latrobe game.”
Sweeney was also pleased with his defense despite the second-half lapse.
“They were tired in the second half,” Sweeney said. “That was the biggest difference.”
The Trojans forced a three-and-out to start the game and immediately capitalized with a touchdown for an early lead. The Trojans forced a punt on Freeport Area’s second series and other first-half drives ended with two fumbles and an interception.
“We were very pleased to be able to kick off, go three plays and out, go down the field and score,” Sweeney said. “That’s an ideal start to the game. We put ourselves in good position early in the game, we got momentum and it ended up working out pretty well for us.”
The Trojans forced a punt and interception to start the second half, but Freeport Area scored on its next three possessions to make it close. Garret Schaffhauser rushed 21 times for 100 yards and threw for 265 yards passing. He scored three total touchdowns, two passing and a rushing score.
“We need to do a better job X’s- and O’s-wise in some of our pass coverage,” Sweeney said. “We were rushing three guys based on formations and we weren’t bringing the pressure that we needed to bring.”
Sweeney said the Trojans have looked at two South Park scrimmages and the Eagles’ first game against Beaver Falls.
“They’re always well-coached, disciplined, and ready to play,” Sweeney said. “Their defense is very sound, and they don’t misalign. We have to try to find a way to get them on their heels when they’re on offense.”
Beaver Falls defeated South Park, 34-7, last Friday in the conference opener for both teams. Rudy Mihoces started the game with a five-yard touchdown run for South Park, but Beaver Falls scored the next 34 points, including a 27-point breakout second quarter.
“Beaver Falls is very athletic,” Sweeney said. “South Park had early opportunities and didn’t capitalize.
“I think that score could’ve been a lot closer than what it was. We’re obviously not as athletic as Beaver Falls, but it’s going to be a tough football contest at South Park on Friday.”
Mihoces rushed 15 times for 38 yards and caught one pass for 16 yards against Beaver Falls. Stephen Kmonk completed three of 18 passes for 38 yards and rushed three times for 16 yards.
Kmonk and Mihoces lead an experienced South Park group that features 10 seniors and nine returning starters. Mihoces rushed for 631 yards and seven touchdowns last season while Kmonk threw for 761 yards, eight scores and four interceptions, as the Eagles finished 2-7 and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2015.
The Trojans have three straight wins against South Park, including a 27-6 home victory last season and a 43-0 shutout at South Park in 2017.
“I’m more focused on what they’re doing now, not so much a year or two years ago,” Sweeney said. “We have two scrimmages and a game against Beaver Falls. They’re going to tip their hand because they want to win their conference game, so we took what they were doing against Beaver Falls as what they are going to do against us.”
The Trojans will find out on Friday when they take to the road for the first time against South Park.
“Everybody is going to go on the road sooner or later,” Sweeney said. “This is our first business trip of the season, and most of the kids have been through it before. We’ll pack our bags, and when we get down there, we’ll get through pregame warmup and play football.”