FB FRIDAY: Taking Flight, Blue Mountain looks to end District 11 playoff struggles

Nov. 4—ORWIGSBURG — When Tom Gallagher took over as the head football coach at Blue Mountain two years ago, his initial goal was to change the culture.

The former standout linebacker at North Schuylkill and Lebanon Valley College knew it would take some time. He knew that he and his staff had to change things that wouldn't show up on scoreboards and in the win/loss column right away.

Two years in, those changes are starting to show.

The Eagles secured their first winning season since 2016 with Friday's 48-0 win over backyard rival Schuylkill Haven, improving to 6-4 and clinching a District 11 Class 4A playoff berth. They'll look to capture their first District 11 playoff victory since 2007 when they travel to Bethlehem Area School District Stadium for a 1 p.m. kickoff against top-seeded Bethlehem Catholic.

"We're not really focused on numbers, per say," Gallagher said. "We look at it as ... Are we growing? Are we getting better as a team? Are we focused on taking the next step?

"We want to see it with the way we approach the game, how we approach practice and just the overall attitude of our kids and our team, how we feel as we approach the season and we approach each game. I think we're on our way to doing that.

"We take it each week that we want to get better. People look at it and want it to reflect in the scoreboard. It doesn't always do that. It's in the quality of your play. I think the quality of our play has definitely improved over the last two years."

Blue Mountain's last winning season came in 2016, when the Eagles went 9-2 and won the Eastern Conference Class 4A title. That season capped a run during which Blue Mountain went 28-6 over a three-year span, winning two Eastern Conference titles and losing in the 2015 District 11 Class 3A semifinals to Lehighton.

Since then, however, the Eagles had gone 2-8, 3-8, 5-6, 4-5 and 4-6 — a combined 18-33 — prior to this season, with three District 11 playoff losses to Bethlehem Catholic in 2018, 2019 and 2020.

Gallagher's squad entered the 2022 campaign with an extremely young roster that featured just seven seniors. Producing a winning season was a testament to the hard work put in by that senior group and the effect it had on their younger teammates.

"It's great," Gallagher said. "We wanted a winning season and we felt that if we do what we needed to do week to week, we could put ourselves in position to have a winning season.

"It's great to get a winning season because this senior class never got to experience that and they've put in the work since Day 1 that this staff took over. It's great to get that for them."

That senior group — in alphabetical order, Mason Davis, Ian Donohue, Carson Kerstetter, Adam Morrow, James Seaman, Kreese Stablein and Derek Walasavage — have all played integral parts in the Eagles' success this season.

Morrow, who starts at right guard, said the change in the team's culture is a reflection of the coaching staff.

"I'm so proud of that," the 5-foot-11, 210-pounder said of having a winning season. "I couldn't be more thankful to have these teammates and this coaching staff. This coaching staff has put unbelievable hours into this team. They've put together a great plan to get to where we are today and I'm very proud to be a part of it."

Blue Mountain's season had several ups and downs, from thrilling last-second victories over Jim Thorpe and Bangor, to heartbreaking defeats to Southern Lehigh and Saucon Valley.

The Eagles' season turned, however, with a 17-0 victory over Pottsville in the annual Route 61 Rivalry game Sept. 16 at the Eagles' Nest.

Blue Mountain had lost its starting quarterback, Will Jacobson, to a season-ending leg injury in a Week 3 loss to Northwestern Lehigh. Gallagher and his staff decided to move arguably the team's best athlete, Tyler Miller, to quarterback. The move paid off, as a new-found running attack produced a key victory over the Tide and sparked a 5-2 finish to the season.

"We played hard against Northwestern Lehigh," Gallagher said of that 30-3 loss to the Tigers. "The score in that game doesn't accurately reflect the competitiveness of it. We were down 6-3 at half and we made some crucial errors that end up making the score what it was. But we had guys battling all game.

"After that game, we came together and said, 'What happened is unfortunate, but it's the reality. Everybody has to step up. Everyone has to give more.' We went with Tyler to lead our offense. All of these guys have stepped up," Gallagher said.

"That was a huge turning point in our season. It's either you lay down in that game, we could potentially maybe only win a game or two after that. After that game we walked out feeling reassured that we were going the right way and we're going to find a way to make this season something special."

Miller and fellow junior Payton Fasnacht have teamed to form a dominating running attack for the Eagles, with Fasnacht gaining 883 yards and scoring 10 touchdowns and Miller running for 689 yards and 10 scores.

The Eagles don't throw it much, as Miller has completed 28-of-59 passes for 512 yards and five touchdowns, but his athleticism and his ability to make plays have provided a gigantic jolt to the Blue Mountain offense.

"Tyler is just an incredible leader," Gallagher said. "He's an athlete and you have to get the ball in his hands. He's making plays for us, he's extending drives.

"It helped our entire team, because they all felt some more ownership. Guys have stepped up, making names for themselves and showing they belong on the field."

A second turning point came in a Week 9 game at Bangor, where the Eagles trailed 20-7 and were stuffed at the goal line with just under 5 minutes remaining. But a safety, a touchdown pass from Miller to Fasnacht, an onside kick and a Miller touchdown run over the last four minutes gave the Eagles a thrilling 21-20 victory that essentially pushed them into the district playoffs.

"That was really exciting," Miller said. "That was probably one of my favorite moments ever in football. That was crazy. I just took it one play at a time. When it was over I looked up at the scoreboard and went, 'Holy cow, we just did that.'"

Gallagher said the Eagles' ability to come back and win that game reflected the team's culture.

"Those games were huge for us. We look back at them and call them culture games, because they reinforce everything that we're preaching here about our culture," Gallagher said. "It shows all that the kids are improving and progressing and what we're doing is working. If we continue to do that, we're only going to get better.

"The Bangor game, we're down 13 with 4 minutes left, they get the ball back, a lot of teams are hanging their heads. We're still out there, we're still going, find a way. They did that. Those kids lifted each other up, stuck together and found a way to win. It was good to see.

"You can tell they're buying into everything and we're going the right way."

The Eagles' biggest area of improvement has come on the offensive line. Gallagher said his staff has used six or seven different lineups up front before settling on a group that includes freshman Dylan Foose (5-11, 184), sophomores Cole Wargo (6-0, 255) and Nick Beckfield (6-1, 205), Morrow and junior Trevor Manbeck (6-2, 265).

Blue Mountain has also gotten better defensively, where linebackers Kerstetter (38 tackles), junior Vern Kleckner (86 tackles) and sophomore Lukas Kauffman (69 tackles) have had big seasons. Those three, combined with solid play up front by Donohue (6 sacks) and junior defensive end Austyn Fields (5.5 sacks), have led a unit that is only allowing 15 points per game.

"Those guys, they symbolize everything we preach defensively," Gallagher said. "They're relentless to the football. They have pride in our defense and they like to make play. They're physical kids. They're fast, they're strong, they're dedicated to the weight room. They listen, they're students of the game. When we're on defense, they're excited. They love playing defense."

Gallagher said this year's squad has several similarities to Blue Mountain's 2007 squad, which went 6-4 in the regular season, then defeating Allentown Central Catholic and Northwestern Lehigh to win the program's last District 11 crown. That team then lost to Penn State-bound Matt McGloin and West Scranton in the first round of the PIAA playoffs.

Blue Mountain, however, hasn't won a District 11 playoff game since, going 0-6. Getting that monkey off their backs would allow the Eagles to take one more step and enhance the culture even further.

"We want to progress in the playoffs. We want to win playoff games. We feel we're in position to do that," Gallagher said. "We think that the guys that we have, if we stick together, we can find a way to win a playoff game and do something in the playoffs."

Added Morrow: "It would be amazing for us to get a district playoff win and it would be great for this new coaching staff for them to show that this new program is def moving in the correct direction. I can say that it is moving in the right direction. We're building a new culture."

Contact the writer: Lboyer@republicanherald.com; 570-628-6026; @pubsportsboss on Twitter