Nov. 9—Third-seeded Windber began the week as a decided underdog against top-seeded, undefeated Northern Bedford County entering Thursday's District 5 Class 1A championship game.
The Ramblers' task became even more challenging with the suspension of four players due to "a technology violation in the school," according to coach Matt Grohal.
Defending district champion Windber (8-3) and Northern Bedford County (11-0) will play at 7 p.m. Thursday at Somerset Area High School. The game is a rematch of 2022's title contest, which the Ramblers won 14-0 in upset fashion.
"We've got a couple kids who are going to be suspended for the game, a technology violation in the school," Grohal said. "They are suspended three days from school. Our team rules, our school rules, are if you get suspended, you don't participate.
"It's unfortunate that it had to happen this week, but there are some things that are bigger than football. There are life lessons to be learned here.
"We're going to go down there with what we think is a competitive team and give them our best shot."
Grohal said that because the suspended players are minors, he is not permitted to name them publicly or expand upon the reason for the suspensions. He said their absence will be noticeable because apparently at least some of them have significant roles.
"We just had a 20-minute meeting with the guys," Grohal said after Tuesday's practice at Windber Stadium. "We told them, 'Everything you do, especially during football season, is just magnified.' "
Grohal said in the internet and social media age, all students — and especially student-athletes — need to make wise decisions and avoid potential online trouble spots.
Being a student-athlete, he said, comes with responsibilities as well as an opportunity to set a positive example. Poor decisions come at a cost.
"Football is the ultimate sport. It's western Pennsylvania Football," the coach said. "You talk about football across the country and it's the most popular sport. All eyes are always on us, especially when you're winning like we are. People are always trying to take you down."
Windber beat second-seeded North Star 41-20 on Friday in a district semifinal to reach the championship game.
On the field, both Windber and Northern Bedford County have displayed resiliency while contending with injuries throughout the Inter-County Conference South schedule.
Northern Bedford County lost three key players during the first week of the season against Southern Huntingdon — in a game that was halted at halftime due to injuries on both teams.
The Black Panthers remained on track, welcoming back players such as senior running back Adam Johnson (820 rushing yards, 14 touchdowns), fullback Aaron Deterline and tight end/linebacker Rece Dibert.
"I'm really proud of my team and how they persevered early in the year," Northern Bedford County coach Garry Black said. "It was one thing after another, week after week."
Johnson leads the team in rushing. Senior quarterback Eion Snider is second with 512 rushing yards and 11 TDs. Snider has completed 105 of 170 passes for 1,616 yards, 19 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
Junior receiver Aaron Bowers has 38 catches for 608 yards and seven TDs, and senior Ben Gable has 37 receptions for 559 yards and eight TDs.
Northern Bedford County defeated Windber 35-6 in Week 9, but the Ramblers were playing without a number of injured starters. Many of those had returned in recent weeks, although Luke Hostetler, who led the area in rushing yards and TDs through four weeks, hasn't returned to the lineup.
"Our first meeting this year was a little off," Black said prior to the announcement that the circumstances will be similar again this week. "They were without a lot of guys.
"We both had to deal without some of our superstars. I feel bad for Luke Hostetler, having been out (nearly) the entire season. You don't want to see that in this game for any team. That's a bummer."
The Black Panthers have outscored 11 opponents by a cumulative 416-140 tally.
Only two teams have scored more than 20 points against Northern Bedford County — Tussey Mountain in a 62-28 rout and North Star in a back-and-forth 35-34 game.
"Offensively, we've done well," Black said.
"Defensively, sometimes those points came against our jayvee guys. Defensively, I'm happy with where we're at right now.
"Offensively, we have that capability of scoring in the 40s.
"You get to this time of year, you can't have a dud. You have to play really good football. A dud lands you in a spot where you're turning in your football equipment on Monday."
Mike Mastovich is a sports reporter and columnist for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 814-532-5083. Follow him on Twitter @Masty81.