It's a typical November for the Bellwood-Antis High School football program.
As has been the case so many times before, the Blue Devils have completed another successful regular season with push deep into the playoffs, centered on a highly productive running game.
There is a bit of a tweak in the story's script this year, though. Bellwood is accomplishing that with one of its smaller, least-experienced offensive lines.
Photo for the Mirror by Manning Photography
Keith Shawley (64) and Ethan Hunter (75) have helped Bellwood-Antis reach the state playoffs.
Devil ballcarriers once again will count on that unusual unit to continue its development as it takes on District 3 champion Delone Catholic on Friday night at Mansion Park in the PIAA Class A quarterfinals.
"We expect the other team to be bigger than us," guard Keith Shawley said. "If we can't beat them in size, we beat them in other ways."
At 223 pounds, Shawley is the biggest member of the starting quintet. He's also the only senior and one of two returning starters in the group, the other being junior center Kyler Maceno (5-foot-11, 215 pounds).
Juniors Ethan Hunter (6-3, 185), Ryan Snyder (5-9, 210) and Nick Torsell (5-9, 160) round out the group. Hunter and Snyder are the tackles. Torsell mans the other guard spot.
"We've got a lot of heart," Maceno said. "We just try to hit them hard and hit them first. We might have a smaller line, but we have a lot of strength on the line."
Whatever the reason, it's working out for the Blue Devils. They head into this week's game averaging 262.7 yards per game rushing and have surpassed 350 yards on the ground in two of their three playoff contests - including a 354-yard outburst against Bishop McCort and its formidable defensive front in last week's District 6 championship game.
Bellwood averages more than 6 yards per rushing attempt. Tailback Casey Gray is second in the area with 1,623 yards, while slotback Haden DeGennaro has netted 553 yards and averages close to 10 yards per carry.
Not bad considering veteran B-A coach John Hayes saw the line play the team's biggest question mark heading into the season.
"The line is all about cohesiveness. It doesn't work until all the parts are working in the same direction. It's been a little bit of a work process, but we're getting better," Hayes said. "We're a lot better now than we were in September. It's still a work in progress.
Hunter acknowledged that it's not always been an easy process. Even though he saw a great deal of playing time on defense as a sophomore, there's a lot or responsibility, tradition and expectations to shoulder as a starting offensive lineman for Bellwood.
"I was nervous. I knew I had a starting spot. I knew I had to fight to keep my starting spot," Hunter said. "I was nervous. It was more about me being big enough against the kids I knew I had to face. I knew I had to push myself and strive to do what I knew what needed to be done."
Hunter isn't the prototypical small school offensive tackle. Although his height is tremendous, his weight hasn't caught up yet. He's been forced to find other ways to adapt and excel.
"I use more of my arms - they're pretty long - to push people away, and I have a lot of lower body strength. If I get into someone, I just keep driving my feet as fast as I can," Hunter said.
The other Devil linemen have had to make similar adjustments. Shawley, Maceno and Torsell all are wrestlers and know how to use leverage to their advantage against larger opponents. Torsell boasts above-average quickness, while Hunter also is agile. Snyder's calling card is strength.
"We have, I think, one of the fastest lines off the ball," Shawley said.
Shawley, as the senior, has been the acknowledged ringleader of the bunch. However, that wasn't a natural fit. It took a conscious effort for him to fill that role.
"I was a laid-back kid. Whenever I played, I was never a kid that would get fired up. I knew coming into this year I was going to be that senior. I was going to be the guy on the line that everyone was going to be looking up to for guidance," Shawley said. "Anyone that watches our pregame can always tell the line is the most fired-up group. I just figured it was going to be my responsibility. I knew since last year this was going to be a change I had to make. I think I took to it rather well."
Shawley said it's helped in his transition that he already was close to the other starting linemen. In addition to being on the wrestling team with Maceno and Torsell, Torsell also throws on the track and field team with Shawley. Snyder and he have grown up together, and Hunter and Shawley attend the same church.
"We hang out even outside of football," Shawley said.
Still, Shawley wasn't sure what to expect heading into the season.
"I knew we were going to have to step it up. I thought the line was going to be one of our weak spots. We did lose a lot of starters, and they all were big players for us," Shawley said. "Some of our younger kids really stepped up."
Hayes said, surprisingly, that he and the coaching staff haven't approached building this year's line any differently than in the past, in spite of its different make-up. Bellwood still runs its staple sweeps around the end, its traps up the middle and its counters and occasional double handoffs to the slotback, just as it has year after year under Hayes.
It probably isn't coincidental that the Devils devote a lot of coaching resources into line development. Bill Crowell, Scott Boyer and Rich Schreier all tutor offensive linemen.
"I was pretty confident, because our line coaches are all good coaches. They tell us the right stuff to do," said Maceno, who moved up from junior high as a freshman and has been working with this staff for three years now.
Maceno credits a lot of his success to channeling emotions and getting up for games to overcome any size disadvantage. It seems to be doing the trick.
"They just play a little bigger than they are," Hayes said.
In other words, sometimes it isn't the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog.
"A lot of it is how bad you want it," Shawley said. "If you're not bigger, if you're not stronger, if you want it more, you'll beat the man ahead of you. I think our linemen are proof of it."