With playoff positioning at stake, longtime conference foes Deer Lakes, Freeport to face off
Freeport appreciated the five weeks of conference play for what it provided: a chance to play a quintet of unfamiliar opponents in the newly recalibrated Class 3A Big East.
That being said, there’s nothing quite like a backyard rival -- one like Deer Lakes, which awaits Freeport (2-3, 2-3) for a Big East game that could help determine a playoff spot.
“We get to (play) somebody that we’re used to seeing a lot and we know a lot about,” Freeport senior Evan McCrea said. “It’s fun to play those rivalries over and over again. That’s what you look forward to for a season. We’re just really excited to get into it.”
As recently as 2015, Deer Lakes and Freeport played in the same Allegheny Conference with fellow Alle-Kiski Valley schools Apollo-Ridge, Burrell, Highlands and Valley.
Two rounds of realignment under the PIAA’s six-classification system wiped out many of those conference rivalries, leaving Burrell, Deer Lakes and Freeport as the three remaining schools from that super-sized conference. A three-week round robin between the three schools began last week, with Deer Lakes beating Burrell; Freeport will host Burrell next week after visiting Deer Lakes on Friday.
Freeport and Deer Lakes (3-2, 3-2) share a long history, with 44 all-time meetings, and the rivalry extends beyond football to baseball, basketball, soccer, softball, volleyball and so on.
“We’ve both grown, and we’ve both shrunk at the same time,” Deer Lakes coach Tim Burk said. “We always stay in the same conference. We never go separate ways. And I think it’s something where you play each other in every sport, games are sometimes close and sometimes blowouts. ... It’s just something that goes way back. As long as I can remember, Freeport’s always been that team, that nemesis. Burrell and Freeport were the two.”
Burk, a former Deer Lakes quarterback, played Freeport in his first varsity start in 1994, a 7-3 Lancers victory. The schools have had a number of notable games over the years, including 1998, a Freeport triple-overtime win that determined a playoff spot, and 2015, when a late blocked field goal return for a touchdown secured a win for Freeport in the final regular-season game at James E. Swartz Memorial Field.
“That was probably the most dramatic game,” Freeport coach John Gaillot said. ”... It’s always a tough game between the both of us. I expect the same thing. That’s their nature down there, like it’s ours up here.”
Aside from the rivalry, this week serves as a likely must-win for both schools if they hope to earn one of the Big East’s four postseason berths. Deer Lakes currently holds fourth place, with Freeport a game behind.
“It’s also playoff aspirations in the air,” Deer Lakes senior Jared Colton said. “So that’s in the back of my mind right now -- actually, not in the back of my mind, but right here in the front. It’s just different this week. We’ve got to get it done or be on the outside looking in. Stakes are very high right now.”
Deer Lakes is looking to end Freeport’s seven-game winning streak in the series, which includes a 31-0 shutout last season. The Lancers last defeated the Yellowjackets in 2010, and trail the all-time series 39-5.
“We just really want to get after them and get that W because we haven’t come up with a W in the past,” Colton said. “It’s been on our minds a lot. We’ve played them in almost every sport over the past few years. They’re very familiar, so we’ve got to get it done.”
Both Deer Lakes and Freeport enter Friday’s game on a two-game winning streak to put themselves in position for a potential playoff spot.
Freeport, a playoff qualifier last season, began the year with consecutive losses to Derry, North Catholic and Elizabeth Forward before rebounding with back-to-back victories over Uniontown and Yough, the latter game a 20-0 shutout that saw the Yellowjackets shut down Yough star running back Dustin Shoaf.
Offensively, Freeport is led by the one-two punch of quarterback Austin Romanchak and running back Conor Selinger, who is healthy after missing time with an ankle injury earlier this season.
“We’ve just got to be able to execute,” Burk said. “They bring a lot of guys, they do a lot of good things, and we’ve just got to be prepared. We’ve got to have a good week in practice, we’ve got to be focused. Offensively, I’ve said it before, I’ll take my athletes. I think we have some good athletes. I think we can match up with a lot of teams. Defensively, they’re sound. They are aggressive. They fly to the football. They’re very good at what they do. We’re going to have our hands full.”
Deer Lakes won three of its past four games, topping 40 points twice in two of the victories and scoring 34 in last week’s win over Burrell. Junior quarterback Aris Hasley leads the high-scoring offense, with wide receivers Colton and Ethan Bender and tight ends Jack Hollibaugh and Colin Kadlick all threats.
The Lancers also forced two red-zone turnovers and another turnover on downs in last week’s 34-21 win over Burrell.
“We’ve just got to focus on one game at a time,” Gaillot said. “Deer Lakes, they have a lot of talent. Their quarterback is very mobile, and it’s going to be a challenge. ... It’s going to be another dogfight, but it’s basically a playoff game for us. Every one for us, we have to win if we want to make playoffs.”
Gaillot mentioned the physicality both teams play with, a common theme in many rivalries, and that should only add to Friday’s game.
“There’s a lot of tension between us,” McCrea said. “We love the rivalry together, and when we play each other, it’s a lot of fun to play against them. We just don’t necessarily know if we like them as much. It’s a love-hate relationship, you could say.”