From 122 teams at the start of the season, Division VI football has narrowed to its 16 best. For the second-straight year, that group includes the Calvert Senecas.
After losing 15 seniors from last year's Sweet 16 team, there were those the doubted the Senecas could duplicate that effort. Now, one year later, Calvert is right back where it left off in 2011- the regional semifinals.
"Sports are about learning life lessons," Calvert coach Todd Fox said. "I think this season we've learned a lot of different lessons and we've kept improving and overcoming a lot of obstacles throughout the season. We find our self in a great situation again this year."
Calvert will kickoff at 7:30 tonight against McComb at Millbury Lake High School. It's the second time Calvert will line up across from the Panthers this year. In the season opener, McComb came into Frost-Kalnow Stadium and left with a 48-21 victory.
Normally in the playoffs, you run into teams you usually don't see in the regular season. However, this is the second-straight week Calvert will be in a rematch situation. In last week's opening round of the playoffs, it knocked off Norwalk St. Paul for the second time this season.
This time, Calvert looks to score a measure of revenge. Fox says he feels his team has greatly improved over the last 11 weeks.
"Obviously you like playing different teams, but playing the same teams doesn't bother you because that way you can gauge how each team has improved," he said. "We just look to go out and give them our best game. They're a very good football team. But we feel that we've improved and we match up pretty well with them.
"You look back in that game, there was a lot of big plays, a lot of mistakes on both sides of the ball," Fox said. "First game jitters if you will. We expect to play more sound, more fundamental and used what we've learned throughout the season to be better and play better.
McComb coach Kris Alge warns not to expect to see the same teams this week that matched up back in August.
"I think well see a different team and they'll see a different team too," he said. "After playing 10 games teams definitely improve. They move people around in spots and we have too."
One of the biggest differences from Week 1 to Week 12 is the gradual growth and improvement of Calvert's offensive line. The Senecas start three sophomores and two juniors up front.
"The old clich is 'it wins up front,'" Fox said. "Last game they dominated us up front on both sides of the ball. We we're starting three sophomores and two juniors at the time. Now 11 games later we feel they're much better."
Several of the Calvert players feel the improved play of the line will make the difference the second time around.
"The McComb game, they out-lined us," Calvert running back Tim Puesey said. "But we've grown a lot, we've gotten our stuff together, had really good practices. The lines playing great right now."
"This time around we're a much better team and I think we'll come out and beat them," wide receiver and defensive back Brad Iannantuono added. "As long as our line, and everyone does their jobs, we'll be fine."
The line was certainly key for the Senecas in last week's shellacking of Norwalk St. Paul. Behind the line, Calvert piled up 503 rushing yards in a 56-27 defeat of the Flyers.
Dan Kwiat rushed for 224 yards, Tyler Long added 195 and Puesey scored on an 81-yard run.
"Dan definitely, he's a big part of us," Puesey said. "He gets low; he runs through the hole, makes his cuts, does what he needs to, gets the touchdowns. Tyler, he's definitely a really elusive quarterback. He reads the keys. I can't really explain mine. I just went out there and did what I had to do. The line did everything they had to do. It was a great game, great play."
Alge lists Calvert's speed as one of his top concerns. In the first meeting, Calvert's three touchdowns each came from more than 60 yards out, two on passes from Long to Nick Warnement and the other on a Long run.
The 21 points Calvert scored against McComb were the second-most tallied against the Panthers this season. Only the 36 Liberty-Benton scored in an overtime game were more.
"We have concerns with their team speed with Long and Warnement and speed and power in the backfield," he said.
Alge also said from the game tapes he received, he's seen the growth of the team, especially the line.
"They just do things a lot faster," he said. "They were young with their lineman, sophomores and juniors Week 1. They've really improved on the speed of their lineman blocking, running zone and zone read. The quarterback is a lot more comfortable. Kwait just runs hard, picks a hole, runs hard, bounces it back.
"We need to control their speed. Week 1 they had three big plays against us. That's something we've been really emphasizing to our team. We need to eliminate big plays."
McComb is more than capable of hitting big plays of its own from a lot of numerous weapons, none greater than Jerry Brown. Brown's totaled 1,969 in 10 games this year, 1,307 rushing and 552 receiving. Cody Wilson isn't too shabby of a second option. Wilson's racked up 1,733 yards, 693 on the ground and 751 receiving. The duo has combined for 50 touchdowns, Brown 27 and Wilson 23.
Brown is the one that makes the Panther offense go, but Fox knows the back can't be the sole focus of Calvert's defense.
"He's obviously an excellent player, but like we learned in our game, they have other guys too that hurt us," he said. "So honestly this week we've just kind of taken to McComb as a team and see what we can do from there."
"We're going to have to mix it up a lot," Iannantuono said. "They got a lot of good players, we just got to stay with them and keep them contained."
The deeper you go into the playoffs, the tougher the challenges are you face. Calvert will have its hands full against a team that pitched five shutouts on the year and is averaging 47 points offensively.
However, Calvert feels the talent and the tools are there to knock off the state's No. 2 ranked team.
"The key is going to be teamwork," Puesey said. "When we come together us a group, we're unstoppable. As long as wee feed off each other and know what we're doing, and everyone's doing their job, we'll win."