There are still no words that could describe the season that the Clearfield Bison experienced on the gridiron last year. A season that was to begin in August got delayed until September, then stopped, and started again. By the time any momentum and joy was achieved, the season ended. The Covid-19 pandemic took a lot out of the Bison last year, not just from their play on the field, but emotion off the field as well.
Although the Bison were able to achieve another District IX championship, it just felt different. Head coach Tim Janocko was asked after one of his games if the word to use during the season was “adapt.” His response, “That is the perfect way to describe it.”
A season that only saw six games take place, four of them being the regular season, did see the Bison finish with a 4-2 record, keeping their streak of winning records going at 25 consecutive years. But, nothing came easy last year because of the pandemic and Covid-19 restrictions changing almost weekly. Clearfield began their season against Penns Valley, cruising to the victory, but doing so with none of their fans there to support them. Suddenly, the next two games were off because of confirmed cases. The team recovered to win two of their next three games, and then had to immediately adapt into post-season mode against St. Marys.
The 41-30 win on that Saturday afternoon gave them the Class AAA championship, but their season came to an abrupt end one week later against Bedford.
This year, the Bison are focused straight ahead, forgetting about the uncertainty of last year and are looking to get back to a familiar feeling, with a familiar season.
Clearfield is coming back with a slew of experience thanks to a massive senior class, along with 11 returning lettermen. That experience is exactly what the Bison are leaning on for the 2021 campaign, and hopes are extremely high for success, from the coaching staff all the way through the community that has been behind them through all these difficult times. The opposition is going to have a difficult time with this group of Bison. Let’s look at how the 2021 team shapes up on both sides of the ball.
It was evident throughout the short season that the Clearfield Bison defense was one of the top squads in the entire Mountain League. Giving up just over 20 points per game is deceiving as three of those games saw Clearfield hold the opposition to 14 points or less, including the season-opening shutout.
What this team was hungry for a season ago was takeaways. Clearfield forced 12 turnovers a season ago, including nine interceptions. Even that statistic, however, is a bit deceiving, because only half of those picks were from the secondary. Four of those interceptions came from the defensive line, showing that the tip drill during practices was paying dividends. All four lineman that got those interceptions are returning this season for their senior campaign. Hayden Kovalick, Josh Steele, Isaac Samsel and Shane Coudriet are getting another chance to force the opposing offense to make mistakes. Coudriet himself had the biggest interception of the season in the game against St. Marys when he would rumble to the end zone, putting a stamp on the Bison victory.
The biggest loss on defense that Clearfield is needing to fill is that of Nick Domico, who led the team with 57 tackles through six games. Can that be done?
Statistically, it surely can. Kovalick and Samsel combined for 56 tackles last season, and it is likely these two will be the key to the front seven. Oliver Billotte also returns at defensive end and linebacker, adding in 14 tackles from a season ago.
In the secondary, Karson Kline and Nate Natoli return to give some experience on the outside, combining for 46 tackles a season ago. This is crucial since losing Jake Lezzer and Ian Billotte are major voids that are needing to be filled. But, with these two, and also having Jose Alban back for his senior year gives the team some major help in the second and third levels on defense.
Defenses win championships, and heading into this year, it appears the Bison defense has that mindset already imprinted.
As strong as the defense was a season ago, and with the expectations being the same for 2021, it has to be matched by the offensive output. A season ago, the Bison averaged 324 yards per game, 27 touchdowns, and only three turnovers. And with a pair of key players back on the team this year, those stats should continue.
Billotte’s junior season had its ups and downs, but he would finish with a completion percentage of .538, averaging just under 200 yards per game through the air, 12 touchdowns and only three interceptions.
The three-year starter returns this year hoping to have a complete season and also continue to mold his craft. Billotte’s career began unexpectedly his freshman year in the season finale when he had to take over for Isaac Rumery in the PIAA playoffs when the senior went down to injury. Since then, he has shown how strong a player he can be, and how much of a leader he has become. He has become extremely reliable in the rushing game, leading the team last year in yards (248) and touchdowns (7). Although he is expected to be key in the rushing game this year, the offense needs to also lean on Mark McGonigal, who was second in rushing last season.
McGonigal averaged just over 3.5 yards a carry a season ago, showing his power attack and speed when needed. He is appearing to be the starting back for the Bison this year.
However, questions linger on the outside for Clearfield, as the loss of Lezzer in the receiving game is a void that is difficult to fill. Add in the losses of Domico and Logan Firanski, and that makes 75 percent of the receiving corps that needs replaced for 2021.
Can that void be filled? Of course, but it is not going to happen right away.
Karson Kline returns as the leading receiver from a year ago, with 18 catches, 283 yards, and three touchdowns. But, that also leaves the door open for the opposition to have target lock and cover him with multiple defenders. That puts more pressure on receivers like Natoli, Alban and Max Paul-Cook to get open and find gaps in the defense for Billotte to get the ball out of his hands.
Clearfield has consistently been able to put together a great offense, but much like a recipe that is done in a crock pot, it cannot be rushed. This will take some time, but once the offense finds its identity, there is no question that it can be dominant, and difficult to contain.
The coaches are ready, the players are hungry, and without question the community is truly ready to roar their approval for their school. After a year of limited attendance, or in some cases no attendance, the parents, students and fans are ready to return to the Bison Sports Complex and cheer on the Bison. They are getting a lot of chances to do so as the Bison start the 2021 campaign with three consecutive games at home, starting with this Friday’s contest against the DuBois Beavers. Kickoff for the 2021 season is at 7 p.m.
2021 Clearfield Bison Roster
*Returning letter winners in bold
SENIORS: Caleb Wilt, Hayden Kovalick, Luke Sidorick, Luke Freeland, Mark McGonigal, Ty Troxell, Nate Natoli, Jose Alban, Justin Crutchfield, Karson Kline, Oliver Billotte, Josh Steele, Shane Coudiret, Nick Collins, Max Paul-Cook
JUNIORS: Eric Myers, Mitchell Rowles, Conner McCracken, Jarret Zattoni, Zach Billotte, Taymon Shomo, Mason Lumadue, Joe Knee, Isaac Samsel
SOPHOMORES: Nolyn Rockmore, Cayden Bell, Anthony Lopez, Isaac Putt, Carter Chamberlain, Evan Krineski, Will Domico, Bryant Shaffer, Gavin Smay
FRESHMEN: Hunter Ressler, Brady Collins, Ty Aveni, Karson Lazauskas, Carter Freeland
CLEARFIELD BISON 2021 SCHEDULE
- 27: DUBOIS
- 3: BALD EAGLE AREA*
- 10: PENNS VALLEY
- 17: at Tyrone*
- 24: at Bellefonte*
- 1: at Philipsburg-Osceola
- 8: TRINITY
- 15: at Huntingdon
- 22: BELLEFONTE*
*Did not face last season due to Covid-19 cancellation.