Cougars host Done­gal in reg­u­lar-sea­son home fi­nale tonight.

The Hazleton Standard-Speaker - - FRONT PAGE - BY STEVE STAL­LONE AS­SIS­TANT SPORTS EDI­TOR

It all be­gan one year ago al­most to the day

rail­ing 14-7 mid­way through the fourth quar­ter, Ha­zle­ton Area ap­peared headed to­ward an eighth straight loss in what had been a frus­trat­ing sea­son.

In a mat­ter of min­utes that all changed. David Smith re­turned a fum­ble for a touch­down that pulled the Cougars even with Done g al. Four min­utes later, he hauled in a pass from fel­low sopho­more Sparky Wolk and sprinted 80 yards for the go-ahead score.

And, af­ter the In­di­ans drove deep into Cougar ter­ri­tory, Wolk in­ter­cepted a pass at the 10-yard line that sealed Ha­zle­ton Area’s first win (20-14) in a full cal­en­dar year and sent the Cougars on their way.

Since that Oct. 14 night in Mount Joy, the Cougars have been a joy to watch once again. They have reeled off six more wins in their last nine reg­u­lar-sea­son games, and head into tonight’s rematch with Done­gal rid­ing high.

Get­ting con­tri­bu­tions from all three phase soft he game, the Cougars (4-3) knocked off Scran­ton 34-8 last week and inched closer to the Knights for the third seed in the up­com­ing District 2-4 Class 6A play­offs. A win tonight, and a Scran­ton loss to top-seeded Delaware Val­ley, could push the Cougars into the third spot with two weeks to play.

Bol­stered by the emer­gence of their run­ning game, the Cougar of­fense has been at

its best since Bren­nan took over the pro­gram in 2014. Da­mon Hor­ton (65-299,3 TDs), Adrian Otero (61-281, 2 TDs) and Wolk (51-210, 5 TDs) have com­bined to make the run game a fac­tor again. The Cougars haven’t lost a fum­ble since open­ing night.

Last week, Otero emerged with his best rush­ing game of the sea­son, go­ing for 113 yards on 14 car­ries. That was part of a run game that net­ted 210 yards, and gave the Cougars the best bal­ance they’ve had all sea­son.

The play of the of­fen­sive line has been much im­proved, with the likes of Michael Fuchick, Tony Ryba, Will Strass­ner, Dal­las Solomon, Ja­son Bi ever, Matt Brunza and tight end Jared Cun­ning­ham get­ting things done up front. Fuchick, the team’s cen­ter, was in­jured in last week’s win, and his sta­tus is in ques­tion.

The pass­ing g ame has been solid if not spec­tac­u­lar for most of the sea­son thanks to the per­for­mance of Wolk and his tal­ented sta­ble of re­ceivers. T he ju­nior has com­pleted nearly 58 per­cent of his passes (94-of-163) for a ca­reer-best 1,463 yards, with 14 touch­downs.

Wolkh as spread the wealth, find­ing re­ceivers Smith (28 catches, 492 yards, 4 TDs), Otero (25-346, 6 TDs), Hor­ton (16-315, 2 TDs), Ja­cob Hun­singer (18-194, 2 TDs), J os hZuko ski (6-48) and Nolan Sch­nei­der (5-99) on a reg­u­lar ba­sis.

The Cougar de­fense has been equally impressive, al­low­ing 19 points per game this sea­son and hold­ing ex­plo­sive Scran­ton to just one touch­down last week. Otero (72 tack­les) has been the de­fen­sive leader.

They’ll be look­ing to shut down a Done­gal team that comes in with a 2-4 record, hav­ing gone 2-2 since los­ing to El­iz­a­beth­town (28-0) and Man­heim Cen­tral (46-0) in the sea­son’s first two weeks.

Se­nior run­ning back Nick Ket­ner (64-584, 8 TDs) and se­nior full back Cameron Ellis (51-421, 4 TDs) are their lead­ing rush­ers. Ellis scored two touch­downs in last year’s game with the Cougars.

ELLEN F. O’CON­NELL / STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

Ha­zle­ton Area head coach Mike Bren­nan talks with his team dur­ing the open­ing quar ter of last week’s game against Scran­ton at Har­man-Geist Memo­rial Field. The Cougars will play host to Done­gal this evening in their fi­nal reg­u­lar-sea­son home game.

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