Riverside already has stared down the most successful program, in terms of state championship appearances, in the history of the Pennsylvania high school football playoffs.
The challenges, however, do not appear to get any easier for the Vikings.
They face an opponent enjoying historic levels of success and have another looming on the horizon as the Vikings continue their path toward what would be the first state football championship in school history.
Unbeaten District 11 champion Schuylkill Haven, featuring the nation’s presumed rushing leader in Zach Barket, is the latest team to meet Riverside at John Henzes/Veterans Memorial Stadium in Peckville. The two teams play in a state Class A quarterfinal tonight at 7.
While Riverside plays close to home, the Lackawanna Football Conference’s other surviving team is on the road. Dunmore meets Philadelphia West Catholic at Northeast High School in Philadelphia in a state Class 2A quarterfinal.
Riverside dispatched six-time state champion Southern Columbia, 25-7, in a state tournament game last week. The Vikings could be facing defending champion Steelton-Highspire a week from now in a meeting of the top two Class A teams in the Harrisburg Patriot-News state rankings. But first, they will need to find a way to contain the fourth-ranked Hurricanes, the second-highest scoring team in the state in any class at 47.8 points per game.
“They’re a very good team on both sides of the ball,” Barket said of Riverside. “They’re more known for their high-flying offense.
“Their defense is not really a conventional 4-3 or 5-2, but they find ways and get the job done, too.”
Schuylkill Haven has not allowed an opponent to come closer than Panther Valley did in a 36-20 loss. None have come closer than 27 points in the eight games since.
The Hurricanes are coming off a 43-0 state playoff win over Communications Tech of Philadelphia in which Barket carried 28 times for 255 yards and four touchdowns.
“We just came off playing a team that put nine guys on the line and blitzed every play,” Barket said. “If the line executes, there’s no problem adjusting.
“Our line is fast and strong. They do a good job blocking for me.”
The game was the first in which Barket was held to fewer than 10 yards per carry in the past seven games. The 5-foot-10, 205-pounder has been unstoppable while running for 3,798 yards and 60 touchdowns on 327 carries.
“Going into last season, I thought 2,000 yards was a ridiculously high goal,” Barket said. “Getting a little over 2,500 was insane.
“This year, I thought we had a better team. We’re all bigger and stronger so I thought I could do better.”
Even the most confident athlete, however, would have trouble predicting what Barket has accomplished.
Barket’s lowest yardage output came in Week 2 when he carried 33 times for 202 yards and four touchdowns in a 42-14 victory over Marian Catholic. His only game with fewer than four rushing touchdowns came when he ran for 235 yards and two scores in a 41-0 win over Shenandoah Valley.
Because he is a step slower than big-time recruits as a sprinter, Barket is projected as an Ivy League-type recruit.
Barket has already set state single season records for touchdowns and points. If he comes anywhere close to his usual production, Barket will break the state single season rushing record of 3,846 yards, set by Penn State’s Austin Scott at Parkland in 15 games in 2002.
“Jason Killian from our school had the state records until Austin Scott broke them,” Barket said. “I watched him break them on TV.
“I always thought what he did was crazy. I never realized that I could be the one breaking his records.”
Riverside’s defense is coming off a game in which it allowed 235 yards rushing but stopped Southern Columbia seven of the eight times it crossed midfield.
The Vikings will counter with an offense that is also over 40 points per game, at 44.2.
Quarterback Jay Velehoski and tailback Joe Klebon lead the way for the Vikings. Velehoski has passed for more than 2,000 yards and Klebon, who ran for more than 2,000 last year, has surpassed 1,000 again despite missing half this season with a broken foot.
If the Vikings get past Barket and Schuylkill Haven, they could face another record-setting runner.
Steelton-Highspire’s Jeremiah Young became the state career record-holder last week when he pushed his total to 8,505 yards, passing former Indianapolis Colts running back James Mungro, who rushed for 8,432 at East Stroudsburg. Barket is third with 7,935 after passing Honesdale’s Terrin Ash and his 7,748 yards on the career list last week.