A / BLACKHILLS: Serra eyes next step to playoffs

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Isaiah Jackson was just 2 years old the previous time Serra qualified for the playoffs.

"Yeah, that's a long time," he said. "That's a long time for a program not to make the playoffs."

Fast forward 14 years, and Jackson, a junior running back and linebacker for the Eagles, is the linchpin of a Serra team that is finally prepared to put its postseason drought behind it.

"It's very important for us to make the playoffs this year," Jackson said. "Our whole team took it to put Serra on our back. We're just going to run with it."

Despite playing in only six games as a sophomore -- he sat out the Eagles' final three games with a hip flexor injury -- Jackson (6 feet, 230 pounds) still ran for 834 yards and eight touchdowns. Included in that total was a 218-yard effort against Cornell and a 220-yard outburst vs. Riverview.

Jackson didn't hesitate when asked what his personal goal is this season. "I would like to rush for 2,000 yards."

That kind of potential is something that excites Serra coach Rich Bowen more and more each day.

"Isaiah is a really good running back. He's a big back. He's an excellent inside runner. He may not have flat out great speed, but he has really quick feet. We run a zone blocking scheme and he is just excellent at cutting things back and finding the opening and hitting the hole."

As talented a ballcarrier as Jackson is, he's just as effective on defense, where he earned all-Eastern Conference honors as a linebacker last season.

"He's our inside linebacker and he does all the calls on defense," said Bowen. "He's one of the smartest football players I've ever coached. He really understands the game."

After taking a huge step in the right direction last year when they finished 5-4 and were in playoff contention until the final week, the Eagles are hoping the switch to the Black Hills Conference will pay early dividends. They also are hoping their second season under Bowen's tutelage will give them the edge they need to take that next step. Bowen coached the Eagles to their most recent playoff appearance in 1992, while in his first stint at the school.

"Our team thinks that we're going to win the conference," Jackson said. "We have the players and we have the coaches. If we just play together like a team, we'll make the playoffs."

BLACKHILLS DATA

TEAM TO BEAT
Serra Considering the Eagles haven't made the playoffs in 14 years, picking them to finish first might be a stretch. But if there was ever a sleeper team, the Eagles are it. Serra returns many key players, including all-conference player Isaiah Jackson (RB/LB 6-0, 230). Also back is senior John Staso (WR/DB 6-4, 210) and Marc Rozanski (QB/DB 6-4, 185).

CONTENDERS
Beth-Center Defense was the Bulldogs calling card a year ago, leading Class A in scoring defense at 7.2 points per game. It will have to be again this year, as several key offensive weapons were lost to graduation.

Chartiers-Houston The Buccaneers started out 5-2 last year but lost the final three games by a combined 101-19. Back in the fold is senior Blake Williamson (WR/DB 6-3, 200), a two-time all-conference pick, who had 34 receptions for 537 yards and eight touchdowns.

THE OTHERS
Fort Cherry The Rangers have fallen short of the playoffs the past three seasons, but seven starters return on offense.

Bentworth The Bearcats went 6-5 last season and advanced to the WPIAL quarterfinals. This season they'll be led by seniors Lincoln Gibson (WR/DB 6-1, 185) and Charles Wonsettler (RB/LB 6-1, 195).

Frazier Moving over from the Tri-County South Conference, the Commodores look to improve on last season's 2-7 finish.

Avella The good news is that the Eagles return eight starters on both sides of the ball. The bad news is they have just 20 players and own a 25-game losing streak dating back to 2003.

FIVE TO WATCH
Lincoln Gibson, Sr., WR/DB, Bentworth, 6-1, 185; Steve Hvizda, Sr., RB/DL, Beth-Center, 6-0, 195; Isaiah Jackson, Jr., Serra, RB/LB, 6-0, 230; Marc Rozanski, Sr., QB/DB, Serra, 6-4, 185; Blake Williamson, Sr., Chartiers-Houston, WR/DB, 6-3, 200.

GAME OF THE YEAR
Serra at Beth-Center, Oct. 6.


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