MIDDLETOWN >> At 5-foot-6, Strath Haven wide receiver/defensive back Thomas Foster is not a player who stands out in a crowd.
Less imposing than other players on the field, what Foster lacks in height he makes up for with impact plays to make his presence felt on both sides of the ball.
Foster had two interceptions and caught the only completion from Panthers quarterback Evan Atsaves as Strath Haven rolled to a 34-6 victory over Penncrest to claim the Media Bowl.
Foster’s first interception of Penncrest quarterback Chris Mills came with 2:12 remaining in the second quarter, which he returned to the Lions’ 21-yard line. The Panthers offense finished off Foster’s timely play as running back Zach Newlon, who had 55 yards on 19 carries, scored the first of his three touchdowns from a yard out to give Strath Haven a 28-6 with 32.6 seconds left until half.
Foster’s second pick came on a heave from Mills as time expired before the break. On the second play of the second half, Foster hauled in a 62-yard touchdown pass from Atsaves off of play-action and put the game away.
Foster said respecting Penncrest’s passing game was an area the Panthers were concerned about coming in, particularly against receiver Manny Ruffin, who finished with five catches for 59 yards.
“We knew (Ruffin) was their best player,” Foster said. “We were respecting the deep ball and playing the hitch (routes at the point of catch).”
Strath Haven (3-3, 3-2 Central League) broke out to a 14-0 lead after Penncrest (2-4, 1-4) fumbled the first two kickoffs it received, both recovered by the Panthers. Mekhi Hill, who finished with a team-high 100 yards on 13 carries, converted the first recovery with a one-yard touchdown scamper. Newlon rumbled in for his first score after the Lions second fumble, and the Panthers were in control after only 5:21 had ticked away.
Panthers coach Kevin Clancy, whose team began three of its first-half possessions in Penncrest territory, focused on special teams coverage in practice this week.
“There was an emphasis all week in the kicking game,” Clancy said. “We knew they have good return men and we were concerned about their special teams. We made it a point of emphasis, and I thought the kids really did a good job.”
Penncrest had a difficult time finding a rhythm as Strath Haven widened its lead. After going down 14-0, the Lions drove 67 yards capped off by running back Caleb Mahalik’s eight-yard touchdown to cut the lead to 14-6 with 1:40 left in the first quarter.
But the Lions turned the ball over on their next three drives, and head coach Rick Stroup said his team could not attempt a comeback while routinely giving the ball way.
“You can’t do that,” said Stroup, whose team had seven turnovers. “We spotted them fourteen points before we had the ball. We have to work harder.”
While Foster made a number of crucial plays, he noted how the Panthers “played like a team today, and our star players really helped us.” Clancy concurred with his explosive two-way junior.
“It’s a step forward and now we have to build on this,” Clancy said. “Penncrest had some bad breaks early but we were able to capitalize them.”