WILSON — Bill Atlas joked if he could run the ball 100% of the time and win a game, he would.
Yes, the passing game has and still remains a factor in Atlas’ offense since he took over the Wilson program nearly two decades ago. And his game-plans have switched over the course of a game, depending on what the defense is countering.
But what has kept Wilson’s season lasting into November has been a ground-and-pound attack down its opponents throats. Behind the combination of senior running back Jack Mahar and the offensive line, Wilson has stacked up five wins in a row and will now face top-seeded Clymer/Sherman/Panama at 5 p.m. Thursday at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park in the Section VI Class D championship.
Even with starting left tackle Willy Wortkoetter’s hand injury against Cardinal O’Hara on Sept. 9, Wilson adjusted and found the right pieces to give Mahar and the rest of the offensive piece their open spaces.
Since Week 3, Atlas has inserted the combination of senior tackles Brayden Lepsch and Emerick Muck, sophomore left guard Michael Jeffords and junior right guard Hamza Merrick and sophomore center Trent Abbott in the trenches. The play of this quartet in the trenches, Atlas said, has been the important piece of the running game’s efficiency this season. And while this current unit is smaller compared to what Atlas described as “big farm boys” Wilson once produced in the 1980s and 1990s, the year-round skill-work from these men has served as the engine for the entire offense.
“It’s almost like a security blanket,” said Atlas on the line serving as the engine. “You know that they’re gonna be in the right spot. And hopefully they’ve got the right technique when they get to the point of attack. And the confidence starts there.”
The offensive line has helped Mahar become a terror in the backfield all season for Wilson and across Section VI. Entering Thursday, the senior has dashed for 1,552 yards and 23 of the black-and-orange’s 31 rushing scores. On top of that, Mahar has accounted for the majority of Wilson’s average of 238 rushing yards per game.
The progress and consistency by the offensive line over the second half of the regular season was a boost for the entire team, Mahar explained, as shown in the team’s 21-20 comeback win against Franklinville/Ellicottville in the Class D semifinal on Nov. 3, a team the Lakemen previously lost to by over 20 points in a mid-September clash.
“We had to fill some players, so we weren’t used to that,” said Mahar, who has scored at least two touchdowns in all nine games this season. “And, I think it just took us some time to get used to having everybody move spots a little bit. I guess we just started working that out (and) we got on a roll and we knew what we were getting into when we were playing Franklinville. I think they underestimated us a lot and how much we improved and I think they had a little shock to them.”
Now in his second season on varsity, Lepsch had to move from right tackle to left tackle due to Wortkoetter’s injury. His first start at the position was against CSP, a 41-13 loss on Sept. 15 in Wilson. Compared to last season, Lepsch said the offensive line has a stronger connection, which, in his view, has led to demanding more effort out of each other.
Now, Lepsch said, the motivation has shifted towards pushing each other in the trenches to help Wilson go farther than its ever gone before — win its first Section VI championship.
“For the most part, we all stepped up,” Lepsch said. “And it was just a big learning curve for a lot of us playing in new spots. But it was just hard work and determination, practicing every day (for) multiple hours. Just put in the work and it paid off.”