The Mars football team had high expectations entering the season — contending for a WPIAL Class AAA championship.
That goal appeared to be taken away in the team’s first game when star running back Josh Schultheis broke his leg. The Fightin’ Planets limped along to a 1-2 start. But, instead of panicking, the team responded to win five of its next six games to reach the playoffs.
“That just shows the character of this team. We were playing for our lives,” Mars coach Scott Heinauer said. “A lot of people contributed. It shows a lot about the drive and determination of the kids who have been here for a while. We could have folded our tent when Josh got hurt.”
Schultheis, a senior fullback/linebacker, was poised to become the program’s all-time leading rusher this year. He entered the season with 3,601 yards, but suffered a broken tibia in the first quarter of the season opener after racking up 78 yards.
“I don’t think our coaching staff ever fought a battle like that where we’ve lost our best player almost immediately,” Heinauer said. “We’ve had a lot of injuries, but in the first game and first quarter and it’s the guy you are counting on? I know our kids felt bad about it, too. Whenever we needed a big play or a first down, they could always count on Josh.
“The seniors showed a lot of determination and pride in what happened. A lot of people counted us out. When you see one of the top running backs in Triple-A go down, it’s tough. He was one of the marquee players in the WPIAL, too.
“I am proud of the kids and the way we bounced back. Everyone picked up the slack. Josh was there to support us, too.”
With Schultheis on the sidelines at practices and games, he helped rally the Fightin’ Planets.
“I think our kids never lost hope. I think Josh being around had a lot to do with it. He was there every day,” Heinauer said. “I think the kids see that; they respect him and follow his leadership.”
The players shook off their 1-2 start and won their next three games before dropping a 14-7 decision to Knoch. That put the team’s playoff hopes in peril, but Mars rallied to shut out Hollidaysburg, 21-0, and upset Hampton in overtime, 20-14, to earn a postseason spot.
“Knoch was better than we were that day. After that, our backs were against the wall and we knew we had to win our last two games,” Heinauer said. “We had eight starters out with injury for the Hollidaysburg game and by beating Hampton we knew we were at least in the playoffs and not relying on someone else to get us in.”
Mars posted its second consecutive upset win when it opened the postseason with a 42-27 triumph at Montour. Senior running back Ori Rinaman, who replaced Schultheis, rushed for 230 yards and six touchdowns in the win. He finished the year with 1,246 yards and 22 touchdowns. The team’s season came to an end with a quarterfinal loss to Thomas Jefferson, 28-13.
“Thomas Jefferson was the better team, and we made some mistakes and gave them a short field. We didn’t make those mistakes the two previous games. If we don’t make mistakes, it’s a little tighter game,” Heinauer said. “The kids played their hearts out throughout the year and that last game. I am proud of those kids.”
The Planets graduate five starters on defense and offense, including Rinaman and quarterback Jake Rosswog, who passed for 1,039 yards.
“We lost a lot of great senior players. It’s tough. It’s something you have to go through every year,” Heinauer said. “Our defense played well throughout the year. That’s something we can look at and build off for next year.”
Joe Sager is a freelance writer.