CENTER TWP., Pa. — All that Central Valley star and Pitt commit Sean FitzSimmons knows is winning. He will enter the last game of his high school career, the PIAA Class 3A title, with a record of 40-2 since he has been a sophomore at Central Valley. This includes a stretch of 26 straight wins, while both losses came as a sophomore – one playing up against Thomas Jefferson- the other a state championship loss in 2019.
FitzSimmons was impressive on the big stage once again Friday and his three sacks helped lead Central Valley to a 35-21 over Central (Martinsburg) that will send him to Hershey once again.
“It gets better every time we make it,” said FitzSimmons on making his third trip to the state championship. “It is such a great team we got here.”
The notable value with FitzSimmons is that he knows how to work as part of the team. His three sacks were stat-sheet stuffers, but some of his more impressive plays are when he allows others to make plays. Central (Martinsburg) consistently used a running back to stand behind whoever was blocking FitzSimmons to chip. If not, they were looking to double-team him.
The reality was that the attention he drew was creating pass rush lanes for others. FitzSimmons could get credit on two other sacks where this was the case, and countless times he was in the backfield causing the quarterback to roll out and leave the pocket.
“I have said it before, but everyone who plays with Sean FitzSimmons, their game is elevated,” said head coach Mark Lyons. “Man, it is unbelievable what he does for the football team.”
FitzSimmons’ first sack came while forcing the quarterback to leave the pocket. As the quarterback fled to his left FitzSimmons dove at the ankles of the passer and by a shoelace was able to trip him up. His second sack was the highlight-reel play. FitzSimmons knocked over the right guard clean, saw the running back step up, and essentially ran him over on his way to barrelling into the quarterback. Those two sacks helped end drives, but his third sack ended the game. It was an effort sack, and he chased down the quarterback doing anything to keep the play alive on the very last play.
All three sacks came in a variety of ways, and that is a good way to describe FitzSimmons. He is versatile. He has always moved around and boasted that he can play up and down the line, another variable that helps his teammates. Early into the game, FitzSimmons lined up on the edge, but as the game went on, he stuck inside.
“We have the flexibility to move Sean around a lot depending on tendency, or depending on the scouting report,” said Lyons.
Whatever was in the scouting report, it was clear that they wanted him inside, and it is obvious that it worked out. Some factors could have been the quick passing of an impressive quarterback that Central (Martinsburg) was leaning on. FitzSimmons being able to shoot right up the gut, rather than loop around the edge forced the quick passing team to either get the ball out right on time, or force a pocket passer to leave the pocket. They also may have liked their matchup against the right guard, because FitzSimmons had his way in that particular matchup.
“That’s just all of our scheme, I can play outside or in,” said FitzSimmons. “This week they thought I was better in, and it worked.”
FitzSimmons also has a variety of pass-rushing moves. He was able to use his hands and beat the lineman clean with a swim, or a swipe. On other snaps, he wanted to get his hands on the lineman and move him backward and did that as well.
Two other plays that stand out are separate goal-line plays. On third down from the one-yard line, Central (Martinsburg) went with a quarterback sneak. FitzSimmons won with leverage and pushed the quarterback back. Then, a quarter later he saw 4th down and 2 yards to go after his teammate Matt Merritt made a stop for a loss. FitzSimmons shot out and got into the backfield quickly. He forced the quarterback to roll out, where he was pressured into throwing an errant pass into the end zone. That stop essentially won the game
“You love to get them goal-line stops,” boasted FitzSimmons. “That was a big part of the game, I’m so glad we got that, it changed the game.”
Star Seniors Follow FitzSimmons
While the star talent is Sean FitzSimmons, his two teammates Landon Alexander and Matt Merritt have been beside him every step of the way. The duo made their presence felt throughout the game as well.
Landon Alexander got Central Valley going in the right direction after a slow start. Down 7-0, Central Valley faced a third down with 20 yards to go after two self-inflicted penalties. Alexander was hit after a five-yard run, but then broke a tackle, pushed a defender, and created a scrum that dragged on for a few yards. Central Vally saw a fourth down with four to go, and the big gain gave Lyons the confidence to go for it.
”We said, you know what? We need to gain some momentum,” added Lyons on the decision. “Then, Antwon (Johnson) did a great job of extending the play, and scrambling.”
Johnson converted the fourth down, Alexander punched in a touchdown, and from 7-7, they did not trail the rest of the night.
“That goes unnoticed,” said Lyons of Alexander turning fourth and long and a punt into fourth a chance to go for it. “Landon battled, and battled, and kept moving his legs, moving the pile. Next you thing know we go from 3rd and 20 to fourth and four, and that’s a situation that’s favorable to us.”
That play put Cental Valley in the game, and they took a lead into the half. However, up 21-13, Central (Martinsburg) threatened again and got inside the Central Valley 30. However, a fumbled exchange put the ball on the ground, and Matt Merrritt was in there to scoop-and-score for 75 yards, and a touchdown that put his team back up two scores.
“We love to get those momentum changers,” added FitzSimmons.
That was one of the key plays, and Merritt came up huge once again on third down from the goal line, up just 28-21. He lined up off the edge and shot into the backfield. Merritt wrapped up the runner for a loss of a yard which set up the fourth and two that effectively won the game.
While the game was all but over, Landon Alexander ended it with his final punch of the game, a 98-yard touchdown right after the stop to make it 35-21 with under two minutes to play in the game.
“I looked my teammates in the eyes and told them I promise you I am giving you my all,” said Alexander. “I am giving 100% every play, and my lineman were giving 100% every play, and without them, I wouldn’t be able to go 100% as long as I could.”
The team has the star talent of FitzSimmons, Alexander, and Merritt, but as Alexander notes it is the all-in effort from the entire roster that is propelling this team to their third straight state final appearance. In just 12 years of Central Valley football culture of winning has been established and expectations are winning every year.
“We’ll head back to our second home in Hershey,” joked Lyon on his sustained success that leads to a trip to the state final every year.
In a familiar stadium, they will see a familiar foe as well. Central Valley will take on Wyomissing, a team that they beat in 2020 PIAA final.
“I’m a senior who gets to play another week of football, couldn’t ask for much more,” added Alexander.