As a law, receivers don't go over the middle against Urbana. Lurking there is a visible and viable menace, a presence who poses a serious threat to their health and well-being. It's like tempting Jaws: tread those waters and expect to lose a limb or two.
But the Westminster Owls were oblivious. It was Week 1, and the red tape and danger signs had yet to be constructed. So Westminster, tempting the beast, sent a receiver down the middle on a seam route. Needless to say, it didn't end well.
"I watched the film of that play and the receiver just got laid out -- I mean absolutely destroyed," said Urbana's new coach Ryan Hines. "Through the rest of that film I didn't see Westminster go over the middle again. It's like the safety inflicted fear on them."
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That safety would be Matt Semelsberger, a 6-foot-2, 190-pound beast who hits with the force of three linebackers. Last year, as an underclassman, he tallied more than 120 tackles, recorded four interceptions and earned honorable mention Big School All-State honors.
The hit he delivered against Westminster set the tone for his impressive campaign.
"That was my favorite hit of the year," said Semelsberger, who projects as a Division I prospect and has received interest from a number of ACC and Big East schools. "I absolutely knocked the dude out cold. I read the play perfectly and I came up and laid the wood. It was kind of funny because his teammates came over and asked if he was OK. But he couldn't respond.
"Man, do I love to bring the pain."
Semelsberger has been "bringing the pain" since his sophomore year, his first season as a varsity starter. In two years he has become one of the top defensive back prospects in the state. He can hit -- that much is clear -- but he also runs a 4.65 40-yard dash and can bench-press well over 300 pounds.
On top of that, he has the intangibles only the elite possess. His work ethic is unrivaled, his intensity unmatched and his instincts are so good it's uncanny.
"The speed is there, he's extremely physical and he can hit, but what stood out on film is that he could almost see the plays develop before they happened," Hines said. "He was always in the right spot at the right time.
"And from what I've seen he's an intense competitor with the drive to make himself better every day. That's a rare combination."
Almost all coaches laud a player's competitive spirit and work ethic, but in this case Hines isn't exaggerating. Hines knew Semelsberger was special the first day he met him.
When the coach first walked into Urbana, he had no preconceived notions. He didn't know Matt Semelsberger from some freshman trumpet player. But that changed as soon as Hines made the trek to the Hawks' weight room. He gave the room a once-over and immediately spotted a physical specimen who could bench an offensive lineman and probably "didn't have an ounce of body fat on him." And this was February, when players are just getting back into shape.
Hines didn't say anything at the time, but later he called Semelsberger to talk about Urbana football. After the conversation, Hines had little doubt who the team leader would be.
"I asked him about the state of Urbana football and he was completely honest with me," Hines said. "He told me there needed to be more kids involved in offseason workouts. He was mad that his teammates weren't putting in the same work he was. He told me he was telling kids if they weren't lifting, they weren't playing in the fall. He took charge. He knew what needed to be done."
Semelsberger, like Hines, subscribes to the hard knocks philosophy. They believe winning doesn't happen by accident. The teams that win are the teams that refuse to be outworked in the offseason. The teams that win are the teams who go above and beyond an hour of weight lifting every other day. The teams that win take one look at the competition and know they can physically abuse them.
"The key to being successful is what you do in the offseason," Semelsberger said. "I know how much hard work pays off. I know what it's like to work for a position. And I know what it takes to win. I want to see that kind of drive from all the guys."
After football season ended, Semelsberger immediately hit the weight room. In addition he wrestled in the winter, which has helped him gear up for next fall. (He recently won a regional championship and qualified for the state tournament at 189 pounds.)
"Wrestling will only serve him better with his footwork and leverage," Hines said. "It's going to make him more durable."
Indeed, that's one of the main reasons Semelsberger wrestles. He enjoys pinning guys on the mat, but he absolutely relishes knocking out receivers. If wrestling can help him do that, then he's all for it. He said one key by-product of wrestling, besides the obvious strength benefits, is endurance.
"There's a lot of conditioning in wrestling, so that helps me not get tired on the field," Semelsberger said. "So when everyone else gets tried and is ready to give in I can reach another gear. I never stop coming at you. That's what separates me from everyone else."
No wonder receivers won't come near this guy. His mind is completely focused on pummeling offensive skill players.
Just imagine what he's like on game day.
Come the fall, Semelsberger will be so full of vigor and passion the Hawks will literally feed off his aura. On Friday nights, he brings a fire-and-brimstone attitude that permeates throughout the defense. His hits reverberate like an amped subwoofer, and he's not afraid to howl like a rabid werewolf and get in his teammates' faces.
"I get everyone pumped up; I get their spirits lifted," Semelsberger said. "I can make them play harder with my energy and enthusiasm."
Now that wrestling season is over, Semelsberger's energy is taking over the Hawks locker room. In the past, he'd tone down his enthusiasm in deference to the seniors. But this is Semelsberger's last year, and he knows this is his team now. Hines is more than happy to give it to him.
"There's an excitement in our program right now, a real buzz," Hines said. "And Matt's the driving force behind that. He's going to be the face of Urbana football."