Recap: PIAA Football Championships
PINE RICHLAND: There's a new state champion in Class 6A.
Pine-Richland quarterback Phil Jurkovec ran for four touchdowns and threw a fifth Saturday night as the Rams defeated defending champion St. Joseph's Prep, 41-21, in a snowy PIAA final at Hersheypark Stadium.
The Philadelphia Catholic League power had won the state's largest classification three of the past four seasons, including a Class 4A victory over Pine-Richland in 2014. But Pine-Richland capitalized on Prep mistakes and scored three times in the third quarter to pull away.
The Rams scored six touchdowns Saturday but rarely did the offense have to travel far. The drives covered 59, 52, 31, 25, 24 and 12 yards, helped along by four fumbles lost by Prep and two long kick returns by Jordan Crawford. None of the six drives needed more than four plays, including a one-play touchdown drive in the fourth quarter when Crawford ran 12 yards.
Jurkovec completed 15 of 27 attempts for 200 yards with one touchdown and one interception. He also rushed for 88 yards on 20 carries with touchdown runs of 1, 17, 13 and 6 yards.
His touchdown pass was a 25-yarder to Ben Jochem to lead 35-14 in the third quarter.
Jeannette cruises past Homer-Center to claim 2nd PIAA football championship
Early in the second quarter of Thursday's PIAA Class A football championship, Jeannette found itself trailing Homer-Center.
It didn't take long for senior Robert Kennedy to change that with an electrifying run that instantly swung momentum.
He raced 56 yards for a touchdown, stunning the Homer-Center defense with his explosive speed, and Jeannette never looked back, rolling to a 42-12 victory at Hersheypark Stadium.
It was the second state title for Jeannette (15-1), which won the Class AA title in 2007 under the guidance of Terrelle Pryor.
The Jeannette win also ended Homer-Center's Cinderella season, which saw the Wildcats (13-2) end Bishop Guilfoyle's 59-game winning streak and become the first Indiana County and Heritage Conference school to reach the state final.
Kennedy said he started to cry as the clock was winding down late in the fourth quarter and the Jeannette starters started celebrating.
“This victory brought tears to my eyes,” he said, watching the clock go to zero. “It's a blessing to win.”
Kennedy rushed for 114 yards and two touchdowns and also threw two touchdown passes. He completed 5 of 9 passes for 143 yards and also caught a 46-yard pass from Seth Howard.
Kennedy's second-quarter run had Homer-Center's defense scrambling, and his pin-point passing had the Jeannette offense rolling. His touchdown run gave Jeannette a 9-6 lead, and then his 25-yard pass to Zack Berginc — a perfect strike down the middle of the field — pushed the Jayhawks' lead to 15-6.
“When Robert got the ball, you could see they couldn't catch him and the wind came out of them a little bit.” Jeannette coach Roy Hall said. “The defense stepped up and played very well, especially after the first drive. We did some different types of blitzes, and our speed and quickness helped neutralize them.”
Jeannette's defense, which allowed a 93-yard touchdown drive on Homer-Center's first possession, shut down the Wildcats' vaunted running attack, which rushed for 322 yards against Steelton-Highspire in the semifinals. They finished with 131 Thursday.
Jeannette defensive linemen Jalen Jones and Anthony Johnson, who blocked a punt, and linebackers Justin Cramer and Ian Smith consistently made tackles in the backfield. Cramer had 7 1⁄2 tackles, including 2 1⁄2 for a loss. Johnson had 4 1⁄2 and 2 for a loss.
“Their speed was the difference,” Homer-Center coach Greg Page said. “Our pass defense had been playing really well, and they got behind us a few times. They put the ball on the money, and not only were they getting into space, they didn't make any mistakes.
“We knew they were going to decoy (Kennedy), and it's hard because you have to pay attention to him. But there were times when he was at quarterback we had guys watching him, and you can't do that.”
Kennedy's 44-yard strike to Howard set up his 1-yard run to push the Jeannette lead to 23-7 at halftime.
After Marcus Barnes intercepted a Ben Schmidt pass on the second play of the third quarter, Kennedy engineered a 10-play scoring drive, hitting senior wide receiver Tre Cunningham with a 29-yard TD pass on fourth-and-14 to make it 29-6.
“When we got up three touchdowns, I felt we had it in the bag because our guys were really playing ball,” Hall said. “After that first drive, we adjusted and made some moves and really shut them down.
“Robert did a great job, but this win goes to the entire team. There is no ‘I' in team. We were quicker than they were, and we got to the gaps quicker and made big plays. We played our tails off on defense.”
Seth Howard scored on a 9-yard run in the third quarter, and Imani Sanders' 8-yard run early in the fourth enacted the mercy-rule running clock.
Jesse Lee scored twice for Homer-Center, on a 7-yard run in the first quarter and a 6-yard run in the fourth.
“Their defense provided a lot of pressure up the gut for us, and I thought we'd be able to handle it better,” Page said. “We just weren't able to stem the tide against them. They were very effective with their execution.”
Archbishop Wood downs Gateway in PIAA Class 5A championship game
The liveliest Gators celebration at Hersheypark Stadium was an end zone chomp by Archbishop Wood's Kyle Pitts, a Florida recruit.
The Gateway Gators had few chances to cheer.
Archbishop Wood tailback Nasir Peoples rushed for 266 yards and four touchdowns as the Philadelphia Catholic League power showed its exceptional talent in Friday night's 49-14 victory over Gateway in the PIAA Class 5A final. Wood scored touchdowns on its first six possessions and led 42-0 at halftime.
The state title was the fifth in seven years for Archbishop Wood (12-3), the defending Class 5A champion. Wood won Class 3A in 2014, ‘13 and ‘11, and was state runner-up in 2012.
“They're very good obviously,” Gateway coach Don Holl said. “We didn't do a whole lot to make it a good game.”
The halftime difference was the largest in PIAA championship history, and the clock ran continuously in the second half under the mercy rule. Wood's offense had 303 first-half yards while Gateway totaled just 86.
WPIAL champion Gateway (14-2) was making its first appearance in the state finals.
“We came out, we started slow and were slow throughout the whole game,” Gateway quarterback Brady Walker said. “I just wish it could have been a different outcome.”
With a strong offensive line and an ACC-bound tailback, Archbishop Wood leaned on its dominant run game and rushed for 459 yards on 57 carries. Peoples, a Virginia Tech recruit, had 26 carries and scored on first-half runs of 68, 2 and 14 yards. He added a 13-yarder in the third quarter to lead 49-0.
The Vikings attempted just three passes.
Fullback Adrian Lambert added 97 yards and two touchdowns on 10 carries.
“Most times when we jump on teams like that, they want to quit,” said Peoples, who has 2,104 yards and 34 touchdowns this season. “The offensive line did a great job all year opening up holes for me to run. That's the reason why we get them.”
Class 6A finalist St. Joseph's Prep, which faces Pine-Richland on Saturday, is the only Pennsylvania school to defeat Archbishop Wood this season. Prep won 27-7.
“I think the thing is this, you play a McKeesport, you play a Penn-Trafford, you (face) one or two really good linemen,” Holl said. “Maybe they have a linebacker. Maybe they have a receiver. Maybe they have a tight end. Maybe they have a quarterback. But not all of those things. That's the tough part. I'm not going down that road, but that's the tough part with some schools. They seem to have all of those moving parts.”
Pitts, a 6-foot-6, 240-pound tight end and defensive end committed to Florida, had a 6-yard touchdown catch but also intercepted Walker twice. Pitts and senior Bill Shaffer (6-5, 230) are bookends on a Wood defensive line that sacked Walker three times and harassed him often.
“They pressured me a lot,” Walker said. “I had about two seconds to throw.”
Walker completed 12 of 26 attempts for 257 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions. His top wideout, junior Courtney Jackson, was held to just two catches for 21 yards.
Gateway's two touchdowns were long second-half connections between Brady and senior wideout Travis Thompson. The first covered 69 yards in the third quarter and the second covered 80 yards in the fourth. Thompson finished with five catches for 172 yards.
But Gateway's offense struggled early and Archbishop Wood started four of its first six possessions in Gateway territory. The Vikings needed just six offensive snaps and less than five minutes to lead 14-0.
Wood's first touchdown was a 19-yard run by Lambert that capped a five-play, 42-yard drive. Wood's next possession lasted just one play, a 68-yard touchdown run by Peoples.
Less than 3 minutes later, Peoples reached the end zone again on a 5-yard touchdown run. With 4:22 left in the first, Wood led 21-0.
“Maybe if we got a stop on defense and drove down the field and scored it would have changed the whole concept of the game,” Walker said. “But that's not how it went, unfortunately.”
Quaker Valley's improbable story capped with 1st PIAA football title
If there's a screenwriter available, Jerry Veshio has a story to tell.
The plot is almost unbelievable: A high school football team's coach quits 18 days before the season, so a former coach comes out of retirement for one season. He takes over a resilient but unproven program that's never won a WPIAL title, let alone a state title, and sees them all the way to Hershey.
The crazy ending came Saturday.
“I want to know what one of you guys is going to help me write my screenplay?” said Veshio, as his players celebrated in the snow at Hersheypark Stadium, some drawing QV on the snowy turf with their feet. Quaker Valley defeated Middletown, 41-24, in the PIAA Class 3A championship, just three weeks after the Quakers earned the team's first WPIAL title.
“It's surreal,” Veshio said. “It's incredible.”
Quaker Valley (14-1) won with a strong ensemble cast. Running back Jordan Taylor rushed for two touchdowns, quarterback Ricky Guss threw two and rushed for another, wideout Ethan Moore caught two and the defense was dominant once again.
The Quakers didn't let Middletown's offense reach the end zone until late in the fourth quarter. It was reminiscent of Quaker Valley's defensive effort at Heinz Field, when the Quakers shut out Aliquippa.
Middletown (14-1) finished as state runner-up for the second year in a row. The District 3 champion lost to Beaver Falls, 30-13, last season.
“Going into the year, not many people thought we were even going to make playoffs,” said QV senior kicker Landon Grant, who also celebrated a state soccer championship in Hershey this fall. “Winning WPIALs, then winning a state championship, pulling out games against Aliquippa and these big programs, it's just crazy. But I never doubted these guys for a minute.”
On a slick field, Taylor rushed for 147 yards on 15 carries and scored on touchdown runs of 34 and 35 yards. Guss added 97 yards on 16 carries.
Quaker Valley led 28-7 after Andrew Seymour returned an interception 42 yards for a touchdown just before halftime. The lead reached 41-10 early in the fourth after a one-yard touchdown run by Guss, who endorsed Veshio's movie plans.
“That would be awesome,” Guss said, laughing. “I guess you could make it a movie, but to me it's not a movie. It feels so real.”
The plot twist came in early August when coach John Tortorea resigned unexpectedly while his assistant coaches stayed on. Veshio, a former teacher and administrator who hadn't coached football since 1986, took over as the team's interim head coach.
“We did a good job of staying focused all year,” Guss said. “ … Losing our head coach was tough, but we've got a lot of seniors. We've got a lot of good coaches who stayed with us and guided us.”
The Quakers faced another twist this week when junior Isaiah McNair, the team's top receiver and cornerback, was sidelined with an undisclosed “upper-body” injury. Without McNair, Guss targeted Moore, who had five receptions for 98 yards.
Guss completed just 6 of 14 attempts for 104 yards but his touchdown throws were timely. His first, the 66-yarder to Moore in the second quarter, broke a 7-7 tie and came 72 seconds after Middletown returned a punt for a touchdown.
Moore and Guss connected on a 1-yard touchdown later in the second to lead 21-7, a goal-line audible by the quarterback.
“Losing Isaiah is a blow, physically and emotionally what he does on the field for us,” Guss said. “We knew guys were going to have to step up, and Ethan did a great job of that today. He was ready for it too.”
Middletown's only touchdown in the first three quarters was a 55-yard punt return in the second to force a 7-7 tie. Led by running back Brady Fox, the team had two long drives that turned into field-goal attempts, one made and one missed.
Fox rushed for 56 yards on 18 carries but 31 yards were on one carry.
Fox had 161 rushing yards and four touchdowns in last week's semifinal, and quarterback Scott Ash had 189 yards passing and two touchdowns. But Quaker Valley stifled that offense Saturday. Ash threw incomplete on his first seven attempts — the Quakers intercepted two — and he finished 4 of 16 for 92 yards.
Veshio credited his four senior defensive linemen: Seymour, Jacob Kolesser, Jake Presicka, and Oliver Funk.
“Those guys are nails,” Veshio said. “When they go, those four linebackers behind them go. It starts right there. They make that defense.”
Middletown's first offensive touchdown came with 4:16 left in the fourth. The team didn't score again until there were 14 seconds left.
“They're just tenacious,” Veshio said. “They're the best defense in the state. I don't care what the statistics say, they are the best defense in the state.”