Mt. Pleasant seeks elusive playoff win
When coach Bo Ruffner analyzed Mt. Pleasant at the beginning of the season, it was tough to come up with one glaring weakness. The offense, defense and special teams have been good to great all season, which helped the Vikings earn third place in the Class AA Interstate Conference with a 7-2 record.
Regular-season success has become commonplace for the Vikings, who have qualified for the WPIAL playoffs in nine of the past 10 seasons. But during that stretch, the team's only playoff victory was a 45-6 first-round win over Kittanning in 2009.
On Friday, the ninth-seeded Vikings will have a chance to add to that playoff win total when they take on eighth-seeded Burrell in a first-round Class AA game.
“This is big,” Ruffner said. “Getting playoff wins is a hard thing to do and coming out and getting a playoff win would be big for our program.”
Of course, beating the Buccaneers (8-1) on the road won't be easy, especially considering Burrell has one of the top running backs in the league. Senior Cole Bush is ranked second in the WPIAL with 1,710 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns on 207 carries. Senior quarterback James Liput (49 for 91, 842 yards, 8 TDs) and junior receiver Nicholas Pattock (18-303, 3 TDs) are threats to make plays, but the offense revolves around Bush.
Ruffner said Burrell reminds him of some Greensburg Central Catholic teams of years past, and there is also a big similarity between the Buccaneers and Interstate Conference champ Washington. Both the Prexies (top-ranked rusher Shai McKenzie) and Buccaneers (Bush) have backs capable of dominating.
“Bush is bigger, and Shai has more speed,” Ruffner said.
When the Vikings faced off against McKenzie, he torched them for 295 yards and three touchdowns on 28 carries in a 34-14 Washington win just three weeks ago. Still, having already played a game-changing running back could help Mt. Pleasant when it tries to contain Bush.
“You hope the things we did wrong we can correct, and some of the things we did do well will carry over,” Ruffner said.
While the Vikings' defense will be challenged, the same can likely be said for Burrell. Mt. Pleasant has scored 358 points this season, led by junior running back Tyler Mellors, who has rushed for 1,241 yards and 21 touchdowns on 136 carries. Junior quarterback Ryan Gumbita (39 for 72, 725 yards, 7 TDs) has put up solid numbers, as has senior wideout Joey Paul (16-300, 5 TDs) and senior running back Taylor Allison (57-632, 10 TDs).
One of the big advantages the Vikings have had this season is a relatively healthy lineup, especially compared to last season when players such as Gumbita and Mellors missed time due to injury. Keeping a healthy lineup together has been crucial in helping the Vikings execute at a high level.
“The big thing for us is to do the little things right,” Ruffner said.
Ruffner pointed out one key trend. In Mt. Pleasant's seven wins, the Vikings have won the turnover battle, while in the two losses, the Vikings were on the short end of the takeaway tussle.
“In playoff games, all the teams are good, so we can't turn the ball over,” Ruffner said. “It's pretty simple. We have got to win the turnover battle.”
For the Vikings, the chance to win a playoff game isn't taken lightly, especially considering those wins have been few and far between for what is a very solid football program.
“The kids are excited to play a playoff game,” Ruffner said. “They know that it's one and done and we have to win to keep moving on. You can't get two wins until you get one.”
Jason Black is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-626-3534.