Valley, Kittanning to battle for home-field advantage in 1st round
The football teams from Kittanning and Valley want to head home.
It has been eight years for Valley and 12 years for Kittanning since each school hosted its last playoff game, but the chance to do just that is the biggest prize on the line when the two meet in an Allegheny Conference matchup Friday in Kittanning.
A win for the Class AA No. 8 Wildcats (7-0, 6-0) would assure Kittanning of a top-two finish and a home playoff game, while Valley (5-2, 4-2) is coming off a surprising loss to Summit Academy and would need wins in its final two games to have a shot to host a first-round contest.
“This one is just as big (as last year),” Valley coach Chad Walsh said. “We're still fighting to get a home playoff game, and they're 7-0 and trying to win the conference. Both of us have our destiny in our hands.”
Valley topped Kittanning last year, 20-17, on a touchdown catch by Chaz Cheatham with 41 seconds remaining. That catch sent the Vikings into the postseason at the expense of the Wildcats, who hope to flip the outcome this year on their home field.
“We haven't even talked about the playoffs or anything like that. Our focus has been on beating Valley,” Kittanning coach Frank Fabian said. “Last year, that loss ended up knocking us out of the playoffs, so we really haven't looked ahead. It's going to be our senior night, so we want to send the seniors out right and give them a chance to have one more home game.”
The Wildcats have a chance to go 8-0 for the first time since a 10-0 regular season in 1976, and they're doing so on the strength of their offense.
Junior quarterback Braydon Toy has excelled at running the team's spread offense and accumulated 1,109 passing yards, 577 rushing yards and 21 total touchdowns this season. Junior receiver Nick Bowers has 525 receiving yards and five touchdowns as Toy's top target, and the Wildcats have scored 160 points in three games since the return of freshman running back Zane Dudek from a hip injury.
Fabian is quick to point out that the play of his offensive line has been what allows the offense to click, and he said that group might get its biggest challenge of the year from Valley's defensive front.
“That defensive line is a group that really stands out to me. They're athletic with a couple of guys that I think are wrestlers for them, and slowing them down is our biggest concern,” Fabian said. “We're not naïve enough to think we're going to score the way we have the last couple weeks. We understand what their defense has done and how good they are, and we know we're going to be in for a fight.”
Valley has its own offensive weapons, which begin with a ground game led by senior running back Demetrius Houser. But the biggest question mark for the Vikings will be who is responsible for handing the ball off to Houser and his teammates.
Senior quarterback/linebacker Ty Matthews, whose 6-foot-2, 230-pound frame makes him one of the biggest players on either team, suffered a dislocated shoulder and did not return during his team's 26-6 loss last week. Matthews did not practice early in the week and visited with doctors Tuesday, yet he hasn't been ruled out for the game.
“We're on a day-to-day basis with Ty. We didn't let him do anything in practice (Monday or Tuesday), and that's probably going to be the same (Thursday),” Walsh said. “The biggest thing is getting him healthy for the playoffs, but if he's healthy enough that he can go Friday, he'll get some reps.”
Matthews' loss might be more noticeable on offense, but not having his presence on defense would also be a blow. Kittanning runs an offense that is much more diverse than Summit Academy and some of the Allegheny Conference's other run-heavy teams.
“On the defensive side of the ball, they give you more things that you have to think about,” Walsh said. “It's a little easier, scheme-wise, to prepare for a team that just wants to run the ball. When you get a team that does a lot of different things like Kittanning, there's just more you have to prepare for.”
Valley's biggest edge, according to Fabian, is in the amount of team speed the Vikings have at the skill positions. The combination of Valley's playmakers and Kittanning's efficiency with the ball means that there could be plenty of points on the board by the time the final whistle blows.
“Valley has a number of kids that can score from anywhere on the field,” Fabian said. “Any time you play a team like that, you're nervous, and we've talked to our kids about taking good angles to the ball and making sure we tackle.”