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Apollo-Ridge looks to match No. 1 Sto-Rox's firepower

| Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013, 10:33 p.m.
Erica Dietz | Tirb Total Media
Apollo-Ridge's Duane Brown (5) gets chased by the Avonworth defense during the first half Friday, Sept. 27, 2013, at Avonworth.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
Apollo-Ridge quarterback Jesse Zelonka runs past Leechburg's Matthew Rzewnicki for a big gain in the second quarter Sept. 20 at Owens Grove Field in Apollo.

There is no wheel of fortune on the Apollo-Ridge sideline or in the coaches' box that determines who gets the football on the next play.

The Vikings (8-2) have plenty of offensive options — a good problem to have, especially two rounds into the WPIAL playoffs — but there are times when coach John Skiba is faced with a blinking switchboard of choices.

That'll likely be the case Friday night, particularly if it's a close game, when Apollo-Ridge (8-2) faces No. 1 seed Sto-Rox (10-0) in the WPIAL Class A quarterfinals at Deer Lakes.

Sto-Rox coach Dan Bradley has an idea of where Apollo-Ridge is located — “It's out there, way out there,” he said. But he's more certain about what type of players his opponents have.

“They have a lot of talent at the skill positions,” he said.

With no free spins or do-overs in the playoffs, where one play can make or break a season, Skiba might have to make a split-second decision that doesn't come from an ear-marked page in the playbook.

Do they throw on first down? Do they run on third? Who gets the ball on a key fourth-down play?

When and how much do they use the three-pronged stable of running backs Jonah Casella, Ben Gemballa and Lonny Wells?

Do Tre Tipton or Duane Brown get into the mix as wildcat quarterbacks or break to the edges on reverses?

Skiba isn't getting worked up. He rarely does. He said he has learned to rely on a softly blended combination of instinct and situational thinking when it comes to choosing his weapons.

“You try to get people touches,” Skiba said. “Sometimes it's based on mismatches. We have a bunch of guys we can use.”

Quarterback Jesse Zelonka is a hazard to run or throw, and his targets are plentiful. Tipton has 37 catches for 610 yards and 12 touchdowns, Alex Smith has 26 receptions for 549 yards and seven scores, and Duane Brown, a rising freshman, has 14 grabs for 211 yards and a pair of TDs.

Apollo-Ridge has used 10 different ball carriers and seven different receivers. Some have been backups who appeared in mercy-ruled games, but nonetheless, the wealth's been spread.

“You look at a Duane Brown; he is a threat anytime he has the ball,” Skiba said. “You get him in space, he's ridiculous. And Tre, you want to make sure he gets touches. People want to take him away so much. A lot of times he is a decoy. He knows that and understands that.”

Although he is vocal at times, Zelonka is not a check-off quarterback who free-wheels. He takes the play and starts it.

“No matter where the ball is going, I know it's going to a weapon,” Zelonka said. “I'm sure there are times I wish I could give it to other guys, but Coach Skiba is a great football mind and we trust him.”

There is less decision making on the defensive side of the ball. The message there is clear.

“We have to be nasty,” defensive coordinator Bruce Yard told the team this week.

Apollo-Ridge's fate could lie in its defense play. A somewhat unheralded unit has 35 tackles for losses. It played strong in a 22-21 season-opening loss to North Catholic in double-overtime. North Catholic is the No. 2 seed.

Its secondary, though, allowed plenty of short catch-and-runs in a 35-27 loss to Avonworth. That is something Sto-Rox does well behind standout quarterback Lenny Williams.

Apollo-Ridge was strong on both sides of the ball in a 42-28 win over previously unbeaten Beth-Center in the first round.

“We weren't very sharp early on,” Skiba said. “But once we got our feet underneath us, we were fine.”

Zelonka hopes his team sets the tone early, but he enters the game thinking realistically.

“If we come out and play like we did against Beth-Center (last week), I think we can hang with them,” Zelonka said. “But if we come out sluggish and lethargic, we'll get our butts handed to us.”

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