RiverRats score 86 to reach AIFA playoffs
ROSTRAVER TOWNSHIP -- The Pittsburgh RiverRats secured a playoff berth in the AIFA Saturday. And they did so in a record way.
The RiverRats, trailing 16-8 after the first quarter, exploded for an 86-72 win over the Erie Freeze (1-12) at the Ice Garden.
The RiverRats (7-6) set a league single-game scoring record in the win. They had 11 possessions and scored 11 touchdowns and converted 10 two-point conversions.
"Offensively, we came as close as you can to playing a perfect game," smiled Coach Shawn Liotta. "We really lit it up pretty good. But, more important, we clinched a playoff berth.
"The goal is always to make the playoffs, but as an expansion team, I think it says a lot about our guys that we did get in. I'm really proud."
The RiverRats rolled behind the passing of quarterback David Dinkins, who hit on 15 of 25 attempts for 219 yards and eight touchdowns.
His top receiving threat was Monessen's Brandon Jackson, who caught five passes for 53 yards. All of Jackson's receptions went for touchdowns as he set a personal career high.
While the win was satisfying in that it wrapped up a playoff berth, it certainly didn't come without a cost. The RiverRats lost several players to injuries in the game, the two most glaring were to wide receiver Beau Gibbs and linebacker T.J. Carden.
Gibbs suffered a hand injury in the second quarter and never returned. Liotta said he is not sure of his status, but noted that he will definitely hold out the team's leading receiver in Friday's regular season finale against Huntington.
"Gibbs definitely won't play Friday, that's for sure," Liotta said.
Carden, a Ringgold product, suffered a knee injury in the first half and did not return.
"We lost a few guys on defense in the game and we were banged up there," said Liotta. "I think the scoring reflects that we had several guys out of position who were forced to suck it up.
"With a 20-man roster, there is only so much you can do when you have injuries."
Trailing 16-8 early in the second quarter, the hosts went to work with three TDs to take a 32-24 lead.
Gibbs scored on a 4-yard run to tie the score at 16-16.
After the Freeze went ahead 24-16, Jackson again tied the score on a 13-yard touchdown grab.
The RiverRats took their first lead of the game with 24 seconds left before halftime on an 11-yard hookup from Dinkins to Israel Yaacov.
The two later teamed up on one of two game-changing plays, according to Liotta.
In the fourth quarter, with Pittsburgh holding a 62-48 lead and having a fourth down on its own 17-yard line, Dinkins hit Yaacov for a 33-yard scoring strike.
"That was a big, big play. Not only did it come on fourth down, but it made it a three-score lead for us," said Liotta. "That play was huge."
The other big play that Liotta smiled about came in the third quarter when Craig Haywood picked off a pass and returned it 22 yards for a touchdown.
"Our defense was tested all game and when Craig picked that one off and brought it back, well, it was at least one time that the defense really came through," Liotta said.
"I think those two plays changed the entire game."
Now that the playoffs are in hand, Liotta looks ahead to a quirk in the schedule which he says is beneficial to his team.
The RiverRats close their regular season at home against Huntington (9-4) on Friday. Then have a bye week the final weekend of the regular season before the playoffs begin June 9. The RiverRats will play at Reading (12-2) on June 9.
"We can rest up and get healed up," Liotta said. "I won't hold many players out against Huntington because I don't want guys going two weeks without playing. But, still, I think the bye week at the end of the season will help us."
Friday's game will mark the final time this season fans can see the RiverRats at home and Liotta is hoping for a big crowd.
"We need to get more fans at the game," he said. "People who are not there are missing one heck of a show. We have one of the most explosive offenses in the league."
NOTES: Jackson also caught a two-point conversion ... In a rarity, the Freeze put up 72 points without getting one TD via a pass reception. Quarterback Matt LaVerde hit on 11 of 29 passes for 121 yards. He rushed 16 times for 69 yards with 6 TDs ... The attendance for the game was estimated at 1,200 ... Friday's regular season finale at the Ice Garden kicks off at 7:05 p.m.