United making late surge toward playoffs
Northern Cambria -- Although the United Lions may be down, they're not out of the District 5/6 Class AA playoff picture yet.
In their most impressive performance of the season, the Lions drubbed the Colts 35-13 Oct. 19 here, improving to 4-4.
The Colts dropped to 3-5 and completed the home portion of their schedule winless at 0-4.
To qualify for the playoffs for a sixth straight season, United, currently 10th in the District 5/6 AA rankings, must defeat Saltsburg tomorrow.
Before that, both eighth seeded Tyrone and ninth seeded Chestnut Ridge must lose tonight. A rather unlikely trifecta, but stranger things have happened.
"Whatever happens, happens," said United Coach Chris Matava who guided his team to a district title in his first season, 1998.
"The effort they put forth was the effort we were looking for all season and that's the way (I knew) our guys are capable of playing."
Leading the way was Tony Fatula, a one-man wrecking crew. Fatula scored four touchdowns, rushed for 173 yards on 32 carries, accounted for three tackles for losses, and he recovered a fumble.
"Tony came off the field and said, 'Coach I'm possessed, keep feeding me the ball,' and when you got a horse like that running like he was you have to go with him.
"Don't forget the job the line did," Matava marveled. "Tony had the hot hand and the line did a tremendous job."
Both teams scored on their opening possessions, but Northern Cambria went first.
Tailback John Ashurst ran 59 yards for the first score, and Adam Carpinello's extra point made it 7-0 1:59 into the contest.
The Lions bounded right back. Starting at their own 18, United drove 82 yards on nine plays.
The biggest play came on a third and seven from their own 21, when quarterback Don Bowers, who has had his ups and downs this year, hit Eli Garshinik on a 44 yard pass.
Fatula then scored his first touchdown on a 12 yard run. Ed Rosporski's extra point tied the game with 5:49 in the first quarter.
"Fatula was the difference," Leahy said. "He played his best game of the year, without a doubt. That's the way you have to step it up as a player."
The Colts' Carpinello nailed a punt that rolled dead at the Lions 1, and United couldn't move the chains.
Forced to punt from his endzone, Fatula saw his kick blocked by Carpinello, and Matt Edminston recovered it for a touchdown.
The Lions then blocked Carpinello's extra point but NC had the lead back, 13-7.
"But again we rose to the occasion," Matava said. "We had to battle back."
United regained the lead in the final minute of the first half on a 67 yard drive.
Fatula carried on seven of the eight plays. The exception was a 20 yard completion from Bowers to Garshinik as the Lions coverted a third and 12.
Fatula then carried four straight times, including a three yard touchdown with 34 seconds remaining. Rosporski's extra point gave United a 14-13 lead, a lead they would never relinquish.
The Colts suffered an emotional blow late in the second quarter and never seemed to recover.
Wide receiver Bryan Staruch suffered a neck injury, and after a 15-minute delay he was taken by ambulance to Miners Hospital in Hastings and later life-flighted to Johnstown for precautionary reasons. Northern Cambria never seemed to regain their edge.
"It was pretty much two different halves," Colts Coach Brady Leahy commented. "After (Staruch) got hurt our kids didn't respond. We let them score right at the end of the half and never recovered. Even at halftime I could sense it. They couldn't get their minds off of him. We couldn't do anything in the second half."
The Lions gave the Colts a bigger dose of Fatula to start the second half.
Following a 28 yard Bob Burkett kickoff return, Fatula carried on eight of nine plays, scoring his third touchdown on a 13 yard run, and Rosporski's extra point made the score 21-13.
"Our offense did things well all night long," Matava said. "We put in a little scheme to attack their defense and our kids executed it to perfection."
On Northern Cambria's first possession of the second half, Fatula asserted himself defensively. He read a screen play tackling Edminston for a nine yard loss. And then on third down, Nicewonger sacked Colts QB Tim Brawley forcing a fumble that Fatula picked up and returned 13 yards to the NC 14 yard line.
United capitalized on the turnover. Faced with fourth and 6 from the 10 yard line, Bowers hit Nicewonger on a 10 yard strike. Rosporski's fourth extra point gave United a commanding 28-13 lead.
The Lions defense dominated the third quarter. Northern Cambria lost 16 yards in the quarter and they were held to 4 net yards in the entire second half. The Colts had just 113 yards of total offense, and 59 came on Ashursts touchdown run to begin the game.
"We played outstanding defense," Matava commented. "We played with emotion, we played with intensity. We played the way we're used to seeing a United football team play and they did it tonight and my hats off to our guys."
Fatula capped his big night on a 1 yard dive for his fourth touchdown with 10:45 to play in the game. This time, Christian Schnell, a foreign exchange student from Germany booted the extra point to set the final at 35-13.
"Everything finally worked for us tonight," Matava said. "We finally played a 48 minute game and I'm very proud of them."
Now Matava will wait 48 hours to see if United gets the necessary help to qualify for the post season.
"You never know what's going to happen," Matava said. "We told our kids the playoff picture looks dim but we still have a chance to salvage our season, have a winning season and if we finish 5-4 we can feel good about ourselves.
They had a lot to feel good about last week.