North Xtra: Avonworth rallies to make playoffs

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With his team trailing 12-0 at halftime, Avonworth football coach Duke Johncour and his staff turned to a novel approach to get the Antelopes' attention Friday night in the visitors' locker room at Northgate's Alumni Memorial Field.

No ranting or raving. No bold proclamations. Just silence.

"We weren't playing Avonworth football," said senior wide receiver Ryan Welsh moments after the Antelopes had mounted a furious second-half comeback to send the game into overtime.

Avonworth eventually captured a 25-24 victory against the arch-rival Flames in their regular-season finale.

Both teams finished with overall records of 5-4 and identical 5-3 records good for a fourth-place tie in the Eastern Conference. With the victory, however, the Antelopes nailed down the fourth playoff spot from the Eastern Conference based on the WPIAL's first tiebreaker -- head-to-head results -- and will begin the WPIAL Class A playoffs this week on the road.

The Antelopes will travel to Rochester for a Friday game beginning at 7:30 p.m.

After making the playoffs a year ago, Northgate -- which won five of its first six games this season, including a 21-7 triumph against conference champion North Catholic -- lost its last three games to miss the playoffs.

"At halftime, the coaches made us sit in silence," Welsh said. "They wanted us to think about what we have to do to win this game."

Did it work?

It didn't seem to at first as Northgate took an 18-0 lead with 5 minutes, 10 seconds remaining in the third quarter on a 35-yard interception return by Justin Parra.

A nagging trend that had vexed the team in the first year of Northgate coach T.J. Wiley's tenure a year ago, however, had sprung up again halfway through this season: the absence of a kicking game. The Flames attempted kicks from placement after the first and third touchdowns. Both failed.

Northgate attempted a 2-point conversion pass after Cody Walter's 55-yard punt return for a touchdown in the second quarter, and that failed, too.

So while the Antelopes faced a three-score deficit, hopes increased. Especially after freshman quarterback Zachary Chandler hit Welsh with a 28-yard touchdown pass with 40 seconds remaining in the third quarter. Just as important, Cole Pappas, another freshman, kicked the extra point to cut the Northgate lead to 11 points.

The flickering hopes became an all-out bonfire as the Avonworth defense held on Northgate's next drive and put the Flames in punt formation.

On fourth down at the Northgate 29, the ball was snapped over the punter's head, and Avonworth took over on the Flames 11. Four plays later, running back Andrew Broadus bulled over from the 1 to cut the Northgate lead to five at 18-13 with about nine minutes left in the game.

Avonworth's 2-point attempt failed, but the Antelopes had plenty of hope, especially when a Northgate drive that began at its 1 was bottled up inside the 10 by the Avonworth defense with less than three minutes remaining in regulation.

Wiley didn't want a reprise of the sequence of plays that led to Avonworth's second touchdown. So he ordered quarterback Cody Walter to take the snap from the Flames 7, run into the end zone and try to run some time off the clock before stepping out of the back of the end zone with 2:06 left in the fourth quarter to narrow the Flames' lead to 18-15.

"We had breakdowns on special teams," the Flames coach said. "Snaps over the head of the punter that gave them primo field position. I took the safety because I was afraid of the snap over the head [of the punter] or we'd bobble it and they'd get a touchdown. By giving up the safety, I still felt we had a fighting chance, and I knew -- at worst -- they could tie us [with a field goal] and we'd go to overtime."

Wiley's worst-case scenario came to pass, and it was Chandler, who threw four interceptions, carrying the day. Passes to Welsh of 28 and 6 yards were sandwiched around a 6-yard pass to Broadus that put the ball at the Flames 10-yard line with less than a minute remaining. Three incomplete passes stalled the drive, and Pappas was perfect on a 27-yard field-goal attempt with 27 seconds left in the fourth quarter.

In the overtime, Chandler connected with Welsh to give Avonworth its first lead of the game, and Pappas' extra point gave the Antelopes a seven-point lead.

Northgate then scored on its first play as Walter, who rushed 28 times for 142 yards, threw a 10-yard pass to Mackenzie Quinn on first down to cut the Avonworth lead to one.

Johncour then called a timeout.

"I didn't know [if Northgate would go for two], but I figured they might," he said.

Walter sprinted to his right on the 2-point conversion attempt, but his pass fell incomplete, and the Antelopes celebrated.

"We start four freshmen," Johncour said. "They're a big part of this team."

That's a point Welsh was emphasizing about Chandler.

"I wouldn't have caught those passes without that freshman quarterback," he said. "He's a freshman, and he's going to be a superstar one day. Watch out, He's good." hsfootball

First Published November 1, 2012 4:00 AM


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