West Xtra: Central Valley avoids early playoff upset
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Though it was for a brief moment, it looked as though Central Valley's goal of winning a WPIAL Class AAA championship was going to die. Not in the final at Heinz Field, not even in a semifinal that leads up to it -- but in the very first game of the playoffs.
After completing a 7-2 regular season that saw it claim the top seed in the Parkway Conference, Central Valley needed a 22-yard field goal from kicker Elliot Taylor with seven seconds remaining in regulation, narrowly avoiding what would have been an astonishing upset at the hands of a Belle Vernon team that finished the regular season with a 4-5 record.
Though the game was unexpectedly close, this was not a Warriors team near full strength. Do-everything wide receiver Robert Foster was forced to miss the game because of a suspension stemming from an ejection in the team's final regular-season game, a loss to Beaver Falls. Also, the team's starters at quarterback (Nate Climo) and running back (Jordan Whitehead) were sidelined with injuries.
Gone with those three players was much of the team's offense -- altogether, the trio accounted for 3,139 yards of total offense and 43 touchdowns during the regular season.
Having escaped the upset last week, the Warriors (8-2) will look to regroup for their Class AAA quarterfinal game Friday against Parkway Conference rival Hopewell.
Central Valley will get a boost as Foster is set to return, but its game will not come without challenges. Since losing its first two games, Hopewell has won five of its last eight, the last of which was a 14-6 road triumph against Hampton. One of those three losses, however, was to Central Valley, as the Warriors defeated the Vikings, 35-17, on the road about one month ago.
Beaver Falls proved in the last week of its season that, despite finishing third in its conference, it could play with some of the area's best teams, as it upset Central Valley, 36-35. The Tigers' run continued last week in the first round of the Class AA playoffs as it went on the road and beat Freeport, the No. 2 seed from the Allegheny Conference, 28-14.
An instrumental force in Beaver Falls' win, one in which it rallied from a 14-0 deficit in the third quarter, was the team's backfield, where two running backs, Damian Rawl and Rob Bell, combined to rush for 379 yards. Both Rawl (221 yards) and Bell (155 yards) had season-highs in rushing yards. Also in on the action on the ground was quarterback Dan Stratton, who matched Rawl with a game-high two rushing touchdowns.
As can often be the case in sports, especially football, the team with the star player who puts up the biggest numbers usually finds itself on top by the end of a game. Last Friday in the first round of the WPIAL playoffs, that convention was upheld in some respects and debunked in others.
In the high school game, one which is based primarily on running the ball, perhaps it's not too surprising for the team with the most rushing yards to win and that notion held last Friday. Of the 35 players who rushed for 100 or more yards, just six came from teams that lost, only one of which came from the West Xtra region (Kahlil Caracter of Freedom, which lost to South Fayette).
Among quarterbacks and receivers, however, the results were the opposite. Maybe it should be expected because teams that trail by a larger margin have to play catch-up early, which usually involves throwing the ball more than normal, but 13 of the 27 quarterbacks who threw for 100 or more yards had those performances in losing efforts.
Again, only one of those players came from the West Xtra region -- Blackhawk's Chandler Kincade, who passed for 337 yards, the best among all WPIAL quarterbacks last week, in a 45-21 loss to Mars.
Last week was even rougher for the standout receivers catching those passes, as only two of the 10 wide receivers with five catches or more were on winning teams, with Blackhawk's Alex Caratelli being the West Xtra region's lone representative in that group.
Few running backs in the WPIAL have had better seasons than Rochester's Dante Marsick, who rushed for 1,417 yards and had 27 touchdowns in the regular season, all while helping his team to an 8-1 record.
For both the Rams and their star running back, that success continued last week, as Marsick had 272 total yards and four touchdowns (three rushing, one receiving) as Rochester breezed by Avonworth, 35-15.