By Michel Boytim
When the new PIAA classifications came out after last year’s school season and Windber moved from class 2A to 1A, it looked like the Ramblers would be on a collision course with Northern Bedford.
The Black Panthers won their first-ever state playoff game last season and nearly eliminated eventual PIAA finalist Redbank Valley and returned a lot of talent this year.
The teams will meet tonight in Bedford for the District 5 Class 1A title.
“I don’t want to look down on other teams, but there were thoughts it could happen,” Northern Bedford coach Garry Black said.
The Black Panthers are 11-0, and Windber is 10-1 with their only loss to undefeated Berlin Brothersvalley, who are also playing for the District 5-8 Class 2A title tonight. The Ramblers are led by running back John Shuster, who averages 14.5 yards per carry and rushes for 2,422 yards and 35 touchdowns.
“I would say he’s one of those kids who is sort of in a class of his own,” says Black. “He’s pretty special and has been special since we saw him his freshman year. We saw them when they were young and beat them in the playoffs in 2019, and here we are now where he’s senior. The year last we were the youngsters and I feel like we’ve matured. Our teams have grown and come together, and he’s a stallion. He’s fast, big and hard to knock down.
Windber played at Northern Bedford and won lopsidedly last year in the regular season, but that was before some of the Black Panthers’ young players took their game to the next level.
“We are a completely different team” says Black. “Children were children. They were in second grade and in some places we weren’t even using them yet. We were trying to stick with older kids to let them develop a bit more, and then they came over the year. Outside of Redbank Valley (in last year’s playoffs) it was our last loss, and I think we’ve been a much better football team since then.
Black said his defense has been playing at its best recently.
“As far as playing with our first team defence, the last time anyone scored against us was Tussey in the regular season game,” says Black. “Other than that, all the scores came on special teams or after we went up 35 and started making changes. This was probably the most important development for our team.
Black believes the two teams meeting in Bedford tonight are two of the best 1As in the state and the winner could make a run in the PIAA playoffs.
“We need breaks to continue on our way” says Black. “We can’t impose a penalty when we make a big play. We have to win the turnover battle. Maybe they get penalized when they hit a big play. Those breaks, I think, would give us the best opportunity to play with what I believe, with us, one of the top two to seven teams in the class 1A.
clash of dynasties
For the past decade-plus, Richland has dominated District 6’s Class 2A and Catholic Bishop Guilfoyle has led Class 1A.
With the Marauders pushed all the way to 2A due to the PIAA’s winning formula this year, the teams will finally meet in the playoffs in tonight’s District 6 Class 2A Semi-Final.
“We’ve won six of the last eight or nine games, and they’ve won as many in double-As,” Bishop Guilfoyle’s trainer Justin Wheeler said. “That’s a ton of games, Laurel Highlands titles and district championships that we’ve won, and it’s just awesome when you get the chance to play a program at the top of the game, just like we do. They’ve been pretty much mirror images of us for the past 10 years, and that’s what the playoffs are supposed to be about this time of year.
Bishop Guilfoyle played what may have been his best game of the season last week in a 54-14 win over Southern Huntingdon in which quarterback Karson Kiesewetter returned from illness.
“I think Karson’s return gave us a boost, and everyone rallied around that,” said Wheeler. “I hope we are going to be as healthy as possible this week. We will build on that. We’ve been waiting for this match, whether it’s the district final or a semi-final. We kind of thought we would bump into each other at some point. I think we both play great football and it will be a great game.
BG have lost just three games this year, all close matches against LHAC powerhouses Central, Penn Cambria and Bedford. Richland is 11-0.
“In the three games we’ve lost this year, we’ve lost the turnover battle,” said Wheeler. “In two of those three games, we had six or seven penalties more than the other team. That’s the most important thing in games like this.
Class 1A Semi-Finals
Cambria Heights and Portage will both look to avenge regular season losses on Saturday in the District 6 Class 1A semifinals.
The Highlanders were shocked by rivals Northern Cambria in the first game this season after going unbeaten and winning the Legacy Conference last year.
“I think we’re quite similar in terms of talent,” said Cambria Heights coach Jarrod Lewis. “I think it’s a rivalry game that they did a great job with in week 1. Our kids know they’re going to fight. I’m sure there’s extra motivation because it is a game of rivalry and because we lost to them, but there’s also a lot of respect there because they’re a good football team.
The Colts won Game 1, 35-28, and will host Saturday’s game.
Heights will have quarterback Ty Stockley, who returned from a leg injury last week in a quarterfinal win over Homer-Center.
“He makes such a big difference offensively and defensively” said Lewis. “He improved throughout last week, and we expect him to improve throughout this week as well.”
On Saturday, Portage travels to Heritage Conference champion Penns Manor on the other side of the range. The Mustangs fell to the Comets, 55-28, in the regular season meeting.
“We know how good they are and how explosive they are,” said Slanoc. “We knew we were going to lose a few points. But it was too much. We sort of lost our temper when things started to go wrong and some guys missed missions. It exposed us a bit and maybe helped us improve in some ways. Hopefully we will do better this time with new wrinkles.
The Mustangs are coming off a win at Juniata Valley last week in which Slanoc went fourth-and-first from his own 16 to just seven in the fourth quarter.
Rather than risk a blocked punt, Slanoc called on quarterback Andrew Miko to execute it, successfully, for 6 yards as Portage sealed the victory.
“I thought about putting the ball in the hands of our kid who took most of the shots for three years and going behind our strength, which is our offensive line,” said Slanoc. “If we had lost on that, I could have lived more than in a goofy way like a blocked kick or something.”