By Pete Chiodo
SLIPPERY ROCK —
The Clarion football team hadn’t been challenged at all this season, winning each of its first 13 games of the year, all the way up through the District 9 championship game, via the 35-point mercy rule.
What was not known, though, was how well the Bobcats would handle it should they eventually find themselves in a real scrap.
Turns out they’d handle it pretty well. On Saturday afternoon at Slippery Rock University’s Mihalik-Thompson Stadium, Clarion held off a tough opponent in District 10 champion Lakeview 35-20 in the quarterfinal round of the PIAA Class A football playoffs.
“We played four quarters,” said Bobcats head coach Larry Wiser. “Especially that last seven or eight minutes you could see that the kids really were resolved to finish this thing. ... Hopefully the adversity that we faced with the turnovers, and it was a fairly close game coming down to the fourth quarter, will help us next week.”
Now 14-0, the Bobcats move on to the state semifinals where they will take on WPIAL champion North Catholic — a 48-7 victor over Tussey Mountain on Friday — at a site and time to be announced.
Lakeview, meanwhile, ends the best season in program history with a record of 12-2.
“Great, great, great,” said Sailors head coach Dan York. “Blake (Reddick broke) records here and records there. The offensive line played well this season. The offensive line played well (on Saturday). Defensively we hit a couple rough spots. We were misaligned a little bit, actually, and Clarion took advantage of it. Hats off to them. But the kids played hard.”
Speaking of Reddick, the Sailors’ senior tailback was able to pad both his single-season and career rushing records in District 10 during the loss. He gained — unofficially — 225 yards on 30 carries and scored one touchdown. So he’ll end the season with 2,967 yards and his career concludes with 6,541 yards rushing.
“That back,” Wiser said about Reddick, “you watch him and you wonder how he breaks tackles. He’s just one of the best backs I’ve coached against.”
Even with Reddick’s wheels, Lakeview still couldn’t keep pace with the Clarion and its balanced offensive attack.
The Bobcats amassed 417 yards of offense (Lakeview had 338). In the first half, Clarion did much of the damage through the air, with quarterback John Katis completing 9 of 14 passes for 163 yards and three touchdowns. He would finish the game with 188 yards passing, completing 12 of 18 tries.
In the second half, the Bobcats were more effective on the ground, gaining 170 yards on 21 carries and scoring two touchdowns (compared to the 59 yards and no scores rushing in the first half). Ian Corbett ended up leading Clarion on the ground with 167 yards on 17 carries.
First, however, it was the Katis show. During the opening quarter, Lakeview’s defense bottled up Clarion’s rushers. But Katis was to bail the Bobcats out of a couple long-yardage or late-down situations with some clutch throws.
In fact, on Clarion’s first two touchdowns, Lakeview’s defense pushed back some initial run attempts by the Bobcats inside the 5 yard line. Yet, both times, on third down they put the ball in Katis’ hands and he managed to find a receiver in the end zone.
Midway through the first he connected with Damien Slike on a 1-yard touchdown pass. Then on the first play of the second quarter he connected with Cody Hearst on a 6-yard TD strike.
Lakeview finally came up with an answer in the second. After falling behind 14-0, Reddick opened the Sailors’ next drive with a 47-yard run to put his team at Clarion’s 25. A handful of plays later, Reddick bounced into the end zone from three yards out. A missed extra point made it 14-6.
Lakeview would tie it up on their next drive, however. Again, a long haul by Reddick set it up. This time he took a 46-yarder down to the Clarion 10. Two plays after that, quarterback Zack Bigley found Brandon Rice in the end zone for an 8-yard touchdown play. Bigley then connected with Reddick for the two-point conversion and it was 14-14.
Clarion was able to drive in another score before the half ended, though. At the end of a 10-play drive, Katis targeted a pass at Hearst in the end zone. Lakeview’s Zach Van Dusen had Hearst covered well and got his hand in front of the ball before Hearst could catch it. Hearst fell to the turf onto his back. The ball then followed, dropping down out of the sky and right onto Hearst’s chest. He put his arms around it — touchdown. Clarion went into the half with a seven-point lead.
“How about Cody Hearst’s catch?” said Wiser. “I mean, the Steelers need to put him on the team. They don’t have (Emmanuel) Sanders out there, put Hearst, I tell you what. I couldn’t believe it.”
Lakeview started the third in promising fashion. Van Dusen picked off Katis to end Clarion’s first drive. That was the first interception Katis had thrown all season. And later, Reddick stripped the ball out of Corbett’s hands at the end of a 15-yard run and the ball looped into the mitts of Rice for another turnover.
However, Lakeview failed to convert on either turnover. In fact, that fumble by Corbett was the precursor to one of the biggest turning points of the game.
During Lakeview’s ensuing possession, the Sailors faced fourth down and 1 at their own 31.
“I was ready to punt,” said York.
His players had a different idea, however. And they could be seen encouraging York to go for it.
“I said, ‘All right,’” said York. “So we did it. And we have to live with it.”
Reddick tried to get around the right side of the line, but never quite made it back to scrimmage.
Clarion’s offense took over. Two plays later, Corbett broke off a 27-yarder for a touchdown. The Bobcats led 28-14.
“Our safety actually didn’t get back on that play, so if (Reddick) got through we would have been in trouble,” said Wiser. “It would have been a long run. ... We wanted to get a touchdown but I also felt that it was important to stop their momentum that they seemed to pick up in the second quarter. That was a big play right there.”
Another Clarion fumble — the Bobcats turned it over four times in the game — allowed Lakeview to finally answer. Marquis Spence dove in from one yard out. Van Dusen’s kick was blocked by Antonio Troese leaving it a 28-20 game with 7:03 to play.
Lakeview needed to make a stop on defense. It didn’t happen. Clarion went 69 yards on 13 plays and capped the drive with a 2-yard run by Slike, putting the game out of reach at 35-20 with 1:44 to go.
Notes: It was the final game for 11 Lakeview seniors, including Bigley, Reddick, Rice, Van Dusen, receiver/defensive back Connor Stankovich, running backs/linebackers Matt Sterling and Kyle Canon, and linemen Doug Hawks, Sam Breese, Stan Mellott and Larry Yoder.