RUSSELL — There’s a trophy somewhere in Maplewood High School, probably behind a pane of glass in one of the school’s hallways. That trophy marks the football team’s French Creek Valley Conference title of 1994. And it has served as the end of the championship line for the Tigers program for 25 years now.
Soon, that trophy will have a new one standing next to it.
On Friday night, the Tigers ended a quarter-century run of down years, OK years, and close-but-not-quite years. This year is their year, as they defeated Eisenhower 52-21 to claim at least a share of the 2019 Region 2 championship.
“We’ve been talking about this since we were freshmen,” said Maplewood senior lineman Shawn Weigle. “We wanted to get that region title. We’ve been close the last three years, but we never got it. Now, it feels good that we finally got it. But we have higher goals.”
With the win, Maplewood improved to 8-0 on the season, 4-0 in Region 2. With a win next week over Saegertown, the Tigers can finish the regular season undefeated and own the Region 2 title outright.
However, the list of Maplewood’s goals extends even further than that, into some postseason success. And that’s why last night, while the Tigers were happy about securing the region championship, they were rather subdued in their celebration, feeling that their play against Eisenhower wasn’t where it needs to be at this point of the year.
“The real goal is 9-0,” said Bryan Kelly, another one of Maplewood’s senior linemen. “But we would have liked to have won this game a little easier than we did. We’re still happy with 8-0, of course. Hasn’t been done in awhile. But we’ve just got to get better, get ready for playoffs.”
Eisenhower coach Jim Penley, whose team slipped to 2-6 overall and 2-2 in the region with last night’s loss, thinks that the Tigers will do just fine in the postseason.
“Maplewood’s a phenomenal team,” he said. “Bork (Maplewood coach Bryan Borkovich) has done a great job this year. I mean, you look at that group of guys, they’ve been playing together forever. I told him before the game that I think it’s a very special group of guys. They’ve gone out against bigger schools and have won.
“Our biggest thing is that we just wanted to come out and compete with them. Because we’re a young team. We’ve only got two seniors out there. We want to just come out and scrap and fight. And our biggest goal was to come out against a team that is exceptionally intense, hits like none other, and try to match their violence, for lack of a better word. I felt like we did. But they made some big plays. And we weren’t able to accomplish some stuff when we needed to.”
That’s the part that bothered Maplewood about last night’s game, is that there were moments in which Eisenhower was effective against the Tigers.
“We expect better, mostly on the defensive side,” said Kelly.
While the Tigers’ lead was never in much jeopardy after opening with a 20-0 run, Eisenhower did eventually put together three scoring drives. It was only the second time this year that a team has scored more than twice on the Tigers (the other one was last week, when Franklin put up 28).
“We were sloppy in some areas where we hadn’t been sloppy in the past,” said Borkovich. “That was some of the worst defense we’ve played this year.”
There were some hiccups on offense, too. They put the ball on the ground six times and lost it twice. And their point-afters were a bit of a mess, as they failed to kick an extra point and converted two of their five 2-point attempts.
But otherwise, the offense was as prodigious always.
They racked up nearly 500 yards total. They never had to send the punt unit out.
Kaleb Donor was one of the leaders of that offensive attack. He carried the ball 15 times for 153 yards, including touchdown runs of 8 yards and 18 yards in the first quarter, a 5-yard score in the second, and then a 17-yard run in the third.
Quarterback J.D. McFadden ran in a 6-yard touchdown in the first quarter. And through the air, he completed 10 of 17 passes for 209 yards and two TDs.
His first touchdown as a 10-yard pass into the end zone to Jesse McFadden, who would lead the receiving corps with five catches for 99 yards.
J.D.’s second touchdown throw was a middle screen to Donor, who would take it 76 yards for his fifth score of the night.
One other highlight for the Tigers’ offense belonged to Jason McFadden, who went under center for J.D. late in the fourth, and broke off a keeper 55 yards for Maplewood’s final touchdown of the game.
“Even though we did score 52 points, we were not as crisp as we need to be,” said Matt Niedbala, another one of those seniors on the Tigers’ front line. “There were some errors in our play. We lacked focus at times. We have to clean that up, because we’re going for big things in the playoffs.”
“(A region title) is always the goal every year,” Borkovich said. “Eight years we’ve been working for it. Anyone that’s ever been in the program, that’s what we’ve been working for. These guys have always said coming up through that they were going to win a region title. It’s nice to see them making good on that promise.
“But it’s not where we want to finish. We don’t want to just win the region. We want to go further in the playoffs and make runs at the whole thing. I’m glad to get this. But it’s not the end-game.”