CLARION — High school football playoffs are about the best teams competing to determine who is the top squad in the state. That is the goal beginning with spring practices, through the summer workouts, every practice during the fall season, and each game during the week. The difference is during playoffs, one loss and it all comes to an end.
Memorial Field on the campus of Clarion University hosted one of these contests as the University Prep Wildcats, representing District 8 from the Pittsburgh City League, made the long trip to take on the undefeated Clearfield Bison, representing District 9.
Four quarters of intense action from both squads made for a very physical contest. In the end, one team would be on the losing side of the scoreboard.
On this afternoon, after a season filled with triumph and joy, the Bison would see their dream of a season come to a close. In a game that saw over 650 yards of total offense, it was the six turnovers by Clearfield that made the biggest difference. University Prep took advantage and used a stellar passing attack to pick away at the defense as it was the Wildcats that would move onto the PIAA state playoffs thanks to a 36-22 victory.
“The turnovers really cost us in the first half,” head coach Tim Janocko said outside the team’s locker room. “The turnovers put us behind in the first quarter, we had two or three in that quarter alone.”
What also proved costly for Clearfield was injuries. Entering the game, Dylan Graham was inactive due to an injury sustained last week, taking away one safety position. During the game, one of their leading rushers, Tyler Stratton, also went down to a possible concussion, leaving the Bison without two key players. Before the injury, Stratton was limited to 11 yards on four carries.
“Every team deals with injuries, but not having Dylan, that was hard. He’s a mainstay in the secondary. Then you have Tyler go down, so now you’re without your two starting safeties against a team that likes to throw the ball,” Janocko said. “We had Christian (Lezzer) back there, and then that takes away from the pass rush.
“We had a younger kid back there as well, and he did a decent job, but he’s just a freshman.”
With the limited players to cover such an intense passing game, it was easy picking for Wildcats quarterback Akil Young. After a record-breaking performance one week ago, Young finished the game going 24 for 37, passing for 351 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions.
On the opposite side of the ball, due to the loss of Stratton, Lezzer had to make up for the lack of rushing with his arm. He would finish the afternoon 8 for 22, passing for 203 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions. Every score in the game itself was a passing touchdown, as combined both teams had only 105 rushing yards.
Things looked promising for Clearfield as they started on defense and held University Prep to just a three-and-out, forcing a punt. However, on the first play from scrimmage, Stratton had the ball stripped from his grasp, and the Wildcat defense fell on the loose ball. The early turnover put Clearfield in a box, as University Prep had a short field and hoped to make points off the turnover.
Unfortunately, a key third down tackle-for-loss forced a long fourth down pass, and the Bison held strong.
Clearfield again moved the ball extremely well the next drive, getting short gains, and chipping away at the defense. On a 1st and 10 at the Wildcat 42, Lezzer completed his first pass of the game to Shawn Lord for a 33 yard gain. The problem was after 33 yards, Lord lost the handle on the ball, and despite a valiant effort, and the ball going closer to the goal line, the Wildcats would recover the fumble. The second turnover gave University Prep a long field, but it also gave Young a chance to show off what has been his strength all season.
On the first play from scrimmage, he connected with Marcus Johnson for 40 yards, then after an 18-yard run by Abner Roberts, he connected with Clay Moorefield for 13 more yards. Young would be sacked and held to a one-yard gain on the next two plays, but he then looked deep for Moorefield again, and despite being surrounded by Bison defenders, he would snag the ball and get in the end zone for the first touchdown of the game. The ensuing extra point was blocked, leaving the score 6-0 with just under four minutes left into the first quarter.
Clearfield was forced to punt on the next possession, and then University Prep once again used their passing attack to put more points on the board. This time Young connected with Myles Catlin for a 15-yard strike. He would connect with Curtis Williams for the two-point conversion to make the score 14-0 entering the second quarter of play.
The Bison would answer back with their own big play. On a 3rd and 14, Lezzer decided to go deep, and Trey Jordan managed to get loose in the secondary, and caught the pass in stride. Once he reached full speed, there was no catching him and Clearfield finally put points on the board. Spencer Herrington made the score 14-7 with just under 11 minutes till halftime.
Wanting to get a quick swing in momentum, Clearfield pounced on the first play of the Wildcats’ next drive. Young looked left, but Seth Beardsley went for the ball as well and brought down the interception. With a short field, Clearfield looked to tie the game now that momentum was on their side.
Sadly, they were halted on fourth down, and possession went back to University Prep. It took only five plays for the Wildcats to get back on the scoreboard as Young would again connect with Catlin, this time on a 40-yard bomb down the field for the third passing touchdown of his game. The Wildcats converted the two-point conversion, leaving the score 22-7, and still half a quarter to play.
Clearfield’s third turnover of the first half came two plays after the score as Lezzer’s pass was intercepted by Johnson. The Bison defense would hold and force a punt, saving possibly another touchdown.
But, University Prep decided to try some trickery, and went for the fake punt. However, the Bison held, and took over on downs.
The following drive, despite showing some promise, would end again in disappointment. Lezzer went deep down the right side, looking again for Jordan. Unfortunately, Mauree Clemm stepped in front of the ball, intercepting the pass and going out of bounds at the two-yard line.
Clearfield would manage to put points on the board two plays later, forcing a safety after Roberts was tackled in the end zone. However, the 22-9 gap would remain until halftime, with Clearfield receiving the second half kickoff.
The third quarter would not see any scoring by either team. In fact, it would be more about turnovers than scores. First, Young would fumble the ball following an 8-yard gain on the Wildcats’ first drive of the second half. Two plays later, Seth Ford lost the handle on his handoff, the third lost fumble for Clearfield in the game. Then, three plays after that, Young tossed his second interception of the game, this time by Jake Wingate.
It would not be until the Bison took over with 4:51 left in the third would the game begin to become interesting. The Bison would move the ball well on the drive, with Lezzer running for four plays and completing a 28-yard pass to Jordan. Unfortunately, the drive stalled at the 48, and a punt followed. The snap went low and Herrington managed to get the kick away, however in doing so was hit after the ball left his foot.
That resulted in a roughing-the-kicker penalty for the Wildcats, who would be hit with 18 flags in the game, and breathed new life into the Bison. Six plays after the mistake, the Bison would be in the end zone as Jordan reeled in his second touchdown pass of the day. Herrington missed the extra point, leaving the score 22-15 just nine seconds into the final quarter.
University Prep would answer right back with their own eight play, 80-yard drive that was capped off with Young finding Curtis Williams in the end zone from eight yards out. Another two-point run made the score 30-15 with 8:16 remaining.
“Each time we seemed to get momentum they would take it back,” Janocko said. “They are a very athletic team.”
Clearfield would again score on the next drive. It appeared to stall out as Lezzer found Jordan one more time from four yards out on 4th down. The extra point made it 30-22, but with 4:51 to go there was still time to answer back.
Sadly for the Bison, Young put the game away with 2:13 remaining as he found Catlin one more time on a 20-yard touchdown pass. The ensuing run for two failed and it was 36-22.
Clearfield tried on their final possession to get close, but the final pass by Lezzer was intercepted on fourth down, icing the game as Young would kneel on the ball for the last two plays of the game.
The Bison would end the season with an 11-1 record, but the graduating class of players can say they were part of a historic class that saw three consecutive District 9 championships, two undefeated regular seasons, and one trip to the PIAA playoffs. Janocko afterward had nothing but praise for the team, his players, and the accomplishments they achieved over three years of action.
“I have so much to say about this senior class. We’ve won 13, 11, and 11 again over the last three years,” Janocko said. “We’ll always keep fighting to get to the next level, then the next, and the next. But they certainly have a lot to be proud of.”
As the Bison walked to the locker room, their families greeted them with open arms. The cheerleaders sang “We are proud of you” and the emotion began coming out from everyone. Tears began pouring from the eyes of the players and their parents, as the realization that the football season was over. No more putting on the jerseys, no more strapping on the helmets, no more lacing up the cleats. There were no hard feelings, no anger at the loss, and no questioning what went wrong.
The Bison were introduced when the game started as a team. They walked off the field the same way…as a team.
See photos of the season finale here: http://www.clearfieldfootball.org/111612Game.html
SCORE BY QUARTERS
University Prep 14 8 0 14 - 36
Clearfield 0 9 0 13 - 22
WILDCATS: 30-yard pass from Young to Moorefield (Kick blocked), 3:41
WILDCATS: 15-yard pass from Young to Catlin (Daniels run), 0:07
BISON: 70-yard pass from Lezzer to Jordan (Herrington kick), 10:46
WILDCATS: 40-yard pass from Young to Williams (Daniels run), 6:18
BISON: Tackle for loss in end zone for Safety, 0:42
BISON: 7-yard pass from Lezzer to Jordan (Herrington kick wide right), 11:51
WILDCATS: 8-yard pass from Young to Williams (Daniels run), 8:16
BISON: 4-yard pass from Lezzer to Jordan (Herrington kick), 4:51
WILDCATS: 20-yard pass from Young to Catlin (Roberts run failed), 2:13
First Downs: 15/9
Rush Yards: 29/76
Pass Yards: 351/203
Total Yards: 380/279
Penalty Yards: 136/70
Fumbles Lost: 1/3
Time of Possession: 21:32/26:28
University Prep: Daniels-6 carries, 27 yards; Roberts-5 carries, 20 yards; Young-4 carries, (-14) yards; Moorefield-1 carry, (-5) yards; TEAM-2 carries, (-2) yards.
Clearfield: Lezzer-22 carries, 46 yards; Ford-8 carries, 18 yards; Stratton-4 carries, 11 yards.
University Prep: Young-24 for 37, 351 yards, 5 TD, 2 INT
Clearfield: Lezzer-8 for 22, 203 yards, 3 TD, 3 INT; Woomer-0 for 4, 0 yards.
University Prep: Moorefield-8 catches, 96 yards, TD; Catlin-5 catches, 91 yards, 3 TD; Williams-5 catches, 61 yards, TD; Johnson-3 catches, 70 yards; Roberts-2 catches, 26 yards; Daniels-1 catch, 7 yards.
Clearfield: Jordan-6 catches, 146 yards, 3 TD; Lord-1 catch, 33 yards; Ford-1 catch, 22 yards.