CLARION — An electrifying, game-changing 80-yard touchdown run by Nick Sipes on the first play of the second half ignited the Curwensville offense and Shawn Sopic turned a quarterback sneak into a 95-yard streak to paydirt later in the third quarter as the Golden Tide pulled away to a 32-7 victory over Redbank Valley in a hard-hitting District 9 Class A semifinal at Clarion University\’s Memorial Stadium Saturday afternoon.
By advancing to the championship game for the fourth time in seven years, Curwensville seized the opportunity to atone for the only blemishes on its 10-2 record, for undefeated No. 1 seed Coudersport did its part to set up a third battle between the Allegheny Mountain League rivals by turning back Johnsonburg 34-14 in the opener of a District 9 playoff bonanza that was capped by Brookville\’s 39-20 win over Brockway in Class AA.
Coach Andy Evanko\’s third-seeded Golden Tide and the 12-0 Falcons will return to Clarion Saturday for a 5 p.m. kickoff.
Redbank Valley, the second seed as the top Keystone Shortway Athletic Conference qualifier, exited the playoffs at 8-4 with players, coaches and fans wondering how much different the outcome might have been were it not for key injuries.
The Bulldogs took a big hit late in the first half when two-way standout Jake Smith suffered a serious shoulder injury that left him patrolling the sidelines with his right arm in a sling after intermission. The 6-2 junior is ever-dangerous as a runner and a passer in the shotgun attack and also anchors the secondary at safety.
Redbank Valley\’s defensive unit already was missing its inside linebackers, Jerrett Magagnotti a practice casualty and Cody Buchleitner rolling an ankle on the first play from scrimmage, but hung tough for two quarters.
Curwensville broke on top 6-0 with 49 seconds left in the first period when Sopic rolled left for a 17-yard touchdown, wideout Cody Botzman delivering a crackback block that got the senior signal-caller around the corner. Sopic carried four times for 28 yards and hit Jesse Hoover with a 34-yard pass to account for all 62 yards in the eight-play drive.
Redbank Valley, aided by a pass interference penalty, answered with a 63-yard march punctuated by Smith\’s back-to-back 13-yard keepers up the middle. Justin Dunnivan kicked the PAT to put the Bulldogs in front 7-6 with 10:57 left in the half.
Smith had the Bulldogs on the move again late in the half when Sipes and Nathan Russell sandwiched him at the C-24 and put him out of action. Coach Ed Wasilowski had to turn to Shiloh Buchleitner, a 5-4 freshman, to direct the offense, and he was held to a three-yard gain on third down, forcing a 38-yard field goal attempt by Joey Monteleone that was short and wide left.
Redbank Valley\’s offensive game plan changed drastically because of Smith\’s injury.
\”It makes us really one dimensional,\” Wasilowski said. \”Those guys had no respect for our throwing game. We just had too big a hill to climb without Jake. That\’s one of the downsides when you run the offense we do and your quarterback\’s handling the ball a lot. We were down to a ninth grader. He can run the ball, but he\’s not ready to throw, especially in a game like this. I\’ve been coaching football 20 years and a lot of that I was a quarterback coach, and I wouldn\’t want to go in there in that situation.\”
Redbank Valley made it to intermission clinging to its one-point lead, but Curwensville emerged with a different attitude and immediately took control on Sipes\’ cross-country run. The powerful senior, held to 41 yards on eight carries in the first half, bolted off the left side, got a key block from Brandon McDonald and tight-roped down the sidelines, running past, through and over several Bulldogs to change the scoreboard to 12-7.
\”All I know is the line did a great job blocking, and the wideouts blocked great\” Sipes said. \”There was a huge hole. You could haven driven a truck through it. I just found green grass. The turf\’s amazing. I love it up here. I feel at home here, and it\’s really fast.\”
\”At halftime, all we did was make some line blocking adjustments,\” Evanko said. \”They were having nine, 10 guys in the box. We made sure what we were gonna do, pick up the right guys. We knew what plays we were gonna run.\”
\”That play completely changed the game around. It was just right then, right there, Nick Sipes turned around and said \’I\’m not ready for this to be over. I\’m gonna score. We\’re gonna be ahead. And we\’re gonna be fine.\’
\”And that\’s pretty much what he did. He just took it to the house. He was not gonna be denied. That was just pure will and desire. That\’s Nick Sipes at his finest moment.\”
Wasilowski agreed the Bulldogs weren\’t the same after that score.
\”That big run by Sipes just deflated us a little bit,\” he said. \”If we would have gotten a stop there, got our feet under us a little bit, (we could have) played with the lead. But then when we got behind, I think the kids said \’I don\’t know if we score.\’ Losing Jake mentally hurt the kids, obviously, a lot.\”
Curwensville, dominating both sides of the line of scrimmage, did not give Redbank Valley a chance to recover.
Following one of the Bulldogs\’ six punts, the Golden Tide paraded 56 yards in seven plays to practically put the win on ice at 18-7. Sipes carried six times for 42 yards, including the final 18 with seven minutes left in the third quarter to make it 11 games he\’s scored at least two TDs. His total stands at 30 for the second year in a row, raising his 2006 point total to 220.
Bulldog Dan Jordan got a great roll on a punt late in the period, pinning the Golden Tide at its five. No problem. Sopic couldn\’t believe his good fortune on a rare first down sneak. Untouched, he was in the clear two steps past the line of scrimmage with nothing but white stripes in front of him. His long TD stopped the clock at 2:29, and Brandon Hess ran left for the extra points that made it a 26-7 bulge.
\”We just came up to the line and Nathan (Russell), our center, said I\’m going to take you to the left a little bit,\” Sopic said. \”I followed right through and there was nobody there. I was off to the races. I just ran as fast as I could.\”
Evanko explained the call, \”They had moved the safety up inside, and they were angling out. They were trying to stop our lead and our Iso plays. They were shooting away from over top of our center, so it was just there. Nathan came off the ball and had a heck of a block. And Shawn\’s got some speed. He\’s got some wheels. It just worked out for us perfectly.\”
A 25-yard punt return by Hess set up the final touchdown, which came on the 27 seconds into the fourth quarter. Tight end McDonald popped open on a seam route and turned Sopic\’s perfectly-thrown pass into a 29-yard score, his second in five receptions this season.
Sipes carried 18 times for 167 yards, topping the 1,900 plateau for the season and nearing 5,900 for his career, and Sopic chimed in with 146 yards on 10 carries to front the Golden Tide\’s 383-yard attack.
Sipes, an inside linebacker, also was the ringleader for the defense with 10 tackles and six assists. Russell, the other inside linebacker, checked in with six tackles and four assists, Matt Holland turned his best game at outside linebacker with eight stops and Sopic added five tackles and his seventh interception of the year.
Safety Philip Michaels came up with his sixth interception, while corner David Kalgren hauled in his fourth. Brian Zemba recovered a Bulldog fumble.
\”It was one of our best defensive efforts against a very strong offensive football program,\” Evanko said. \”Jake Smith and (Alex) Bladel are very good. They\’re a talented football team. I\’m proud of the defense. All of those kids stepped up well.
Evanko also praised the blocking of wideouts Botzman, Hoover, Evan Olson and Michaels.
\”We\’re not a throwing team, but they make such a big, big difference,\” he said. \”They helped spring Nick a couple times. They helped spring Shawn a couple times. They just came up huge for us.\”
Evanko can\’t wait to begin preparations for Coudersport.
\”We were just not ready for it to end,\” he said. \”We\’re having too much fun together. It\’s funny to say this and you\’ll think we\’re a little bit goofy, but it\’s fun being out there Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. We\’re having a good time. We like each other.
\”This couldn\’t be a better night for our kids and our football program. We wanted to go to practice on Monday. We wanted to have a second half together. We wanted to come back here next week. So, we wanted an awful lot of things, and it happened for us.\”
Ends — McDonald, Olson
Tackles — Hawkins, Kephart
Guards — Horton, Skebo
Center — Russell
Backs — Sopic, Sipes, Hess, Johnson
Subs — Caldwell, Holland, Kalgren,Michaels, Botzman, Hoover, Dell\’Antonio, McGary, Kahl, Starr, Guy, Dixon, Lash, Holt, Maney, Thomas, Zemba, Opaliski, Bennett, Thomas, Smith, Johns, Koontz, J. Bloom, Padgett, Winkelman
SCORE BY QUARTERS
Curwensville 6 0 20 6 — 32
Redbank Valley 0 7 0 0 — 7
Cur — Sopic 17 run (kick failed), :49
RV — Smith 13 run (Dunnivan kick), 10:57
Cur — Sipes 80 run (run failed), 11:40
Cur — Sipes 18 run (kick failed), 7:00
Cur — Sopic 95 run (Hess run), 2:29
Cur — McDonald 29 pass-run from Sopic (kick failed)
First Downs Rushing 10 10
First Downs Passing 2 0
First Downs Penalties 0 1
Total First Downs 12 11
Yards Gained Rushing 326 201
Yards Lost Rushing 6 32
Rushes–Net Yards 26-320 42-169
Passes Att–Com–Int 12-2-1 13-6-3
Passing Yards 63 47
Total Plays–Yards 38-383 55-216
Punts–Average 4-33 6-33
Fumbles–Lost 2-1 2-1
Penalties–Yards 3-25 6-40
RUSHING — Curwensville: Sipes 18-167, Sopic 10-146; Hess 4-6, Thomas 1-2, Kalgren 2-0, Holland 1-minus 1. Redbank Valley: Bladel 16-58, Smith 9-48, S. Buchleitner 10-34, Booher 3-17, Rupp 2-11, Schreckengost 1-1, Wasilowski 1-0.
PASSING — Curwensville: Sopic 12-2-1-1, 63 yards. Redbank Valley: Smith 7-4-0-1, 32 yards; S. Buchleitner 5-2-0-1, 15 yards; Booheer 1-0-0-1, 0 yards.
RECEIVING — Curwensville: Hoover 1-34, McDonald 1-29. Redbank Valley: Bladel 3-26, Hibell 1-12, Booher 1-8, Schreckengost 1-1.
FUMBLE RECOVERIES — Curwensville: Sipes, Zemba. Redbank Valley: Haines, S. Buchleitner.
INTERCEPTIONS — Curwensville: Sopic, Kalgren, Michaels. Redbank Valley: Haines.