By TY R. STATES
Tussey Mountain found itself down 10-0 late in the third quarter against rival Northern Bedford in the District 5-A championship game at Hollidaysburg’s Tiger Stadium Friday. The Titans weren’t doing much at all offensively, yet the defense was doing its job and keeping the team in the game.
What they needed was a spark. And they got it.
An 80-yard touchdown pass from Matthew Leonard to Tyler Rhodes put the Titans on the scoreboard. Now Tussey had the momentum and used it to score two more times and add another long touchdown in a back and forth last five minutes to beat the Black Panthers 28-23.
“It’s incredible. I’m so happy for these kids,” Tussey Mountain head coach Anthony Sottasante said. “They’ve wanted this for so long. Praise the Lord. That’s all I can say.”
The Titans (11-1) won their first D5 title since 2013. That championship has been on the mind of the senior class for quite some time.
“This is something we’ve worked for for years. There’s no better feeling than this,” Leonard explained.
“We had to finish what we started this season. We wanted to win this game and we came out in the second half and really got the job done. It’s the most amazing feeling to win this with my boys.”
Tussey Mountain enters the PIAA state championship tournament next weekend against Farrell, the District 10 champions. The Steelers (10-2) defeated Maplewood 35-20 Friday.
The Panthers (8-4) only had 73 yards of total offense in the first half, but were on top 10-0. The Titans had 129 yards of offense but an interception set up Northern’s 23-yard field goal. The Panthers reached the end zone after stopping Rhodes on a fake-punt attempt at midfield.
The third quarter was more of the same with both teams moving the ball a little bit before punting. With 27 seconds left in the period Leonard found Rhodes open downfield. He made the catch and took off on an 80-yard touchdown jaunt.
“I caught the ball and saw Cadin Ebersole. We run against each other in track all the time. I knew I could beat him I just hoped I didn’t cramp or anything,” remarked Rhodes.
The fourth quarter started with Northern punting, and then being flagged 15 yards for tackling the return man on a fair catch. The Panthers also had a horse collar personal foul on the Tussey Mountain drive.
That penalty came on a third and eight play. Kaden Lucko blasted through the line and powered his way to a 21-yard gain. On third and goal Lucko scored from six yards out to give the Titans a 14-10 lead with 9:17 to play.
Northern Bedford punted after a sack by Chad Morningstar. Lucko had three straight runs of over 10 yards, then Leonard found Landon Hennessey for a 35-yard gain. Lucko scored from two yards out to make it 21-10 with 5:29 to play.
From there the Panthers would score twice and the Titans once before the game was over.
A short, line-drive kickoff gave Northern the ball across midfield. Brady Clark put the ball up for grabs on a halfback pass. Two Titan defenders missed their chance at the ball and Dalton Smith caught it and ran 35 yards for a touchdown.
That made it a five-point game, but the onside kick was snared by Dawson Kling and he blew past the Panthers for a 48-yard touchdown.
The Titans were up by 12 points but Northern drove to the Tussey 10 before turning it over on downs with 2:45 to play. Northern got the ball at the Titan 33 with 59 seconds left and added one more touchdown on a 22-yard catch and run by Smith.
Tussey Mountain recovered the next onside kick, took a knee, and celebrated a District Five championship.
It comes down to will. Our defense jsut kept us in position to win the game,” noted Sottasante. “They were on the field almost the whole first half. Our defensive coordinator Tim Lucko is just incredible.”
Rhodes said, “The first half they really had us. We had a bad half. Damon Clark said Juniata Valley was up 22-0 at halftime against us last year and we didn’t stop pushing. That got us driving down here tonight. We knew we could defy the odds and be the team to do it and we did it.”
GAME NOTES: Tussey Mountain held Northern to 74 yards rushing, the eighth time this season the opponent gained less than 100 yards on the ground ... There were 27 points scored the last 5:29 of the game ... Lucko ran 25 times for 117 yards and two TDs. It’s his ninth 100-yard game of the year ... Leonard finished eight of 13 for 170 yards, one touchdown and one pick ... Rhodes caught two passes for 102 yards and a TD and ran seven times for 41 yards ... Hennessey caught three passes for 50 yards ... Smith gained 46 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries ... Thad Leidy was seven of 25 for 143 yards ... NBC had eight penalties for 85 yards. The Panthers won the D5 title two years ago.