SLIPPERY ROCK — All season long, Ridgway relied on a multitude of playmakers to move the ball and keep opposing teams on their heels. On Friday night, the Elkers got a taste of their own medicine.
Wilmington (12-0) used its usual 1-2 backfield punch of Ethan Susen and Darren Miller, plus some key plays from quarterback Caelan Bender, to grind out a 45-27 win over the Elkers (11-2) in the PIAA quarterfinals at Mihalik-Thompson Stadium at Slippery Rock University.
With the win, the Greyhounds advance to the PIAA semifinals, where they will face the winner of Avonworth and Washington, who play today at noon.
Meanwhile, the loss brings to an end what was another successful season for the Elkers. Ridgway captured its fourth consecutive District 9 championship a week ago, and showed vast improvement from last year’s 56-14 quarterfinals loss to the Greyhounds.
“They battled,” Ridgway head coach Mark Heindl said of his players. “Nobody thought we’d have a chance in this game… We’re closing the gap, and I think we represented District 9 very well tonight. It shows us where our program’s going, but at the same time shows us where we need to be at. I’m proud of each and every one of those kids.”
Wilmington’s success came largely through the run game, as the Greyhounds pounded out 443 yards on 46 carries. Susen and Miller did the bulk of the work, as Susen rushed for 179 yards and two first quarter touchdowns on 17 carries, while Miller ran for 176 yards and three scores on 21 carries.
As the two wore down the Elker defense, Caelan Bender started calling his own number, and finished the night with 43 yards on four carries.
That balanced attack was crucial to the Greyhounds’ success, said Wilmington head coach Brandon Phillian.
“That’s the key to our offense is having that balance with three guys that can carry the football,” he said. “I thought the balance was key… It makes it tough, because you can’t key on one guy, and that’s our offensive philosophy.”
Susen’s pair of scores put Wilmington up 14-0 after the first quarter, and then Miller struck for the first of his three midway through the second to extend the lead to 21-0.
The Greyhounds were on the verge of making it 28-0, as they were into the red zone. But a Susen fumble was recovered by Ridgway’s Tyler Watts, and the linebacker took the recovery to the house for an Elker touchdown. The score drew Ridgway to within 21-7.
“To see (Wilmington) go up 14-0 and then 21-0 right off the bat, that scoop-and-score put us right back into it,” Heindl said of the play.
However, Greyhound returner Mason Reed took the ensuing kickoff 40 yards to the Ridgway 35, and then a few plays later hauled in a 25-yard touchdown pass from Bender to put Wilmington up 28-7 at halftime.
And though that final Greyhound score had the potential to be a back-breaker, Ridgway refused to quit. The Elkers came out of halftime and went on a 46-yard march to the end zone, capped by a five-yard Jake Wickett run to make the score 28-14.
After an ensuing Wilmington field goal by Daniel Hartwell put the Greyhounds back up 31-14, the Elkers went on another touchdown march, this one 55 yards, to get to within 10, 31-21, with 10 minutes to go in the fourth quarter.
The drive was capped by the first of two eight-yard touchdown passes from Paul Gresco to Austin Green.
But as it had in the first half, Wilmington had an answer once Ridgway started seizing momentum. The Greyhounds responded with back-to-back Miller touchdowns, the first a nine-yard run and the other a 33-yarder, to go up 45-21 and put the game out of reach for good.
“That was the biggest thing was our ability to handle adversity,” Phillian said. “There were times Ridgway stole the momentum, and our guys could’ve gotten down and questioned themselves, but I thought the ability to conquer adversity was the key to winning the game tonight.”
On Ridgway’s final drive, Gresco found Green for one final eight-yard score as time expired, bringing the final tally to 45-27.
Gresco finished with 186 yards passing and the two scores on a 21-for-41 night. Green hauled in seven receptions for 69 yards and a pair of scores, and Matt Dush added nine receptions for 106 yards.
Heindl says the game was truly closer than the 18-point margin would suggest.
“The score doesn’t reflect how hard we really did play with them,” he said. “It was 45-27, but there were times we left some points on the board and gave up some key plays to those guys.”
Heindl also noted that the Elkers will grow from the experience, and continue to bridge the gap.
“They gave us some things we really need to focus on in the offseason,” he said. “We’re going to take this, learn from it and build off of it.”
AT SLIPPERY ROCK
Ridgway 0 7 7 13—27
Wilmington 14 14 3 14—45
First Downs: R: 19, W: 23; Rushes/Yards Rushing: R: 16-71, W: 46-443; Yards Passing: R: 186, W: 39; Comp-Att-Int: R: 21-41-0, W: 3-7-0; Penalties: R: 3-25, W: 8-70; Fumbles-Lost: R: 0-0, W: 8-70; Total Yards: R: 257, W: 482; Offensive Plays: R: 61, W: 54
Passing: R: Paul Gresco: 21-41-186-2-0; W: Caelan Bender: 3-7-39-1-0
Rushing: R: Matt Dush: 2 (-6), Jake Wickett: 3-16-1, Tyler Watts: 7-23, Gabe Watts: 4-38; W: Ethan Susen: 17-179-2, Darren Miller: 21-176-3, Caelan Bender: 4-43, Luke Edwards: 4-45
Receiving: R: Austin Green: 7-69-2, Jake Wickett: 4-32, Matt Dush: 9-106, Tyler Watts: 1-13; W: Junior McConahy: 2-19, Ethan Susen: 1-8, Mason Reed: 1-25-1
W: Ethan Susen, 5-yard run (Daniel Hartwell PAT), 5:10
W: Susen, 45-yard run (Hartwell PAT), 2:32
W: Darren Miller, 19-yard run (Hartwell PAT), 6:53
R: Tyler Watts, 72-yard fumble recovery return (Paul Gresco PAT), 1:16
W: Mason Reed, 25-yard pass from Caelan Bender (Hartwell PAT), 0:41
R: Jake Wickett: 5-yard run (Gresco PAT), 8:03
W: Hartwell, 28-yard field goal, 0:58
R: Austin Green, 8-yard pass from Gresco (Gresco PAT), 10:20
W: Miller, 9-yard run (Hartwell PAT), 7:40
W: Miller, 33-yard run (Hartwell PAT), 2:17
R: Green, 8-yard pass from Gresco (No PAT), 0:00