DUBOIS — For the fourth year in a row, the Ridgway Elkers are District 9 champions, and all it took was a performance for the record books.
Behind five passing touchdowns from quarterback Paul Gresco and a defense that forced six Clarion turnovers, the Elkers overcame a 14-point halftime deficit to top the Bobcats 56-35 in the D9 Class AA championship at E.J. Mansell Stadium in DuBois on Saturday night.
The win is Ridgway’s fourth consecutive victory in D9 championship games, and the Elkers are now just the third team in District history to win at least four in a row, joining Karns City (2012-2017) and Clearfield (2010-2015), though Clearfield only made three PIAA playoff appearances during that span due to a sub-regional tournament with Districts 5, 6 and 8.
“This is a unique group of kids. They are some of the toughest, hard-nosed kids I’ve been around, and they hate to lose,” Ridgway head coach Mark Heindl said of his unit’s comeback performance. “They bring each other up, and it was a prime example in the second half.”
Ridgway’s 56 points ties a D9 record previously set by Clearfield in the Class AAA game in 2015, a 56-8 romp over Punxsutawney. In addition, the 91-point total between the Elkers (11-1) and Bobcats (10-2) sets a new D9 record for most points scored between two teams in a championship game.
“If you told me we were going to score 56 points, I would’ve told you you’re crazy,” Heindl joked after the game. “But we’ll take it, and we’re moving on.”
The performance wasn’t without its drama. After jumping out to a 14-7 lead after the first quarter, Ridgway was outpaced by Clarion 21-0 in the second quarter to go into halftime down 28-14.
The Bobcats built that lead through explosive plays and a pair of fumble recoveries — one by Cutter Boggess and the other by Austin Newcomb.
The duo also did their fair share of damage on offense. Newcomb hauled in a 58-yard touchdown pass during the first half, and added runs of 27, 24 and 12 yards to move Clarion’s offense in big chunks. The back finished the day with 69 yards rushing and 130 receiving.
Meanwhile, Boggess added 33 yards and a touchdown on the ground, and hauled in five receptions for 57 yards and a receiving touchdown. Both of those scores came in the second quarter.
Ridgway had a chance to tie the game back up, down 21-14 late in the half, as the Elkers drove to the Clarion one yard line. But on the next play, the snap went over Gresco’s head, and Clarion recovered at the 11.
The Bobcats then drove 89 yards for a touchdown in just a few plays. With 39.6 seconds to go, Clarion quarterback Calvin German hit Hunter Craddock deep for a 45-yard touchdown to cap the drive off.
With the Elker mistakes piling up and Clarion’s playmakers running wild, Heindl had one simple message for his team at halftime.
“(The message was) that we just need to play our game,” Heindl said. “You can’t give a good football team in championships turnovers, and they capitalized on both of ours… So 24 minutes for the rest of your life, how do you want to be remembered? I think our kids came out and proved what they wanted to do.”
Indeed, immediately out of the break, the Elkers drilled Clarion return man Ethan Burford and knocked the ball loose. Domenic Allegretto came up with the football for Ridgway, and the Elkers were in business.
A couple plays later, Jake Wickett scored the first of his three touchdowns on the night, a 32-yard run that brought Ridgway to within 28-21.
Following the Elker score, Clarion decided to turn to the air… with devastating consequences. On his first four attempts of the second half, German was picked off three times. He finished with four interceptions — all in the second half. He was also sacked twice and called for an intentional grounding. Elker defensive back Jack Cowan came up with three interceptions, and Matt Dush added one.
Ridgway, meanwhile, scored 28 points off of those takeaways.
“We just stole momentum there,” Heindl said of the forced turnovers.
He added of Cowan’s night, “We’ve kind of moved some personnel around the last two weeks… Jack didn’t get in as much as he probably should have, and he proved us (coaches) wrong tonight… He was a difference-maker.”
After Wickett’s score, Gresco struck for four more passing touchdowns — two to Green and two to Wickett — and Matt Dush added a 38-yard run for the Elkers in the half.
Gresco finished with 200 yards passing and five touchdowns on a 13-for-19 day that featured no interceptions.
Green, meanwhile, hauled in eight receptions for 122 yards and three scores.
“It was what we were given. Clarion did a great job of taking things away from us, but they couldn’t take everything away,” Heindl said of Green’s big night. “It took us a while, but in the second half, he couldn’t be stopped.”
The Elkers now move on to face Wilmington in the PIAA quarterfinals. The Greyhounds (11-0) defeated Chestnut Ridge 35-20 on Friday night to advance, and knocked Ridgway out of the postseason a year ago, 56-14.
Friday night’s game kicks off at 7 o’clock at Slippery Rock.