Port Allegany set a goal months ago to practice on Thanksgiving morning.
To do so, of course, would require the program’s first District 9 football championship in a decade. Facing adversity late in the Class A championship game, however, the Gators kept their composure.
It certainly wasn’t the comfortable victory they saw in September, but the Gators knew that would be the case in Friday’s rematch against Brockway. Trailing in the second half, Port’s linemen took over, leading explosive tailback Noah Archer to pay dirt twice in the third quarter.
Brockway did its best to play spoiler, but the Gators were simply too good, as they toughed out a 21-14 victory at Parkway Field.
They’ll get their Thanksgiving practice. They’ll do so with hardware around their necks, as well, as the star-studded group finally earned the title of District 9 champion.
“We’re District champs, man,” Port head coach Justin Bienkowski said. “Hats off to Brockway, but I was so proud of our kids. We did not play a very good first half… but our kids got backed into a corner and they came out swinging. I’ll take our guys up against anybody.”
After scoring the game’s first touchdown, Port suddenly found itself trailing at the start of the fourth quarter. Archer took over from there, however, turning in another monster playoff game and scoring two touchdowns in a six-minute span to turn the contest on its head.
With a late-game lead, the Gators turned to their defense for a stop. They then ran out the last three-plus minutes on the ground, completing a 305-yard rushing effort that picked away at the Rovers several yards at a time.
Archer finished with 20 carries for 150 yards and two touchdowns, also catching four passes for 33 yards. He also played an integral role in stopping Brockway’s big-play receivers, helping his team overcome the final obstacle between it and its season-long goal.
“We talked about our schedule all year and how it set us up for this kind of game,” Bienkowski said. “We just kept going and going, taking advantage of some things (Brockway) was trying to give us, and Noah Archer. Enough said.”
Port was plagued by penalties early and throughout, eventually totaling seven flags for 45 yards.
But, as Port struggled to get its offense rolling, its defense looked dominant against a Brockway team whose passing game looked off and whose running game was completely shut down by the Gators. After a Nick Wilfong interception on the first play of the second quarter gave Port the ball near midfield, the Gators finally struck.
After a 3rd-and-15 completion from Drew Evens to Archer, Blaine Moses ran around the right tackle, cut inside to make a defender miss and sprinted for a 38-yard touchdown. That gave Port a one-score advantage that stood until late in the half, when Brockway was finally able to get its passing game going.
After looking down and out for most of the half, the Rovers marched down the field in the final two minutes. They had gotten the ball back on their own 34-yard line after an 8-yard touchdown run by Archer was negated by a holding penalty.
Brayden Fox and the Rovers proceeded to take full advantage, as a 25-yard hook-up with Alex Carlson and a pair of completions to Ashton Brubaker moved them into the red zone. Fox capped the drive with a 12-yard TD pass to Carlson, scrambling to his left before throwing a pylon-bound jump ball that the trusty senior receiver came down with.
Suddenly, Brockway was back even. When Jendy Cuello broke off a 44-yard touchdown run with three minutes left in the third quarter to take the lead, the Rovers had momentum on their side.
The veteran-led Gators responded with a touchdown drive of their own, however, using a mix of Moses and Archer on the ground.
The Rovers were able to contain hard-hitting fullback Moses in the middle of the field, limiting him to 98 yards on 26 carries, but Archer’s speed presented problems in space. After a one-handed catch by Archer converted a 4th-and-3, the senior finished the scoring drive with a 6-yard touchdown run on a sweep around the right side.
An extra point would have tied the game at 14, but the Gators opted for a two-point attempt. They turned to trickery, as Archer took a direct snap and threw a jump pass to Peyton Stiles to give Port the lead.
“We pulled (the jump pass) out last year against Redbank Valley in the (District) semifinals and I said to Coach (Seth) Lowery on the headset, do you want to run that play?” Bienkowski said. “The kids executed it — (Archer) made a great throw and (Stiles) released to the inside just like we coach him to do.”
Brockway quickly drove back into Port territory, as Cuello continued to find the room he didn’t have in the first half. After a false start penalty backed the Rovers up from 4th-and-2 to 4th-and-7, however, a pass attempt fell incomplete to give Port the ball with eight minutes left.
After a couple runs bled some time off the clock, Archer broke off a 57-yard TD run, solidifying the Gator lead. Despite a missed extra point, Port was suddenly back in control with six minutes to play.
When Brockway got the ball back, what had once been a defensive struggle was suddenly beginning to feel like a shootout. The Gator defense pumped the brakes on the Rovers’ rebuttal, however, as Braylon Button sacked Fox on 3rd-and-9 before Archer batted a ball away from Carlson on 4th-and-15.
Port got the ball back at the Brockway 37-yard line with 3:49 left and did what it does best. A few gives to Moses and Archer brought sufficient yardage for two first downs, allowing Port to drain the clock.
A kneel-down by Evens gave way to a sideline-wide celebration and the party was on.
“They were going to bring pressure in the box, trying to stop our line and (Moses),” Bienkowski said. “We talked all week about getting to the edge and not pulling anybody, just Blaine Moses out in front of Noah Archer, and that’s a pretty good thing.”
Moses finished with a team-high nine tackles for Port, while Miska Young had 5.5 tackles and Button added four. Fox completed 7-of-23 pass attempts for 92 yards, a touchdown and an interception, while Carlson caught four passes for 54 yards and a score.
Cuello posted 22 carries for 124 yards and a TD for the Rovers. Evens completed 7-of-11 pass attempts for 59 yards for Port, also rushing eight times for 20 yards. Stiles added a 37-yard run.
“When we came off the field after (Cuello’s TD run), there was no freak-out, no element of ‘this is it’,” Bienkowski said. “It was just keep on playing. That’s been our season in tough games — we back ourselves into a corner and just need to get out of it.”
Port improved to 11-1 on the season and will await the District 10 champion in next week’s PIAA quarterfinals.
They’ll meet either No. 1 Eisenhower or No. 2 Reynolds, which will play for the D10 title today at 1 p.m. The championship was their third in program history, adding to the back-to-back titles they won in 2011 and 2012.
Brockway, which was the third seed in the District 9 tournament, ends its season at 8-5. For the top-seeded Gators, with history now already made, they’ll have the chance to make some more next weekend.
But, first, they’ll enjoy their Thanksgiving practice.
“We won the game and that’s awesome; that’s great,” Bienkowski said. “But it’s one more week with a true family. That’s what our program is all about.”