PORT ALLEGANY — The same storyline has held true for the Port Allegany football team since August.
The Gators knew they weren’t going to surprise anyone this season, given the wealth of talent they returned from last year’s District 9 Class A semifinalist team. This year, they’d be the favorites, a team with a deep backfield to run behind as talented an offensive line as one will find in this part of the state.
Three months later, Port is just that — the top seed in the Class A playoffs.
After receiving a bye through the quarterfinals, Port’s championship pursuit begins Saturday with a semifinal date against No. 4 Keystone. The Gators met the same Panthers in last year’s Class A quarters, but unlike last year, they carry playoff experience — and an earned expectation to win — into a game in which they’ll be favored.
Head coach Justin Bienkowski’s group is well-versed in taking care of business. This Saturday at Parkway Field in Bradford, they’ll be asked to do so once more for the right to play for a District 9 championship.
“I don’t think there’s any secret,” Bienkowski said after Wedneday’s practice. “They’re going to try to use their wing-t misdirection and we’re going to try to use the clock and pound the ball at them. We like to possess the ball and keep things our style; play our game.”
Port earned the top seed after a 9-1 finish, one that saw it go undefeated in the Region 2 league and knock off defending Class A champion Redbank Valley. A week after that win, the Gators traveled to Keystone (7-4), where they toughed out a 20-10 win after trailing for much of the game.
It was Port’s second win at Keystone in as many years, as the then-No. 5 Gators won a gritty, 14-12 upset decision over fourth-seeded Keystone last November.
While the schools lie 90 miles and three counties apart, their recent matchups have created familiarity. As the rivalry becomes a trilogy, Port will seek to stymie the run-happy Panthers once more.
“We’ve watched our game from two weeks ago, just seeing what we can do better, fixing some things, throwing some wrinkles in and preparing for Keystone,” Port senior QB Drew Evens said. “We want to do what we do — try to pound the rock. We’ll make adjustments if we need to, but as long as it’s working, we’re going to continue to play our game.”
THEIR LAST meeting with Keystone was decided in the fourth quarter, a period that saw the Gators score twice in its final five minutes.
Evens hooked up with Noah Archer for a 50-yard touchdown pass with 4:46 to play before Archer dashed for a 21-yard touchdown run two minutes later. Before then, however, Keystone was able to limit the Gators on the ground, as Evens attempted an uncharacteristically high 29 passes.
Like they’ve done before, though — and did at Keystone in the playoffs last year — the Gators found a score when they needed it. The group has steadily learned to win as it has matured at the varsity level, and this year, its late-game composure has been crucial on several occasions.
“We’ve talked about not having let downs and being able to get up for every game, and last time against Keystone we had a bit of a let down at the tail end of what had been a gauntlet part of our schedule,” Bienkowski said. “We were able to come out of there with a win, but now we want to be more focused and make sure we’re playing our best football.”
Each team will turn to a handful of ball-carriers.
More often than not, Blaine Moses has been the workhorse out of Port’s backfield, logging 162 carries for 840 yards and 17 touchdowns. Noah Archer has carried it 104 times for 558 yards and seven touchdowns while also adding 41 receptions for 544 yards and five scores, while Evens has made his presence felt in the ground game, rushing 87 times for 442 yards and five TDs.
Keystone counters with top back Kyle Nellis, a senior who has ran the ball 156 times for 1,153 yards and 17 touchdowns. Tyler Allbright plays an Archer-like role for the Panthers, with 97 carries for 705 yards and five touchdowns plus 29 receptions for 573 yards and nine scores.
Aiden Sells leads Keystone defensively with 93 tackles and Moses leads Port with 101, exhibiting the star power that is often found in playoff games.
“We’ve stuck together and worked together every game,” Evens said. “Just playing together as a team has been the big thing. We’ve been working all year, all summer, our entire careers. We’re just excited to have the opportunity to compete for (a championship).”
A win would put either side into the Class A title game, a place Port hasn’t been since its 2012 championship run. After notching their first playoff win in a decade last year, the Gators hope that Saturday takes them another step forward.
But, hopefully, it won’t be the last step they’ll take this fall.
“Everything this group has done since we started has earned them the right to be here, to compete for a District championship and have their opportunity,” Bienkowski said. “We know that it’s not going to be given to us so we want to make sure we’re staying focused on doing the things we do best and what has allowed us to get here.”
DEFENSE HAS been St. Marys’ calling card all year and, last Friday, it helped vault the Dutch into the District 9 Class 3A championship game.
A 12-7 victory over third-seeded Punxsutawney sent No. 2 St. Marys onto Friday’s Class 3A title contest, where it will meet top-seeded Clearfield. It was the program’s first playoff win under Chris Dworek after qualifying for the postseason each of his first three seasons.
Logan Mosier led the Dutch with 16 total tackles, providing a spark to his team since his return from a mid-season injury. Eli Rippey added 10 tackles and Waylon Wehler and Matthew Davis each had nine, working together to hold the Chucks under 100 yards rushing.
St. Marys and Clearfield each enter the title game with 7-3 records. The Bison have knocked St. Marys out of the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, providing an extra incentive for the title-hungry Dutch.
St. Marys and Clearfield will kick-off from Varischetti Field in Brockway at 7 p.m. Friday, while Port and Keystone are slated for a 1 p.m. Saturday start at Bradford. No. 2 Redbank Valley and No. 3 Brockway will contend in the other Class A semifinal, while No. 1 Central Clarion takes on No. 2 Brookville in the Class 2A final.