T-D HS Football

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Central’s Austin Cunningham (2) finds room to run as Richland defenders Curtis Hockensmith (right) and Nathan Ziants move in on the play during Friday’s District 6 Class AA championship game at Altoona’s Mansion Park. Central won, 27-22.

Richland stunned in District 6 title game

By: Mike Mastovich

ALTOONA — As Austin Cunningham and his Central High School teammates celebrated an upset victory over undefeated Richland in the District 6 Class AA title game, the Rams quietly huddled at the opposite end of Mansion Park.
Head coach Brandon Bailey and his staff spoke, often emotionally, to a group that included 25 seniors who have enjoyed immense success.
The ride came to an unexpected conclusion as Central strung together a number of big plays on both sides of the ball and held off yet one more dramatic finish by the Rams. The Scarlet Dragons edged Richland 27-22.
“It’s sad and disappointing that we won’t get to coach these (senior) kids anymore,” Bailey said after Richland closed a 12-1 season. “It’s been a tremendous ride. They finished their three years at 36-5. Those are all school records and some of the best football that’s been played in a three-year span in school history and also in District 6 probably.”
Central improved to 11-2 and will face the District 10 champion next week.
Cunningham had more than a minor role in making that trek possible.
The crafty 5-foot-9 senior quarterback/ defensive back rushed for 154 yards and two touchdowns on 27 carries. He completed 9 of 14 passes for 142 yards and a touchdown. Defensively, Cunningham had an interception on a Dragons unit that picked off two passes and recovered a fumble.
“It doesn’t get better than this,” Cunningham said. “We were underdogs coming in and we knew we had a shot at winning it. We just came out and played hard.”
Central rushed for 239 yards and passed for 142. The Dragons possessed the ball for 14:49 in the first half and did a good job of keeping it away from the Rams in the second half.
Richland entered the game with 3,309 rushing yards and 42 TDs on the ground, and 2,381 passing yards. But the Rams gained 130 on the ground, led by Tanner Solarczyk’s 102 yards and two touchdowns, and Matt Shaffer passed for 144 yards, 71 of those on one momentum-swaying pass to Kyle Flick.
“It was tough. They have a great football team and they made some big plays at opportune times,” Bailey said. “They had a bunch of third downs they were able to convert throughout the night.”
Central’s opening drive was important even though the Dragons had to punt. Central used 13 plays, including a gutsy fourth-down conversion on a fake punt from the Dragons’ own 18-yard line, to chew up half the first quarter.
“We knew that we had to move the ball,” Central coach Dave Baker said. “You couldn’t just give it back to them. They’re too good for that. You can’t give them that many opportunities.”
Richland answered with a methodical 72-yard drive, all on the ground. Shaffer’s 7-yard run and Nico Pecora’s conversion run made it 8-0 at 2:46 of the opening quarter.
“All our guys stepped up,” Cunningham said. “They kind of jumped on us the first drive but we didn’t give up. We kept coming at them.”
Central took possession at its own 5-yard line and moved within inches of the goal line on a drive at the end of the opening quarter and into the second quarter.
Cunningham passed to Bradi Moore on a third-and-goal from the 5. Moore got inside the 1, and a Rams offsides pushed the ball even closer to the end zone.
But the Rams defense stopped Cunningham on fourth down.
After a short punt from the end zone, Central took over at the Richland 31. Cunningham scored on a 20-yard run, somehow carrying multiple Richland defenders with him over the final 10 yards. Central trailed 8-6 after a failed conversion pass.
“I thought really what was key was after they scored we came back,” Baker said.
The Dragons got the ball again after Cunningham intercepted a Shaffer pass at the Central 35 with 1:30 left in the opening half.
Cunningham passes of 24 and 17 yards to Adam Frederick got the ball to the Richland 7 with :04 on the first-half clock. Zach Slagenweit’s 24-yard field goal gave Central a 9-8 halftime advantage.
Austin Conrath’s 5-yard touchdown gave Central a 15-8 lead that stood after three quarters.
“Both teams played good defense,” Baker said. “We had trouble moving the ball. They tackled hard and moved to the ball well, as did we. It was more of a defensive game than an offensive game.”
Richland started the fourth quarter with Shaffer’s 71-yard pass to Flick on the sideline. Tanner Solarczyk ran 16 yards to the 1, and then scored on the next play. Shawn Gindlesberger’s kick made it 15-all with 11:23 to play.
“We thought we got the momentum back when we tied it at 15,” Bailey said. “We weren’t able to get that (next score). Some things went downhill from there. We regrouped, but we just ran out of time at the end.”
Central took a 21-15 lead when Cunningham hit Justin Helsel for 23 yards. Cunningham added insurance with a 20-yard touchdown run with 4:23 left.
“He’s so elusive,” Bailey said. “He gets out there and makes people miss. We’ve got good football players, and we weren’t able to get him in the grasp when we needed to tonight.”
But Richland wasn’t through. The Rams moved 70 yards and Solarczyk scored from 3 yards out to make it a five-point game.
Central’s Moore, who finished with 17 carries for 75 yards, recovered the onside kick.
Still, Richland’s defense stopped the Dragons on three plays and Bailey used his timeouts. The Rams got possession with 1:22 left, but Mike Mock’s interception sealed the win.
“Our kids made plays in those last two minutes,” Bailey said. “We didn’t make plays when we needed to in the fourth and that’s a credit to Central. They’re a good football team.”