Clairton bounces back, outscores Fort Cherry
McDONALD – Rumors of the Clairton High School football team’s demise were greatly exaggerated.
Clairton, the four-time defending PIAA Class A champion, had its 66-game winning streak – the longest in the nation – ended in rather convincing fashion by Monessen last weekend.
Consider it just a bump in the road to the postseason for Clairton.
The Bears kicked their offense into high gear and returned to their winning ways Friday night with a 36-28 victory over previously unbeaten Fort Cherry in a penalty-filled game at Jim Garry Stadium.
The game wasn’t decided until Clairton’s Khalil Berry intercepted a Fort Cherry pass with 1:50 remaining.
“It probably was the wrong week to play Clairton,” Fort Cherry coach Jim Shiel said. “We knew they would give us their best effort. But I’m proud of our kids. They didn’t quit.”
The win throws the Black Hills Conference into a three-way logjam at the top among Clairton, Fort Cherry and Monessen, each at 4-1.
Clairton built leads of 16 points three times over the first three quarters. Fort Cherry, however, rallied and pulled to within 36-28 in the opening seconds of the fourth quarter, following quarterback Matt Heslin’s two-yard touchdown run and conversion pass to tight end Zach Dysert.
Clairton then drove to the Fort Cherry two-yard line and was on the verge of securing a victory when a holding penalty on a running play and Alex Babirad’s interception in the end zone gave Fort Cherry new life.
The Rangers, using the determined running of Koltan Kobrys, who had 201 yards on 27 carries, drove to the Clairton’s 16 before the Bears’ Jaquan Ford recovered a fumble with 3:55 left.
Clairton, however, didn’t try to run out the clock and Fort Cherry’s Logan Ellek intercepted a long pass at midfield to give the Rangers one more opportunity. That ended when Berry picked off Heslin’s desperation pass on fourth down.
“We can play with (Clairton). We proved that,” Shiel said. “We knew that we could score some points and push their defense around. We knew that if we put two running backs in there, they would load up the box and it would open up our passing game. It did.”
Clairton’s JoJuan Bray caught two touchdown passes, and Aaron Matthews and Lamont Wade each had a hand in two scores. Wade had an 80-yard TD run that gave Clairton a 36-20 lead in the third quarter. It came 16 seconds after Dysert caught a 42-yard score on a seam route from Heslin, who completed four of 11 passes for 118 yards and two touchdowns.
The game, which lasted more than three hours, was marred by penalties, many of the 15-yard variety. Fort Cherry was penalized 14 times for 153 yards, and Clairton had 12 penalties for 120 yards.
Clairton forged a 16-0 lead by scoring on its first two possessions in the first quarter. The Bears drove 77 yards in 14 plays on their first possession, which was capped by Raymone Clifford’s 10-yard run around right end. The play seemed doomed from the start as Clifford collided with Matthews in the backfield, but the Bears’ running back broke several tackles en route to the end zone.
“We were tight,” Shiel said. “It was obvious in that first quarter. We’re young. We have some seniors, but those guys have never played in a game this big before. This game was big.”
On Clairton’s next possession, Matthews hit a wide-open Bray over the middle and the senior tight end cut back against the grain, avoided two tacklers and rambled into the end zone for a 53-yard score. The Bears converted two-point conversions after both scores, with Matthews passing for the second one that made it 16-0.
Fort Cherry, which desperately needed a spark after being held to minus-16 yards in the first quarter, got a break when Matthews fumbled on Clairton’s third possession and the Rangers recovered at the Bears’ 22-yard line. On the next play, Heslin threw his 16th touchdown pass of the season, a strike to Babirad down the left sideline. Fullback John Findling bulled his way into the end zone for a two-point conversion that made it 16-8.
After forcing a three-and-out by Clairton, Fort Cherry used four long gains to score again. Kobrys covered the final 16 yards on a burst up the middle to cut Clairton’s lead to 16-14 with less than four minutes left before halftime.
That, however, was plenty of time for Clairton to secure on a gadget play. Wade took a lateral on a reverse and passed 24 yards to Matthews for a touchdown that made it 22-14 with 47 seconds to play. The 6-5 Matthews was well-covered but outjumped a FC defender in the end zone.
Wade rushed for 140 yards on 11 carries.