PERRYOPOLIS – No one said breaking a 37-year playoff drought would be easy.
Avella had that opportunity Friday night when it traveled to Perryopolis to take on Frazier. A win would have assured no worse than a fourth-place finish in the Tri-County South Conference and the first postseason appearance since 1976.
Frazier had other ideas, such as enhancing its playoff situation.
The Commodores used a dominating performance by their offensive line, hard running by Nick Smalich and some crucial second half throws by quarterback Charles Manack to take a 33-9 victory.
The win moved Frazier into second place in the conference with a 5-1 record. Avella fell into a tie for third place with Carmichaels, both teams owning a 4-1 conference record. The top four teams in the conference make the playoffs. Avella has three conference games remaining: Carmichaels, Beth-Center and Bentworth.
“We knew they had a very good line,” said Avella head coach Ryan Cecchini. “We knew we had to stop their running game first. But when they got their running game going, that made their passing game even more successful.”
From the first drive of the game, the Commodores exerted their will at the line of scrimmage. They pushed the Eagle defenders back while piecing together a 10-play, 68-yard drive that culminated with a five-yard touchdown pass by Manack to Hunter Patterson for a 6-0 lead.
“That gave us the momentum we needed,” said Frazier head coach Mike Steeber. “Avella had a lot of confidence coming into this game. We have to work at putting away a team as good as they are.”
That first drive was an indicator of things to come. Frazier used its running game to pile up most of its 200 first-half yards, and used a swarming defensive front to hold Avella to just 50 first-half yards.
The Eagles had one first down in the first half and did not complete a pass until 6:45 remained in the third quarter. Smalich had 90 yards at halftime and finished with 85 on 17 carries.
“Our line has been our success the past two games,” said Steeber. “They led us to victory over the last two teams we played, Jeff-Morgan and Avella.”
Frazier built a 20-0 lead at halftime when Tim Carson caught a 26-yard touchdown pass from Manack two minutes into the second quarter and Smalich burst off left tackle for a 17-yard run.
Still, that wouldn’t be enough to quell Avella, which found ways to score that didn’t involve the offense.
After a Shawn Carl punt was downed at the Frazier one-yard line, Avella’s defense stiffened and forced a punt on fourth-and-10. The snap went over the head of Frazier punter Caleb Cox and out of the back of the end zone for a safety.
The Commodores chose to kick off and Nick Kusich returned it 67 yards for a touchdown: Suddenly, Avella had cut the lead to, 20-9.
“We knew it would take four quarters,” said Steeber. “We didn’t feel safe … until our last score. They can make things happen, and you saw it with the safety and touchdown.”
It’s difficult to win games that way, and Frazier salted away this victory by scoring twice in the fourth quarter.
Manack, who completed 9 of 13 passes for 139 yards, found Nate Zurich free over the middle of the field for a 48-yard touchdown the made it 26-9 with 5:56 to go, and Alvin Ross squirted through a hole on the left side and into the end zone from 37 yards out with 1:42 left.
Avella’s offense never clicked. Quarterback Santino Paris completed only 4 of 17 passes for 44 yards and had an interception. The running game produced 101 yards.
“We didn’t expect our passing game to struggle like that,” Cecchini said. “We have got to go back and figure out why a passing game as good as ours can’t get it going.”
Finding those answers will determine if that playoff drought continues for another year.