ELIZABETH – Fort Cherry had five-time defending WPIAL champion Clairton right where the Rangers wanted midway through the second quarter of a Class A quarterfinal football game Friday night.
The Rangers’ offense had Clairton on the ropes, forging a stunning 29-14 lead. Fort Cherry scored on four of its first five possessions and successfully executed an onside kickoff.
Everything was going the Rangers’ way. Momentum was clearly on their side. And Clairton was concerned.
“I sure was,” admitted Clairton coach Tom Nola.
That concern didn’t last very long.
Clairton, playing with the determination of a four-time defending state champion, reeled off 38 unanswered points in less than 24 minutes and pulled away for a wild 52-35 victory at Elizabeth Forward High School.
Clairton’s Harrison Dreher rushed for 75 yards on 15 carries and scored three touchdowns, two on runs of 55 and 51 yards, and the other a 60-yard reception. J’juan Jackson returned a first-half interception 77 yards for a score and added a short touchdown run in the fourth quarter for the Bears.
Clairton (10-1) will play top-seeded Sto-Rox in next weekend’s semifinals. It will be a rematch of the last two WPIAL championship games.
Fort Cherry ends its season with a 10-2 record, with both losses coming against Clairton. The Bears edged the Rangers 36-28 in a Black Hills Conference game in September.
Quarterback Matt Heslin completed 11 of 27 passes for 208 yards and three touchdowns, including two to wide receiver Alex Babirad, who missed the Rangers’ playoff win at Carmichaels last week because of a concussion. Running back Koltan Kobrys rushed for 176 yards on 24 carries and scored three touchdowns, including two rushing.
“When we were down 29-14, our players were still confident,” Nola said. “That’s why we’ve won 75 of our last 76 games.”
If the Bears’ confidence wasn’t shaken by Fort Cherry’s fast start, then it should have been.
Fort Cherry came out passing and forged a 22-8 lead with eight minutes left in the first half. The only Clairton score in that stretch was Jackson’s interception return in the first quarter.
The Rangers methodically moved the ball in the first 20 minutes. Heslin completed touchdown passes of 29 yards to Babirad and 19 yards to Kobrys, who opened the scoring with a 20-yard jaunt around left end.
“We knew that when we put Kobrys in the backfield or put him in motion, Clairton would sell out on the run and put eight men in the box,” Fort Cherry coach Jim Shiel explained. “We had to come out passing, and it worked. It even opened up Kobrys’ running.”
Clairton pulled to within 22-14 on a 60-yard pass on a crossing route from Aaron Mathews to Dreher. Fort Cherry answered only 22 seconds later, when Kobrys burst 39 yards off right tackle for his third touchdown, pushing the Rangers’ lead to 29-14.
“We had ’em on the ropes,” Shiel said.
On the next offensive play, Fort Cherry’s Daniel Barley intercepted a Clairton pass at midfield, and the Rangers had all the momentum as they looked for what could have been a knockout punch. Clairton’s defense, however, responded, forcing FC to go 3-and-out on its next three possessions.
With FC suddenly stalled, Clairton needed only three offensive plays to regain the lead. Dreher went 55 yards around left end, and two minutes later Mathews went 39 yards around right end for another Clairton score. Raymone Clifford’s run and dove over the pylon for the two-point conversion put Clairton ahead 30-29 with three minutes left in the half. The Bears scored 16 points in only three offensive plays.
“Quite frankly, I’m still shell-shocked,” Shiel said. “It was like we forgot how to play fundamental football. We were in control of the game, and all of a sudden we started missing tackles, lunging instead of getting our feet under us and making tackles. They hit a couple of big plays, then fundamental football went by the wayside. We stopped tackling, and this game is all about blocking and tackling.”
The Rangers did have a chance to take a lead into halftime after recovering a Clairton fumble at the Bears’ 12-yard line with 22 seconds left. However, a 16-yard TD pass from Heslin to tight end Zach Dysert was negated by a penalty.
Fort Cherry stopped moving the football in the second half. After Kobrys’ third TD midway through the second quarter, the Rangers didn’t muster another first down until the fourth quarter, after Clairton had padded its lead to 44-29. James Hines caught a 33-yard TD pass from Ryan Williams, and Dreher scored on his 51-yard burst up the middle during the third quarter.
Fort Cherry, which was plagued by poor punts and penalties, finally mounted another scoring drive late in the game, covering 81 yards with Heslin throwing 35 yards to Babirad for the game’s final score. Sheil said Clairton switching to a two-deep, man underneath pass coverage in the second half stopped FC’s passing game.
“Our defensive coaches made some adjustments at halftime,” Nola said. “Offensively, we moved the ball both on the ground and through the air.”