Lancaster Catholic in a thriller
BY JEFF REINHART
COATESVILLE – It was one of the zaniest, most unbelievable endings you’ll ever see in a PIAA football playoff game.
“A total blur,” Lancaster Catholic coach Bruce Harbach said. “A complete blur.”
The events in that blur sent Harbach’s Crusaders to the state championship game for the second time in three years.
And it sent the reigning state champ, West Catholic, home. Maybe forever.
Bobby DePietro recovered an improbable fumbled punt snap with 1:09 to play, setting up Andrew Dzurik’s 16-yard touchdown strike to Sean Titus with 53 seconds to go, giving District 3 champ Lancaster Catholic the lead for good.
On West Catholic’s last-ditch effort, Titus, from his free safety spot, picked off QB Jaleel Reed with 9 seconds to play to seal it, giving the Crusaders a miraculous 23-20 win over the Burrs in a PIAA “AA” state semifinal game Saturday afternoon in Coatesville’s Red Raider Stadium.
“The football gods were with us,” Harbach said. “They wanted us to get back to Hershey. Somehow it worked out for us in the end and I’m so happy. I’m so proud of this team and these kids. They didn’t quit. They battled until the very end.”
Lancaster Catholic ended up taking the rubber match in the series against West Catholic; the Burrs beat the Crusaders 37-14 in the state semifinals in 2008 on a frigid night in Philadelphia before the Crusaders returned the favor with a 23-21 victory in the state semifinals in 2009 – also at Coatesville High School.
That game was also decided on a late touchdown pass by Lancaster Catholic, from Kyle Smith to Kevin Cotchen with time running out – in, ironically, the same end zone and on nearly a same pass pattern as Titus’ grab from Dzurik on Saturday.
The Crusaders went on to win the state championship in their first appearance in a title game a week later in 2009. The seniors on this team were sophomore that season, so they’ve been through this journey before.
Lancaster Catholic (15-0 overall) will take on District 6 champ Tyrone (14-1) in the PIAA “AA” state championship game on Saturday at noon in Hersheypark Stadium. The Golden Eagles edged District 7 champ – and previously unbeaten – Aliquippa 20-19 in the other state semifinal on Saturday at Slippery Rock University.
Lancaster Catholic topped Greensburg Central Catholic 21-14 in the snow in the 2009 finale and West Catholic crunched South Fayette 50-14 in last year’s championship game.
Tyrone is back in the “AA” state championship for the third time; the Golden Eagles lost to Mount Carmel 25-6 in the 1996 title game and beat Mount Carmel 13-6 to win the state crown in 1999.
West Catholic was also in the state championship game in 2008, falling to Wilmington 35-34 at the wire.
The Burrs, meanwhile, might have played their final game as a program on Saturday. West Catholic High School – along with a couple of other Philadelphia-based parochial schools – will find out on January 6 if its doors will close because of budgetary issues.
Trailing 20-16 in the fourth quarter Saturday, Lancaster Catholic, the seven-time reigning Lancaster-Lebanon League Section 3 champ, looked completely out of it when Roman Clay fumbled on his way into the end zone with 2:22 to go in regulation.
West Catholic, the reigning Philadelphia Catholic League, City League and District 12 champ, took over at its own 20 and needed at least one first down to probably slam the door on Lancaster Catholic’s undefeated season.
“We knew we couldn’t let them get a first down or we were done,” DePietro said. “So I’m really proud of our defense for stepping up.”
Facing a fourth-and-1 at their own 29, twice the Burrs lined up as if they were going to go for it, but burned timeouts.
After the second timeout, coach Brian Fluck sent his punt team out and Tristin Freeman awaited the snap.
Said snap sailed over his head and DePietro, who had a huge catch from his tight end spot to keep a drive going earlier in the fourth quarter, was Johnny-on-the-spot, swooping in to recover the bouncing ball and give Lancaster Catholic possession – incredibly – at the Burrs’ 16.
West Catholic was stunned.
“The whole game their long snapper was snapping with one hand, and I noticed that he was getting it back there kind of high,” DePietro said. “I told Isiah (Taltoan, also in on defense for the punt team) not to go. I told him I was going. I told him to keep an eye on the wide receivers in case they faked it. And then I saw the ball go high and I knew I had to get it.”
“I’ve never been so happy to see a ball go over someone’s head,” said Titus, who was lined up as the solo safety waiting to receive Freeman’s punt – which never came. “And when Bobby got it we knew we had to score – and then probably keep them from scoring. We couldn’t get too excited because we were still losing the game.”
West Catholic (10-4) led 20-16 with 1:09 left.
“When the snap went over his head,” Harbach said, “I thought, boy, we have a chance here.”
Two plays later, Dzurik hit Titus on a curl route just inside the end zone stripe and Lancaster Catholic took the lead back.
“(The pass) was right there,” said Titus, who had four catches for 84 yards. “It was just one of our comeback/curl routes and not many teams cover it well. Dzurik came up big.”
Dzurik completed 8-of-17 passes for 137 yards and the game-winning touchdown toss, giving him 20 touchdown passes against just three interceptions this season.
It was all Lancaster Catholic early; the Crusaders jumped out 13-0 midway through the second quarter.
Clay, a 1,500-yard back who was held to 20 rushing yards against Mount Carmel in the state quarterfinals last weekend, had a 39-yard touchdown burst to give the Crusaders a 7-0 lead with 5:03 to go in the first quarter.
Clay rushed for 154 yards and he’s up to 31 touchdown runs this season.
Later, Clay’s backfield mate, Brandon Hollister, popped an 18-yard touchdown run that put Lancaster Catholic ahead 13-0. The Burrs jumped offside on the PAT so the Crusaders went for 2 points but failed.
Trailing 13-0, West Catholic finally got on the board when Reed, who rushed for 126 yards, snuck in from the 1 with 3:54 to go in the half. The Burrs’ PAT kick failed and it was 13-6.
Lancaster Catholic got on the board at the first-half horn when Satchel Ziffer booted an 18-yard field goal. The Crusaders had first-and-goal at the Burrs’ 1 but couldn’t punch it in and settled for 3 points to take a 16-6 lead into the half.
West Catholic, which out-gained Lancaster Catholic 402-328 in total yardage, started its rally on its first drive of the second half, when Reed lofted a 57-yard touchdown pass to Bruce Mapp and it was 16-12. The Burrs’ 2-point pass failed.
Early in the fourth quarter West Catholic took its first lead when Dave Williams – who was held to 55 rushing yards and finished the season with 1,934 yards on the ground – darted in from the 3. Jalil Shoaltz’s 2-point run gave the Burrs their first lead, 20-16, with 9:53 to go.
That’s when things started getting zany.
“That’s got to be the greatest game of football I’ve ever played in,” said Lancaster Catholic two-way interior lineman standout Adam DePietro, a Northwestern recruit and Bobby DePietro‘s twin brother. “What else can you ask for? My brother came up big … Titus made some great plays. We didn’t want our season to end. We wanted to win this game. And we did.”
Somehow. Some way.
“We went from the very bottom to the very top,” Titus said. “I’m just so happy we came together and played together as a team. I think the football gods wanted us to win the game today.”
Stats provided by Dean Beers
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