CLARION – The Elk County Catholic Crusader football squad saw their season come to an end on Friday evening as the team fell to the Clarion Bobcats 22-20 in the opening round of the Class A District 9 playoffs. The Crusaders dominated the first half of the game, leading 20-0 at halftime before allowing the Bobcats to score 22 unanswered points during their second-half rally.
"We played a good game. It's a heartbreaker there at the end, obviously," said ECC coach Travis Skrzypek. "Obviously we've got to find a way up 20-0 at halftime to put the game away. We didn't, so that's a credit to them. It's a tough loss. The guys played a hard game."
The Crusaders were led on the ground by Brock McCullough, who had 88 yards on 19 carries. Cole Gerber added 44 yards on 22 carries while Mitchell Vallone had 27 yards on five carries and Joe McLaughlin had 16 yards on 2 carries.
Elk Catholic scored all their points in the first half and all three touchdowns came on pass plays. Quarterback Mitchell Vallone was 7-of-12 for 171 yards.
"We were able to throw the ball with some success, so that was nice," Skrzypek said.
Clarion was led on the ground by T.J. Armstrong with 75 yards on 12 carries, including a 1-yard touchdown run. Quarterback Brandon Heeter was 6-of-15 for 67 yards and a touchdown.
Defensively for the Crusaders, Clayton Housler had two interceptions and Adam Evers had a fumble recovery.
Clarion won the coin toss and elected to receive.
The Bobcats were unable to get their offense moving and quickly turned the ball over to the Crusaders. It took Elk Catholic eight plays to drive 71 yards to the endzone to score their first touchdown on a 29-yard pass play to Joe McLaughlin with 5:24 remaining in the first quarter. Scott Krellner's PAT attempt was blocked, making the score 6-0.
Clarion was again unable to make any progress on their next drive and quickly punted the ball back to ECC.
The Crusaders kept their momentum going, this time needing only five plays to get back into the endzone. Vallone connected with Housler for a 45-yard pass play that put the Crusaders up 12-0 with 43.8 seconds remaining in the first quarter.
ECC would add their final touchdown on their final possession of the first half. The started their drive with 1:33 left on the clock after Housler intercepted a pass by Heeter at the Bobcats' own 28-yard-line. Six plays later, the Crusaders were in the endzone again, this time as Ryan Childs caught a 13-yard pass from Vallone. Ben Cortina made the catch for the 2 point PAT, making the score 20-0 with 21.7 seconds remaining in the half. The Crusaders carried the lead into halftime.
The third quarter was a defensive struggle, with neither team able to get on the board.
The Bobcats scored all of their points in the fourth quarter. Their first touchdown was scored by their defense, as Benton Reichart picked off a pass by Vallone and returned it 64 yards to put Clarion on the board 20-6 with 9:20 left in the game.
Keeping the momentum going, Clarion kept the Crusaders from making a drive and forced them to punt.
Once they got the ball back, the Bobcats used just five plays to further cut into ECC's lead, this time on a 46-yard pass play to Camron Kirkland. Clarion was able to successfully convert the 2-point PAT, making the score 20-14 with 5:32 remaining on the clock.
The Crusaders were again forced to punt on their next possession and Clarion went back to work fighting for the win. The team made it all the way to Elk Catholic's 20-yard-line before three consecutive penalties pushed them back to the 35. However, they then benefitted from a pair of back-to-back penalties on the Crusaders that saw the ball moved all the way up to the 11-yard-line. From there, it took just two plays for the Bobcats to make it into the endzone on a 1-yard run by Armstrong to tie the game. Heeter connected with Marcus Smerker to convert the 2-point PAT, giving Clarion a 22-20 lead with 36.9 seconds remaining.
The Crusaders tried driving the ball down the field, making it all the way to the 50-yard-line before having time for just one final play. With teamwork having played a large role in their successful season, the squad worked together to lateral the ball down the field, with at least seven different players passing the ball back and forth as they drove 40 yards, before the Bobcats were finally able to stop them at the 10-yard-line.
The Crusaders ended their season with a record of 6-4.
Taking the field for the final time were seniors Cole Gerber, Cory Williams, Pat Brennen, Scott Krellner, Adam Evers, Shaun Chiesa, Nick Erich, and Montana Schneider.
With the win, Clarion will advance to a semi-final contest against Coudersport, which will be played at a neutral site on either Nov. 18 or 19.
In other D9 football action on Friday evening, Coudersport defeated Curwensville 28-27 and Brockway defeated Redbank Valley 24-10. Port Allegany will take on Union today in a 1:30 p.m. contest in Port Allegany.