KNOX — In a season that has been dominated by the Redbank Valley Bulldogs defense, it is fitting that the Bulldogs defenders are the reason the team is headed to the District 9 Class 1A playoffs.

The unbeaten Bulldogs (4-0) clinched the playoff berth with a dominating 26-0 win at Keystone last Friday night while simultaneously eliminating the Panthers (3-2) from postseason competition.

“I told the captains, if we lose we are out,” Bulldogs head coach Blane Gold said. “I can’t say enough about the way those guys prepare. My captains actually came to me and said ‘Coach, we want to go three hours’ in practice. We typically go two-and-a-half hours. They said ‘We know what this means. We know we are going to get eliminated if we lose.’ It really comes down to that senior leadership. It makes my job easy when you have that many seniors on (the defensive side) of the ball.”

Redbank Valley’s defense limited Keystone to 195 yards of offense and kept the Panthers backed up in their own side of the field most of the night while also forcing four turnovers — two interceptions and two fumbles.

It was one of those turnovers that turned out to be the game-changing play.

Late in the third quarter, the Bulldogs, despite dominating the field position, led just 6-0 when Keystone took over inside its own 10-yard line following a punt.

The Panthers attempted a pass, and Aiden Ortz hit Keystone quarterback Bret Wingard just as he tried to release the ball. The ball came loose, and Joseph Mansfield pounced on it and returned it three yards into the end zone for a touchdown. If this was the NFL or college football, they play would have been reviewed and almost assuredly overturned, but it is high school football and Redbank Valley had the play that put it up a pair of scores, 12-0 with 4:16 left in the third quarter.

“We had our outside linebacker Aiden Ortz coming on a fire inside,” Mansfield said. “I had outside contain and saw him come in and hit him. The ball came out, so I just looked at the ball and went and got it and made a play.”

Up 12-0, Gold made a change at quarterback bringing in Cam Wagner to replace Gunner Mangiantini, who had struggled going 5-of-14 for 66 yards and an interception.

The change seemed to spark the Redbank Valley offense — and great field position helped as well — with Wagner throwing a pair of scoring passes the sealed the win.

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His first touchdown pass went 25 yards to Chris Marshall and gave the Bulldogs a 20-0 lead with 9:38 to play.

Just over two minutes later, at the 7:34 mark, he hti Dalton Bish with a 10-yard pass that set the final score at 26-0.

“We are looking to be in a position now where we could possibly be the No. 1 seed in the District,” Gold said. “We shouldn’t really expect anything else during COVID that you can go from being the No. 1 seed to out of the playoffs. Our guys fully understood that. I felt like they turned it on when they had to make sure they weren’t going home.”

Despite having the ball inside the Keystone 25-yard line three times in the first half, Redbank Valley only led 6-0 at halftime after they took the opening drive of the game and went 80-yard scoring on a 3-yard Hudson Martz run 1:48 into the contest.

The big plays on that drive were a 44-yard Ray Shreckengost run and an 18-yard Mangiantini to Bish pass.

Shreckengost finished the night rushing 12 times for 73 yards, while Bish had three catches for 36 yards.

Redbank Valley only managed 198 yards itself but thanks to the stout defense and solid punting from Martz won the field position battle the entire night.

The Bulldogs close out the regular season by traveling to Curwensville Friday night. Redbank Valley beat the Golden Tide 44-0 Sept. 11 in New Bethlehem.

Keystone was originally slated to play Sheffield this coming week, but, obviously, that got canceled.

Instead, the Panthers will pick up a game with Conemaugh Valley near Johnstown on Saturday.

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