CLARION — With much more at stake the second time around, the Redbank Valley Bulldogs and Union/A-C Valley Falcon Knights get to play on the turf at Clarion University’s Memorial Stadium Friday night.
The 7 p.m. kickoff sets up who gets to play for the District 9 Class 1A title next week against either top-seeded Coudersport or No. 5 seed Smethport.
Back on Oct. 18, the Falcon Knights stunned the Bulldogs on their Senior Night with a convincing 28-7 win. That finished up the Small School South with three champions, including Keystone.
So what does that game mean for the rematch? Not much, but a lot, depending on how you spin it. And both teams are coming off an off week, so it indeed is a new season.
“The first game (with Redbank Valley) means nothing,” said Falcon Knights coach Brad Dittman, whose team finished 7-3, the best in the co-operative era of the program. “We expect a whole different team and need to be ready, and play fundamentally sound football to beat them. It’s a whole new world (in the playoffs), so the regular season doesn’t mean anything.”
But it means something, as in motivation in both directions. The Bulldogs don’t want to dwell on getting ambushed, but they know they have work to do to close the gap from the first meeting.
“For us, our seniors had a lot taken from them that night. They had a chance to wrap up the division title and it was senior night,” Bulldogs Blane Gold said. “It was really a situation where we were starting a freshman quarterback and we were dinged up and I look back at it as us eating a slice of humble pie.
“We lost to an opponent we hadn’t lost to in a long time and all of us, players and coaches, coming off Coudersport (56-0 loss), we thought we were going to heal up and we weren’t ready and got smacked in the teeth.”
There’s been plenty of time to rebound, reflect and react to what happened the first time. A week later, the Falcon Knights were hammered by Large School champion Ridgway while the Bulldogs routed Punxsutawney.
Clearly, the Falcon Knights’ ability to control the line of scrimmage set the tone of their win over the Bulldogs.
“(Quarterback) Cam (Wagner) was not even close to why we lost to Union/ACV. He did enough of what we needed to win the game,” Gold said. “When we look back at that game, it was a mix of us not executing well and Union/ACV being more ready to play than we were and they wanted it more. There’s definitely a lot of execution things we could’ve done better. We have to be on our game.”
The Bulldogs actually outgained the Falcon Knights, 241-230, but the Falcon Knights had plenty of short field possessions that affected that number. The Bulldogs were held to 65 yards on 34 rushing attempts.
Again, Dittman doesn’t expect the same Bulldogs on the turf, but he’ll try to game plan his way to getting to the line dominance that set the tone last time.
“We don’t know what to expect, to be honest,” he said. “We’re just trying to do what we do and do well and feel out what our game plan is and go from there early on. It’s playoff football, you never know. We don’t want to get away from what we do and go haywire and just be better at what we do what’s got us to 7-3.”
So far in the early going in the postseason, the rematches are 2-0 in favor of the team that lost the first time around in the regular season — Kane’s 28-22 win at Brookville three weeks after losing on the same field 33-14 and Smethport’s 28-6 win at Elk County Catholic after losing at home 18-0 the week before.
“We’re expecting a different team this time in the playoffs,” Dittman said. “It’s win or go home. We’ll get their best effort and try to outmatch that effort. our kids have worked their butts off all season to get to this point. We don’t want to rest now. We’re in for a slugfest against a good football team. To be able to finish as the No. 3 seed and move on to a neutral site at CUP, that should be fun.”
“If our seniors can’t get locker room ready to play in this game after what happened three weeks ago for a chance to play for a district championship, there’s not much I can say,” Gold said. “As far as being excited and ready to play, and they probably feel the same way, there’s no other matchup you could possibly want. This has done a lot to revive the rivalry a little bit.”
FALCON KNIGHTS VS. BULLDOGS — Offensively, the Falcon Knights average a modest 261 yards per game — 122 passing, 139 rushing. The Bulldogs allow 209 yards per game — 104 passing, 105 rushing.
Falcon Knights quarterback Luke Bowser is over the 1,200-yard passing mark with 15 TDs and 16 interceptions. Caden Rainey (36-507, 4 TDs) and Tanner Merwin (26-412, 7 TDs) are his top receiving targets. Kyler Culbertson (67-467, 4 TDs), Tony Thompson (57-270, 3 TDs) and Gaven Bowser (39-198) are the leading ballcarriers.
It’s been a committee, “hot hand” approach all season for Dittman.
“We want to get the ball to our playmakers and let those guys go,” Dittman said. “We’ve done a good job spreading the ball around and a lot of had touches. The key for us has been our line. That was the question mark at beginning of the season. It came together. We’ve got eight, nine linemen who run in and out and their play has been a huge key.”
Against the Bulldogs, Bowser completed 9 of 20 passes for 106 yards and two TDs, one going to Rainey and the other to Karter Vogle. Thompson rushed for 57 yards on 12 carries while Rainey grabbed four passes for 50 yards.
“They’re dressing 17 to 19 kids and hats off to team,” Gold said. “They were very impressive in what they brought. Merwin and Rainey are tremendous athletes on both sides of the ball and defensively, they caused an interception and broke up a fourth-down play on a hit. We knew they were good on film, but seeing them in person, they were better than anticipated.”
With the exception of their lopsided losses to Union/ACV and Coudersport, the Bulldogs 74 points in the other eight games. Most of those points were scored when the game was decided.
Joe Mansfield (6.6 tackles per game, 16.5 tackles for losses), Chase Bish (5.1), Austin Leasure (4.6) and Ethan Hetrick (11.5 sacks) and Sam Hetrick (4 interceptions) lead the defense with Mansfield and Ethan Hetrick setting the tone with their rush from the ends.
BULLDOGS VS. FALCON KNIGHTS — The Bulldogs are averaging 336 yards per game offensively, 222 rushing and 114 passing while the Falcon Knights are giving up 245 per game, 129 passing and 116 rushing.
For the Bulldogs, it’s a different look without their injured starting quarterback in sophomore Gunner Mangiantini who threw for 754 yards in 7 1/2 games before breaking his collarbone in the loss to Coudersport. Wagner has thrown for 336 yards and five touchdowns, completing 27 of 55 passes. A few more weeks of reps, says Gold, means everything as the offense — and roster — adjusts physically and emotionally of the loss of Mangiantini.
Ray Shreckengost (89-625, 9 TDs), Kobe Bonanno (60-423, 8 TDs) and Hudson Martz (62-393, 6 TDs) are the primary ballcarriers. Receivers Ethan Hetrick (24-389, 3 TDs), Sam Hetrick (20-324, 6 TDs) and Javin Brentzel (25-175, 1 TD) are the top targets.
“Our season comes down to two games where we didn’t control the line of scrimmage,” said Gold. “We scored seven points in eight quarters and that’s something we want to do. When you have a freshman quarterback and can run the football, that makes life easier on you. We have enough guys around Cam to where he doesn’t have to carry the team.”
Colton Hoffman (7.1 tackles per game), Gaven Bowser (6.4), Eli Penny (6.1) and Carter Terwint (6.1) lead the team in tackles per game. Penny leads the team with four sacks while Merwin (5) and Rainey (3) have eight of the unit’s 12 interceptions.
“I think our defense has played pretty well all season,” Dittman said. “We stopped the run when we’ve been able to and have been decent against the pass. We’ve created TOs that have put us in good positions this year.”
ODDS AND ENDS — The Bulldogs are 11-21 in the postseason since the PIAA playoff era began. Redbank Valley’s last D9 title came in 1996 and it’s lost in finals games in 2004 and 2013 when the Bulldogs lost to the Bobcats. Since then, the Bulldogs are 2-5 in the postseason, losing in the first round to Coudersport last year. ... Union/ACV makes its second trip to the playoffs as a co-operative program. Last year, the Falcon Knights lost 28-0 at Smethport. Union went to the playoffs four times from 2011 through 2014, losing in the semifinals in the 2014 playoffs to Brockway after a first-round win over Ridgway. A-C Valley played in four postseasons from 1996 through 1999, losing to Clearfield in the 1999 Class 3A final after beating Bradford in the semifinals. The then-Falcons lost in the first round of the District 6/9 Class 3A playoffs in the first three trips. ... Redbank Valley and Union met twice in the old Little 12 Conference Championship games. The Bulldogs won 17-16 in 1985 while the Knights won 34-12 in 1984.