Starting the week with a pause, the Union/A-C Valley Falcon Knights are playoff-bound.
The pause? Well, COVID-19 of course.
Monday, Union Area School District announced that “Union School District was contacted and made aware that a person at the high school level has been in close contact with an individual who has tested positive for COVID-19. Through close communication with the Department of Health, this individual has not been classified as a presumed positive case and those who have been in close contact with him/her are not recommended to quarantine at this time.”
Monday’s practices for all sports teams at Union or in this case Union/ACV’s football team were canceled.
Tuesday afternoon, Union Athletic Director Scott Kindel noted that there wasn’t a positive case at Union at that point. Falcon Knights head coach Brad Dittman said that his team was ready to get back to practice Tuesday and prepare for Friday night’s playoff game at Smethport.
Whether that meant without any player or players could not be confirmed.
The Falcon Knights (5-1) face the unbeaten Hubbers (5-0) coming off an impressive 14-0 shutout of two-time defending Class 1A champion Coudersport.
“They’re a good football team, there’s no doubt about it,” Dittman said. “They obviously beat Coudersport Friday. They’re solid across the board, have a good offensive line and they’re aggressive on defense and bring linebackers all the time.
“They have some athletes, so there’s a ton of stuff you have to prepare for against a team like that. They’re impressive.”
The Hubbers outgained the Falcons, 257-100, gaining all but 11 of their yards on the ground while limiting standout quarterback Hayden Keck to minus-8 yards rushing on 14 tries and 5-for-18 passing for 58 yards.
The Falcon Knights didn’t play Smethport last year, but in 2018 they dropped a first-round playoff game also in Smethport, 28-0. The Hubbers, who beat Coudersport that year in the regular season, lost to the Falcons in the D9 final.
Last year, the Falcon Knights lost to Redbank Valley in the playoffs after beating the Bulldogs in the regular season. Smethport won its playoff opener against Elk County last year before falling to the Falcons in the semifinals to finish 6-5.
This year, the Hubbers lean heavily on playmaking of junior quarterback Noah Lent and senior running back Braedon Johnson.
Lent (21-for-47, 416 yards, 10 TDs, 2 Ints. passing; 69-677, 11 TDs rushing) was knocked out of last week’s game against Coudersport before being replaced at quarterback by Johnson, who was second on the team in rushing with 596 yards on 90 carries with five TDs.
Lent ran for 85 yards on 11 carries and left with an injury that was believed to be not season-ending, but his status is unknown for Friday. Johnson wound up running for 154 yards on 24 carries and scored both touchdowns on a first-half run of 40 yards and fourth-quarter run covering 14 yards.
“(Johnson) is small, but he’s a heckuva athlete who’s quick and has good vision,” Dittman said. “We need to get hats on him and be effective and good tacklers and get 11 guys flying to the football. He’s concerning, either one of them with Lent too. They run a ton with their quarterback and run a Wildcat and don’t thrown a ton, but we have to be ready for anything.”
The Hubbers attempted just seven passes, completing one for 11 yards. For the year, that’s about the trend. Lent is 21-for-47 for 416 yards with 10 TDs and two interceptions. Ryli Burrit (9-202, 5 TDs) is the top receiving target.
But the calling card of the team might be mainly the defense, which has allowed just three TDs all year. Travis Cooney (5.4 tackles per game, Johnson (4.6) and Kameron Rounsville (4.0) are the top tacklers. Lucas Fowler leads the team with four sacks.
The Falcon Knights average 279 yards per game, getting effective quarterbacking from Tanner Merwin (50-for-95, 579 yards, 6 TDs, 4 Ints.; 43-216, 4 TDs rushing) and a balanced backfield with four other runners getting carries — Kylar Culbertson (53-273, 3 TDs), Eli Penny (50-253, 1 TD), Caden Rainey (26-176, 2 TDs) and Gaven Bowser (13-119, 2 TDs).
“We asked them all to check their egos at the door and do whatever they can to win a ball game and that’s what you see out of us,” Dittman said. “I never have one kid complaining about anything. They just want to win.”
Rainey’s all-around big-play ability has shone brightly the past few weeks. His punt return won the game at South Side Beaver in the fourth quarter and he scored three touchdowns and intercepted three passes last week against Brockway, one of those being returned for a touchdown.
“He’s made some huge plays the past few weeks that really helped us get out of bad situations and give us momentum,” Dittman said.
Rainey (22-282, 2 TDs) and Karter Vogle (13-179, 3 TDs) are the top receivers. He also has four interceptions with his seven TDs leading the team — two rushing, two receiving, one on interception return and two on punt returns.
Junior Carter Terwint leads the team with 54 tackles with Penny (39), Bowser (34) and Culbertson (27) among the other leaders. The Falcon Knights haven’t allowed more than 14 points in any game, or just six TDs all season.
Dittman believes his team is playing its best football of the season and won’t have as much issue with the long travel ahead. The trip to South Side Beaver was 75 miles with Smethport a bit further at around 90 miles one way.
“We’ve played some tough games throughout the year and we’ve been fortunate to come out on the winning end of most of them,” Dittman said. “Quite honestly, if we continue to work on what we do this week, we have as good of a shot as anybody to beat Smethport. I really do.”