DuBOIS — It was only fitting that the Ridgway football team would put up one of their best defensive efforts of the season on Friday evening in the District 9 Class A championship game.
The Elkers, which have been at or near the top in nearly every defensive category in stats around the area all season, allowed just one big play for a touchdown from an Curwensville’s explosive rushing attack on Friday evening.
That effort on defense, plus just enough work from the offense, gave Ridgway its second straight District 9 title as the Elkers defeated the Golden Tide, 9-7, at Mansell Stadium.
“(Defense) has been our calling card, not just this year, but the last couple years,” said Ridgway head coach Mark Heindl. “With (Curwensville running back) Nick Stewart, he can make a big play at any given time, but credit to our kids, we shut them down. We made Curwensville do things they weren’t comfortable with.
“I’m just so happy for our kids right now. Our backs were against the wall, but that championship football that we preached to the kids all week –offense wins games, but defense wins championships. Tonight there were a couple chances we could’ve bent, and we didn’t.”
The Elkers fell, 14-11, in their regular season meeting with Curwensville. Stewart returned a blocked field goal for a touchdown in that contest, which proved to be the key factor.
The championship was Ridgway’s third in school history, with their first coming in 1989 over Johnsonburg.
For the Golden Tide, it was their first time competing for a D-9 title since 2010 when they beat Port Allegany, 37-21.
“There is a never a good way to finish in the postseason unless you win a state title,” said Curwensville assistant coach Chris Folmar. “We lost to a team that we knew very well could beat us. That is a good football team. They have two of the best athletes in District 9.”
One of the most telling statistics of the game came in the field position battle. Curwensville had just one play that went into Ridgway territory, which was their lone score of the night on a Stewart 85-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.
Ridgway ran 19 plays on offense in the second half, with 16 of them being inside the Curwensville 40-yard line.
“They could’ve folded a couple times, but they just played our defense and played the field position all night,” said Heindl.
Down 7-6 after three quarters, Ridgway got themselves in business on the first play of the fourth quarter as they forced a Curwensville fumble, and Elker senior Bryce Barclay came up with the recovery as Ridgway set up shot at the Tide 20-yard line.
“Bryce is just a kid that comes to practice and he’s a scrapper,” said Heindl. “He made a big play for us. It was a turning point.”
After running the ball three times and getting to the 15, Heindl elected to send Aaron Hinton for a 32-yard field goal. Hinton just sneaked the ball just inside the left upright, giving the Elkers a 9-7 lead with 9:49 to play in the game, which ultimately proved to be the game-winner.
“Aaron Hinton –I couldn’t ask more from a kid there,” said Heindl. “To miss the extra point (in the second quarter) and come back in the second half and kick the game-winning field goal. Just a great feeling.”
Both teams had to punt away at least one more time, with the Elkers punting and giving the ball to Curwensville at their own 17-yard line with 1:41 left in the game.
Curwensville quarterback Bryce Timko got pass plays of eight and one yard to get to third-and-1.
But a 15-yard penalty put Curwensville back to its own 11. After another one-yard pass, Timko tossed a long ball on fourth down, but was picked off by Ridgway’s Neil MacDonald to seal the game.
Penalties also plagued the Golden Tide throughout the game, especially in the second half. They were flagged 14 times for 115 yards in the game.
“We definitely didn’t win the penalty ratio tonight,” said Folmar. “We didn’t play clean football ... I guess. We just came out on the bad side of that. That’s not attributed to these kids. These kids have played hard all year, and we’re proud of every one of those seniors.”
Neither side got much going in the first quarter with Curwensville getting just two first downs, and Ridgway getting just one on the first play of the game with a 23-yard run from MacDonald.
Curwensville had a drive going at the end of the first quarter, but was intercepted by Andy Breier at the last play of the first quarter.
After the Elkers punted away down to the Tide 15, Stewart got the Tide on the board with the lone score of the game.
The senior ran to his left where it looked like he had nothing, but sidestepped to his right to hit a hole and found open space and sprinted to the end zone from there for an 85-yard touchdown run with 8:36 to play in the first half. Madison Weber’s PAT gave Curwensville a 7-0 lead.
“That play, we stayed on the blocks that extra second and he found the hole,” said Folmar. “You see what he’s done for four years now and that was just another Nick Stewart run.”
“Stewart had a big run,” said Heindl. “We had him wrapped up by five guys, and that’s just Nick Stewart being Nick Stewart.”
Ridgway had to punt away on their next possession to give Curwensville a chance to extend their lead.
Late in the drive, the Tide had a fourth-and-1 from their own 44, but the Elker defense came up with their first big stop of the game and stopped Curwensville for no gain.
“(Curwensville head coach) Andy Evanko, for as long as he’s been there, he’s a very good football coach,” said Heindl. “He trusts his kids. In that situation, he just went with what got them there the whole year. We were fortunate to make a big stop there. It’s a momentum shift.”
“Andy’s been going for those for how many years,” said Folmar. “That’s one of those things that if you hit it, it’s the greatest call in the world. And if you don’t hit it, it’s the worst call in the world. We have lived and died on those every year. It is what it is. We would have done the same thing in the same situation if we had it to do over again.”
Ridgway capitalized on the turnover on downs, turning it into their lone touchdown of the night.
Elker quarterback Johnny Mitchell hit Breier on a 17-yard slant on third-and-5 to get down to the 22.
Three plays later, on third-and-6 from the 18, Mitchell scrambled to his right and found the corner of the end zone for a touchdown, cutting the Curwensville lead to 7-6 with 1:20 to play in the first half.
After Curwensville punted to open the second half, Ridgway put together a drive that stalled in the red zone.
MacDonald got them into Curwensville territory with an 18-yard run down to the 39.
Later in the drive, Ridgway faced fourth-and-2 from the 19, but the Tide defense stood strong and stopped the Elkers for a one-yard loss.
Both teams punted one more time in the third quarter.
Despite being handed the loss, Curwensville outgained the Tide, 188-159.
Stewart finished his career in a Tide uniform with 162 yards on 27 carries. He ends as the leading rusher in District 9 with 7,324 yards.
“It’s an end of an era with Stewart,” said Folmar. “I don’t know who the next great Curwensville running back is, but they have big shoes to fill.
“I can’t say enough about Nick. He doesn’t get near the credit he deserves. The last couple of weeks people have really downplayed him. He is one whale of an athlete. I love him to death. He just works his tail off.”
Curwensville (9-3) will graduate 11 seniors this year.
“These seniors took us a lot further than people thought we could go,” said Folmar. “We ended up in the Top 16 in the state this year with a bunch of kids that everyone had written off. Nobody gave these kids outside of Stewart and (offensive lineman Stephen) McClure any credit for anything and here we are with a 9-win season. So you can’t take anything away from them.
“We have a head coach that gets up every morning that doesn’t know if he’s going to live or die that day. He’s given his whole life to Curwensville football. He promised he would get the kids here, and he got them here.”
For Ridgway (9-3), MacDonald rushed for 92 yards on 19 carries.
The Elkers will now move to the PIAA Class A quarterfinals where they will get a rematch with District 10 champion Farrell, which beat Ridgway, 20-7, in the same round last year. The Steelers beat Northern Bedford, 34-19, on Friday.
“I’m just proud of our kids right now,” said Heindl. “They rose to the occasion. What a big win for our program against a quality team, to get revenge from a team that beat us in Curwensville back in Week 6. We live another day and play another week.
“Our kids knew we let one get away down there. Credit to them. We had one heck of a week of practice. When you get down to these final weeks of the season, there’s no slouches. Tonight we were the better team.
“It’s just a great feeling for our kids and our program. I couldn’t be any more proud to be their coach.”
The day, site and time for the game against Farrell is to be determined.