SLIPPERY ROCK — The pair of districts champs went toe to toe for most of the night, but in the end, Wilmington’s ground game proved too much for Ridgway as it powered its way to a 45-27 victory in the PIAA Class 2A quarterfinals Friday night at Slippery Rock University’s Milhalik-Thompson Stadium.
The game was closer than the final score indicated, as the District 9 champion Elkers battled back from being down 28-7 at the half to get within 10 early in the fourth quarter before Wilmington put the game away with a pair of late-game touchdowns.
“They battled,” Ridgway head coach Mark Heindl said of his team. “There was nobody that thought we’d have a chance in this game.”
“We’re closing the gap and the big thing is I think we represented District 9 very well tonight, it shows where our program is going, but at the same time it shows us where we need to be and I’m proud of each and every one of those kids.”
The game had a vastly different feel than last year’s matchup between the two teams in the same round, as the Greyhounds came away with a 56-14 win on the way to competing in their second straight state title game.
In that contest, the District 10 champions scored touchdowns on their first eight possessions of the game, including three apiece in each of the first two quarters to take a 42-0 halftime lead.
This time out things were much more competitive, although Wilmington (12-0) was still able to take a 21-0 lead near the midway point of the second quarter before the Elkers battled back.
The closing minutes of the first half were filled with momentum swings, as the Greyhounds held a 21-0 lead and were looking for more inside of the Ridgway (11-2) red zone.
After quarterback Caelen Bender found Ethan Susen on a 13-yard gain through the air to move the ball to the Elkers’ 17, Wilmington went back to the ground game on its next play.
This time, Bender sent a pitch to Susen out of the backfield towards the left side, but the pitch was unattainable by the back as both Bender and a crowd of Ridgway defenders looked to come up with the loose ball.
As Bender and Elker Damon Kelley both dove to the turf, Ridgway’s Tyler Watts eventually came away with the fumble, practically scooping it out of Kelley’s hands, before breaking free for a 75-yard touchdown to get the Elkers on the board.
Paul Gresco converted the point after to bring the score to 21-7 with 1:16 to go in the second quarter as the Elkers looked to take that momentum into the half knowing they would be receiving the second half kickoff.
Instead, Mason Reed broke free down the near sideline on the ensuing kickoff for a big return to set the Wilmington offense up on the plus side of the 50 at the 35-yard line.
After a 10-yard connection between Bender and Junior McConahy, Bender found Reed in the end zone for a 25-yard touchdown with 41 ticks remaining in the opening half.
Ridgway looked to respond with a quick drive, as Gresco found Dush on back-to-back pass plays for 12 and 10 yards before hitting Austin Green for a 10-yard gain to move the ball to the Greyhounds’ 27-yard line in the closing seconds.
On the following play Gresco was brought down in the backfield for a sack as time ran out and the teams headed into the half with the score still at 28-7.
Needing a spark out of the locker room, the Elkers got just that from Dush, who took the kickoff back 28 yards, as 15 more were tacked on for a personal foul facemask penalty on the runback to set the D-9 champs up at the Wilmington 46.
Several plays later, Ridgway’s drive appeared to stall out as it faced a 4th-and-7 at the 31-yard line, but once again Dush came up with a big play for his team.
This time, it was from his wideout position, as Gresco fired a deep ball down field and Dush was able to out jump his defender and come down with the catch with a hand in his face for a 26-yard gain.
Jake Wickett took the handoff on the next play and followed a wall of blockers into the end zone for a 5-yard score to cut the deficit to 14 just 3:57 into the third quarter.
Wilmington responded with a 13-play, time consuming drive deep into Ridgway territory, but the defense eventually came up with a stop and forced a 4th-and-10 from the 11-yard line.
The Greyhounds elected to go for the field goal, as Daniel Hartwell split the uprights on a 27-yard attempt to make it a 31-14 game with 58 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
On the opening play of the fourth, Gabe Watts set the Elker offense up with a 30-yard run down the near side, as the team capped the drive on an 8-yard touchdown pass from Gresco to Green to get within 10 at 31-21 with 10:20 left to play.
Needing a stop, the Ridgway defense was unable to slow down the Greyhounds’ rushing attack, as they needed just five run plays to go 58-yards as the drive culminated in a 9-yard score from Darren Miller just 2:40 after the Elkers’ score.
Miller and Susen were a dominant one-two punch out of the backfield for Wilmington, as Susen finished with 173 yards on 14 carries and a pair of scores, while Miller added 169 yards on 20 totes and a trio of scores.
The duo powered the Greyhounds to 409 rushing yards on 47 carries, as they finished with a 475-243 edge in total yards in the win.
After a Ridgway three-and-out, Miller delivered the final blow, scoring from 34 yards out after his own 26-yard carry set the touchdown up, as the Greyhounds took a 45-21 lead with 2:17 left in the game.
The Elkers would not go down without a fight, as they went on a 12-play drive that ended with Gresco finding Green for an 8-yard score, as the senior duo ended the game, their season and Ridgway career on a touchdown.
The duo are part of a talented 16-member senior class that proved a lot of skeptics wrong by winning D-9 2A titles each of the last two seasons after the departure of a pair of strong classes ahead of them.
With those titles, Ridgway became just the third team in district history to win four or more titles in a row, joining Clearfield and Karns City, who each have one six in a row.
A large portion of the members of this year’s senior class saw playing time on the final three of those four teams, as they stepped into bigger roles each season with the departure of another pair of talented classes ahead of them.
“These seniors have left their mark on the program and they’ve got some big shoes to fill, but I know these younger guys will,” Heindl said.
Gresco closed out the game 20-of-36 passing for 199 yards and two touchdowns, as Green caught both of those touchdown passes and finished with 71 yards on seven grabs.
Fellow seniors Dush finished with a team-high 89 receiving yards on eight catches while Wickett added 27 yards on four grabs along with a rushing score.
In Friday’s game, the Greyhounds won the coin toss and elected to receive the opening kickoff, as they worked their way down the field before a big hit on a sack by Green knocked the ball away from Bender and Dan Park came away with the recovery.
The Elker offense was unable to capitalize however, as they went three-and-out and were forced to put it away, as Wilmington drove down the field once again and this time finished it off with a score on a Susen 5-yard run at the 5:10 mark.
After another three-and-out for Ridgway, the Greyhounds’ following drive also ended in the end zone as once again it was Susen breaking free for a score, this time from 45 yards out as Wilmington took a 14-0 lead after one quarter of play.
After picking up its first first down of the game late in the first quarter, Ridgway drove down the field in the early portions of the second, before a Gresco pass fell incomplete on fourth down for a turnover on downs.
The Elker defense then forced a three-and-out, as Wilmington lined up to punt from deep in its own territory, but Bender was able to get off a booming punt that skipped along the far sideline and finally rolled dead for a 64-yard punt.
Ridgway then was held to a three-and-out of its own, and a miscue on the special teams play led to just an 11-yard punt and set the Greyhounds up inside the red zone at the 19.
The offense needed just one play to add to its lead, as Miller rumbled in from 19 yards out for his first score of the night to make it 21-0 at the 6:53 mark of the second.
After yet another Elker drive ended in just three plays, Wilmington drove down the field looking to build on its lead, but a 75-yard scoop and score touchdown by Tyler Watts got Ridgway on the board.
“They never quit and that’s the part that I’m most proud of,” Heindl said. “We were in the game the entire time, with only seven minutes to go to be down 10 points says a lot about our kids and our program where we are at.”
Wilmington will now take on the winner of Saturday’s WPIAL title game and quarterfinal contest between Avonworth and Washington in next week’s semifinal round.