CLARION — Their last turnover-filled matchup that led Redbank Valley to a 22-point win over Union/A-C Valley during the regular season was a doubtful repeat in last Friday night’s District 9 Class 1A Championship game.

However, a blistering 21-0 start before the end of the first quarter that had the Bulldogs on their way to a title game blowout at Clarion University’s Memorial Field didn’t materialize either.

It’s Playoff football. Nothing is easy.

As it turned out, the Bulldogs scored just one more touchdown the rest of the way and it was a big one as Ray Shreckengost bulled his way into the end zone on a fourth-and-two inches play at the goal line to set the final at 28-21 with 4:39 left in the game.

Fast start, thrilling finish and a back-to-back championship performance for the Bulldogs who held off a big rally by the Falcon Knights.

Now, it’s on to the PIAA quarterfinals for the 11-1 Bulldogs, who face the same team they beat in last year’s first round at Windber High School. District 5 champion Northern Bedford downed D10 champion Reynolds, 35-22.

It was Reynolds that knocked the Bulldogs out in the quarterfinals last year, ending their COVID-shortened season at 7-1

“We would never say last year wasn’t legitimate because the kids worked their tails off and if you looked at the teams that we played, we played all the challenging teams,” Gold said. “But to do it over a 10-game season and play 12 football games the way we started the year and to come back and win 11 in a row, it undoubtedly makes it special.”

The decisive drive started at the Bulldogs’ 32 and took 11 plays, including two fourth-down plays. The first conversion came on fourth-and-11 when Tate Minich made a sliding catch of Bryson Bain’s pass just above the turf for a 12-yard gain.

“There are balls that we throw to Chris (Marshall) that obviously not many guys on this team can catch because he’s 6-foot-3, but if we were to throw 100 balls to our guys, Tate has the best hands on this team,” Gold said. “Tate has always been kind of overshadowed with his athleticism because of us running the option last year and us having Chris and Marquese (Gardlock) on the outside. But I think the last two weeks, people have been able to see what Tate is capable of doing.”

Four plays later on fourth and inches, Shreckengost bulled his way into the end zone.

Tyson Adams booed the extra points and the Bulldogs were able to force Union/A-C Valley on a three-and-out when the Falcon Knights decided to punt on fourth-and-six with 3:26 left. Hoping to get a big defensive stop, they weren’t able to do it and the Bulldogs were able to run the clock out.

One could say that Bryson Bain quarterbacked the win as he completed 19 of 28 passes for a career-high 287 yards, which included a 64-yard laser strike on a TD connection with Marshall on the second play of the game. And senior Gunner Mangiantini came in for the save, quarterbacking the Bulldogs at the end with first-down runs of 14 and 5 yards.

Early on, the game had Mercy Rule written all over it. On the second play of the game, Bain nailed a streaking Marshall down the Falcon Knights sideline for their 64-yard touchdown. Marshall caught six passes for 92 yards, all but one catch coming in the first half.

“They’re best friends and that’s honestly why we made that really tough gut-wrenching decision to go with Bryson over Gunner to start this year because Bryson’s phenomenal arm and he’s a guy that’s approaching 30 touchdowns this year. He’s doing a great job for us this year,” Gold said.

The momentum from that carried on. A three-and-out by Union/ACV led to a 66-yard scoring drive that took 13 plays and ended with Shreckengost’s first of two TDs on a 10-yard run with 4:18 left in the second quarter. Shreckengost ran for 93 yards on 19 carries.

Another three-and-out led to a punt play for the Falcon Knights, but a low snap to punter Bailey Crissman was bobbled and his late kick attempt wound up going straight into the gut of Carsen Rupp who managed to catch his own block and return it 27 yards to the end zone.

Looking back, Gold pointed to that special teams play as the difference in the game considering how the rest of the night played out.

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With 2:44 left in the first quarter, the Bulldogs led 21-0 and the Falcon Knights had managed just five yards of offense and no first downs.

It got better for the Falcon Knights, however, as they managed to work their way back into the game.

“We just kind of settled in there and wanted to try to not give them a big play and they did with the long pass and obviously that blocked punt put us in a bad hole too,” Falcon Knights head coach Brad Dittman said. “I think our punter just fumbled the snap there and we couldn’t get it off.”

The Falcon Knights went with sophomore Brody Dittman at quarterback from there and on the ensuing drive, they drove to the Bulldogs’ 15, but Dittman’s pass to the end zone fell incomplete. It was a key sign of life for the Falcon Knights offense that began to find the creases against the Bulldogs’ zone defense.

Redbank Valley drove to the Falcon Knights’ 27 on the following drive before Landon Chalmers sacked Bain on fourth-and-11 at the Falcon Knights 32. That set up a six-play, 68-yard drive capped by Dittman’s 12-yard pass to Skyler Roxbury with 4:27 left in the second quarter.

Looking to keep the pressure on the Falcon Knights up 21-7 in the final minutes of the half, the Bulldogs blew a golden opportunity to score before halftime. Bain hit Brenden Shreckengost on a short pass that wound up going 52 yards to the Falcon Knights’ 2.

But in a rush to get a play off with still less than two minutes to go, the Bulldogs gave it away as Shreckengost mishandled a handoff and Chalmers recovered in the end zone for a touchback.

“21-0, they scored and football is such a game of momentum and I thought we did a great job of hitting (Brenden) on the swing pass to take it down to the 3, then we fumbled, so we gave them momentum immediately back to them and had a hard time stopping them essentially until we got to the fourth quarter,” Gold said.

The Falcon Knights scored on the opening drive of the second half when Dawson Camper’s 1-yard run capped a 60-yard drive that used six plays, one of them a 44-yard pass from Dittman to Ryan Cooper. A low snap on the point-after try wound up turning into a two-point conversion by Cooper that cut the lead to 21-15 with still 9:09 left in the third quarter.

The Bulldogs fumbled the ball away on their next play from scrimmage on Bain’s flip pass to Minich on a jet sweep. Minich fumbled when he was hit hard by Camper and Chalmers and the Falcon Knights recovered and turned it into points as they went 63 yards on nine plays with Dittman hitting Cooper with a 10-yard TD pass. Their shot to take the lead went awry when Colton Murray’s point-after kick was wide right.

The miss probably changed the whole scene with 4:49 left in the third. While the Falcon Knights erased a 21-0 deficit, they weren’t able to take the lead.

While the Bulldogs went three-and-out on the next drive, they were able to turn around the field position battle in their favor when Kolby Barrett forced a Camper fumble at midfield two plays later with Rupp recovering at the 50.

The Bulldogs still punted on the ensuing possession, but did pin the Falcon Knights back to their own 18. After one first down, the Falcon Knights punted again and the Bulldogs’ game-winning drive started at their own 32.

A Bain 27-yard flip pass to Ashton Kahle and a 15-yard run by Ray Shreckengost helped get the Bulldogs to the Falcon Knights’ 20. Four plays later, it was Bain’s 12-yard pass to the sliding Minich.

Mangiantini replaced Bain at quarterback and tried to get in from the 9, but went three yards. A five-yard run by Shreckengost followed by no gain on another try by Mangiantini set up the game-winning two-incher by Shreckengost.

The Bulldogs forced a three-and-out when the Falcon Knights decided to kick from their own 41 and were able to secure the win and kneel out the final two plays.

“Huge credit to Bryson and where he’s gone from our first game of the year until right now, just a phenomenal effort by him, and leading us,” Gold said. “And mixing in Gunner and Ray down the stretch, we were on our heels, Union was a tremendous football team.”

The Bulldogs outgained the Falcon Knights 384-301. Mangiantini finished with 22 yards on four carries, the only other Bulldog with positive rushing yards. Kahle caught three passes for 70 yards while Minich finished with five receptions for 30 yards.

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