SLIPPERY ROCK — The PIAA playoffs have become the personal playground for Wilmington High’s proud football program.
Avonworth is a newcomer to the statewide stage.
But any Avonworth anxiety was allayed by self-belief, in spite of its first deficit of the season with 11:56 remaining in Friday night’s Class 2A semifinal
The Antelopes answered with fourth-quarter touchdowns from senior stalwarts Jax Miller and Park Penrod en route to a 33-21 win over two-time state runner-up Wilmington.
“They didn’t doubt. That’s the first time we’ve been down all year ... so that showed some true resiliency, bouncing back,” Avonworth coach Duke Johncour said.
WPIAL champion Avonworth never had appeared in a PIAA playoff game, while Wilmington won the 2008 state title and has captured 14 District 10 titles, including the last four. However, Avonworth demonstrated postseason poise.
Trailing 21-20 following Caelan Bender’s 1-yard sneak on the first play of the fourth quarter and the third of Daniel Hartwell’s trio of PATs, the Antelopes answered.
Miller, with 2,230 yards rushing coming into the contest, capped an 11-play, 77-yard, 6:24 drive with a 3-yard, third-and-goal run. Though the attempted two-point PAT pass failed, Avonworth regained the lead, 26-21, with 5:27 left.
The Antelopes’ Ashton Navilliat then recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff, and a half-dozen plays later Penrod pushed in from the 1. Tyler Bryan’s PAT kick made it a two-score game, 33-21, with only 2:09 remaining, effectively ending the Greyhounds’ season.
“There’s no doubt, I thought Avonworth was the better football team (Friday) night,” Wilmington coach Brandon Phillian said. “For us, we just made too mistakes. As you go through the playoffs the margin for error becomes smaller and smaller, and I think the mistakes were just too much for us to overcome.”
Miller manufactured a game-high 27-carry, 128-yard rushing outing, while Penrod posted a 9-for-15, 164-yard, 3-TD passing performance, the majority of which went to Theo Newhouse. Running in open space like — what else, an antelope — Newhouse notched a half-dozen passes for a game-high 115 yards, including 10- and 37-yard first-half scoring strikes.
“We knew we were going to have a tough opponent in Wilmington, watching them on film. They’re well-coached, they’ve got good, physical kids. We knew we were gonna be in a battle. Turnovers were the difference ... and fortunately we got one on that kickoff. ... That was a huge play, huge momentum-changer,” observed Johncour, who played at nearby Grove City College and taught and coached at Grove City High.
“Great game, great team, great effort,” Johncour said regarding his Antelopes (15-0). “We battled through some injuries; we lost three kids. So we just rose to the occasion all night — next man up.”
During the first half, Penrod passed for a trio of TDs — 10 and 37 yards to Newhouse, sandwiching a 15-yarder to Trevor Faulkner – as Avonworth assumed a 20-14 margin at intermission. The latter Penrod-to-Newhouse connection — with 9.7 ticks to play — afforded the Antelopes that halftime edge.
During the first half Penrod completed 8 of 9 passes — a spike was his lone misfire — for 142 yards, and Avonworth outgained the Greyhounds, 189-126. Ultimately, it was a 309-195 edge.
“We knew (the Greyhounds) were gonna be keying on Jax – they had nine in the box, they were playing straight man coverage, and we knew we were going to be able to throw the ball,” Johncour said. “Their game plan was to stop Jax, and they put man coverage on the outside, and (Penrod) threw the ball well.
“ ... When your number’s called on this team, you’ve got to answer, and (Penrod) did,” Johncour praised. “He answered in a big way.”
Wilmington responded to two deficits with a pair of second-stanza scores.
Ethan Susen caught Bender’s third-and-goal pass for a 9-yard TD, culminating a 16-play 80-yard, 8-minute, 59-second series. It was set up by Braxton Shimrock’s end zone recovery of Miller’s fumble, resulting in a touchback.
Then trailing 14-7, the ‘Hounds went 40 yards in nine plays and 2:51 on Bender’s second-and-goal, 8-yard option keeper. Hartwell’s second PAT knotted the count at 14. That drive was set up by a fair-catch interference penalty against Avonworth.
Regarding Avonworth’s self-belief, Miller said, “If you don’t believe and you doubt yourself, then you’re just basically setting yourself up for failure. It’s something that we preached all week. We know we can beat any team that comes to us; if we lose, we lose, but we play our hearts out.
‘We try and practice the motto, ‘Bend, but don’t break,’ and facing adversity. This was the first time we’d been down all year ... and this definitely proved that our team will battle back if we’re down,” Miller added.
“Not for one second,” Penrod responded to any Avonworth self-doubt. “We know what type of team we are: We’re fighters, we’re scrappers, we’re ‘dogs.’ We fight all the time. There was never an instant during that time where we felt, ‘Oh, shoot, we’re down. ... we’re always fighting, never letting up.”
For Wilmington (12-1) seniors include: Shane Cox, Junior McConahy, David Patton, Marcus Tokar, Jon Takash, Patrick Zach, Jason Hess and Colton Moore.
“This group that returned three starters on both sides of the ball, for this senior group to come together and lead the team the way they did this year, I thought was a phenomenal job,” Phillian praised. “I’m really, really proud of these guys, and I’m proud of what we accomplished this year.
“I feel very blessed,” Phillian continued. “I feel blessed that God’s given me the opportunity to be a part of this football team and this football program, it’s something that I say my prayers and give thanks each and every day. I’m humbled to get to come to work with this group of coaches and players every day.
“It’s a program with a rich history. (Friday) night, unfortunately, it wasn’t our night, but we’ll get back to work and we’ll look forward to getting back out there next season,” Phillian concluded.
Ed Farrell is assistant sports editor for The (Sharon) Herald.