CJ Miller

Shenango's C.J. Miller runs the ball.

Two Lawrence County football teams are ready to begin a quest for a WPIAL championship.

The district revealed the playoff brackets on Saturday and Shenango and Laurel will be representing the county in the postseason.

The Wildcats will oppose California in Class 1A, while the Spartans will take on Sto-Rox in Class 2A. Shenango and Laurel will both compete on the road at 7 p.m. Friday against their respective foes.

Shenango (6-1) won its first conference championship since 2003. However, the Wildcats weren’t able to lock up not only the outright crown but a home playoff game as well when they dropped a 13-0 road decision to Rochester. The game was started on Friday and was finished on Saturday.

The loss pushed Shenango to a five seed.

“We’re excited,” Wildcats coach Jimmy Graham said. “I think we as a staff and as a program, that’s always your goal, to get the program going in the right direction.

“We didn’t play very well on Friday and Saturday to earn that No. 2 seed. We definitely didn’t think we would be a wild card. We figured we’d end up in the five or six (seed) area and play either Springdale or California.”

The Trojans (6-0) enter the postseason as the No. 4 seed and the outright Tri-County South Conference champions.

Sixth-seeded Laurel (5-2) finished second in the Midwestern Conference and will visit the third-seeded Vikings (6-1). The Spartans clinched their first WPIAL playoff berth since 2016 with a 47-7 home win over Ellwood City Lincoln.

“It’s been a long road to get here,” Laurel coach Brian Cooper said. “Obviously, we’re excited at the opportunity.

“The kids deserve it. We won a lot of big games and we won a lot of tight games. They’ve persevered throughout the season and we’re excited about the opportunity to compete in the postseason.” 

Shenango also will appear in the WPIAL playoffs for the first time since 2016. It’s Graham’s first postseason appearance as well. His first season at the helm of the Wildcats came in 2018.

“We kind of felt we would have a good team this year,” Graham said. “We’ll attack this week like it’s any other week. We’re going to go in knowing if we lose, we’re done. We have to attack it with a sense of urgency.”

A search for a gunman delayed the start of Friday’s game at Rochester for Shenango. The teams didn’t start the game until around 8:45 p.m. Lightning delays then forced the suspension of the game to noon Saturday back on the Rams’ home field. The game was picked up with Rochester up 13-0 with a minute left in the third quarter according to Graham.

“(Rochester) had the same situation we did,” Graham said. “It came down to execution. They played better than we did.

“We didn’t play our best football and we did things we haven’t done all season and it cost us. Now we’re a five (seed) and we have to get on a bus Friday night and play on the road.”

Wildcats senior running back Reis Watkins missed Friday’s game against Rochester with a high ankle sprain. Watkins leads the county in rushing with 1,233 yards on 112 carries with 21 touchdowns. Graham is optimistic Watkins will be ready to go against California.

“We’re optimistic we will have everyone back that can come back,” Graham said. “We were down three starters going into the Rochester game. That’s not an excuse because we have very capable backups.”

Laurel enters the playoffs on a three-game winning streak, including a key 27-25 conference road win over New Brighton. That victory kept the Lions out of the playoffs.

“We’re playing really good football right now,” Cooper said. “The younger kids have matured a lot throughout the season and we’re in a good position.

“We have to play good football. There are no bad teams in the playoffs.”

The Spartans lost Josh Gibson for the season with a torn ACL in the Beaver Falls game. Gibson is a running back/wide receiver/outside linebacker.

“He was a utility guy for us on offense; we could play him in different spots,” Cooper said. “We’ve been pretty much injury free since the Beaver Falls game. The guys that have been playing since then have been playing well and they are healthy.” 

Laurel and Sto-Rox are former rivals in Class 1A in the Big Seven Conference. Last year, the Spartans upset the Vikings late in the season to keep their slim playoff hopes alive, 23-15. Laurel also defeated Sto-Rox in 2018, 51-26.

“They’re a little different than they have been,” Cooper said. “Their quarterback graduated, but they still have a great passing attack.

“They definitely run the ball a lot more effectively. We’ve had two great years of football games against them. It’s nice to be playing a team you know, but you know the battle that lies ahead.”

The pairings are typically released on a Monday evening with games starting that Friday.

“Finding out on a Monday was hard,” Cooper said. “We spent a lot of time breaking down film (over the weekend). When you don’t have that time, it makes it difficult. I hope they keep it this way.”

Said Graham, “I don’t think it hurts. It keeps everyone in a bit of a routine. We do our meetings on Sunday evenings. I think maybe in the past, there were games on Saturday nights that possibly affected the playoffs.

“I’m fine with the pairings being released on a Saturday, it gives you more time to prepare. I would be fine with it if they would be able to do that in the future.”

rponiewasz@ncnewsonline.com

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Sports Editor

Ron Poniewasz Jr. is the sports editor at the New Castle News. Email him at rponiewasz@ncnewsonline.com.

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