PATTON — With tears running down their cheeks, Northern Cambria players couldn’t believe their season was over.
The Colts were heading home with no playoff berth, no Coal Bucket Trophy and no winning record. It was not the way they expected their Friday night to end.
“We just have so many mixed emotions, and it’s just sad that we had to end the season like this,” senior Chris Barrett said. “We had so many goals coming into this game, and we just fell short.”
Northern Cambria and rival Cambria Heights fought through a back-and-forth battle, but the Highlanders prevailed with a 17-13 win over the Colts in a non-conference football game in front of a deafening, packed house at Patton Stadium.
Last year, underdog Northern Cambria topped Cambria Heights in the Coal Bowl game and slipped into the District 6 Class A playoffs.
This year, the atmosphere was the same, but the Colts’ story was exactly the opposite. They had previously held the No. 8 spot in the district rankings — with the top eight teams qualifying for the playoffs — but fell out of contention with the loss. Northern Cambria looked like a shoo-in for the playoffs a week ago after upsetting Ligonier Valley, but the Colts were passed in the rankings after Blairsville and Williamsburg won Friday.
“Emotions were flying high,” Northern Cambria coach Paul Taranto said. “It’s great, and hats off to Cambria Heights and their staff and players. They did a great job. Somebody had to lose, and unfortunately, it was us. But it’s wonderful that we had the opportunity to experience this.”
The Colts had a chance at a comeback when they recovered a Highlanders fumble at their own 30-yard line with 1:38 left in the game. They couldn’t get the ball down the field, though, and came up short in the finale.
Northern Cambria finished its season 5-5, while Cambria Heights went just 2-8.
“I say it all the time, and it’s so clich￩, but you throw the record books out when you play this game,” Cambria Heights coach Jarrod Lewis said. “It doesn’t matter what the records are. I don’t care if one team is 10-0 and the other team is 0-10. It’s just hard-fought every time, and it was like that again tonight. It’s a war. … After losing last year, our kids’ primary focus was getting this bucket back.”
With the victory, the Highlanders pulled even in the Coal Bowl series, 21-21-1, which pits the neighboring schools against each other.
“I looked forward to nothing more than playing in this Coal Bowl,” senior Dartagnan Suchar said of the longtime rivalry. “We’ve been playing these guys forever — for as long as I can remember. We grew up, the little Colts and little Highlanders, looking forward to playing in this game our senior year. We knew they were going to be good, and we knew it would be a tough game. We have a lot of respect for each other, and congrats to them.”
Northern Cambria held Cambria Heights to 272 total yards, but Josh Fees rushed for 196 yards on 19 carries, including a pair of 64-yard touchdowns to lead the Highlanders.
Fees’ first touchdown run put Cambria Heights up 7-0 on just their third play from scrimmage.
On the ensuing possession, Northern Cambria’s Derek Baker scored on an 8-yarder to tie it up.
Johnny Galinis hit a 38-yard field goal with 7:57 left in the first half to give the Highlanders a 10-7 lead, and that score held until Fees’ second touchdown with 9:41 left in the game.
“Those two big runs broke our backs,” Taranto said. “They’re big up front. They pin their ears back and try to make some gaps. They try to spread it out a little bit and run the football, and they did.”
“Fees played like a man possessed today,” Lewis said. “He played great. He’s been a workhorse, and we jumped on his back today.”
The Colts put together a 68-yard drive that was capped by Nolan Parnoish’s 3-yard run with 4:50 to go in the game. But Baker missed the extra point, and the Colts stayed four points behind.
Cambria Heights tried to run out the clock, but Northern Cambria got the ball back on the fumble that was recovered by Darren Benamati. The Colts gained a first down at their 46-yard line with a little over 20 seconds remaining, but then threw three straight incompletions after spiking the ball.
“We knew we were coming back,” Suchar said. “We are a second-half team, and we know that. We played a great football team, but we know we can jump on big plays like that. They fumbled the ball, we had all of our plays picked out, and we knew we were going to march down the field and win. But it’s football, and things take a turn for the worst sometimes. We got the shorter end of the stick tonight.”
“We really thought we had the ability and the chance to win,” Barrett said. “It was a great feeling. We knew we weren’t done, and everyone was excited. It was a great game, we just didn’t get it done.”
Northern Cambria’s offense couldn’t seem to finish drives all evening. The Colts turned the ball over on downs at the Highlanders’ 23-, 2- and 17-yard lines. They punted on only the first possession of the game.
Joe Frontino led the Colts with 45 rushing yards on 15 carries. Tyler Pershing finished 5 of 11 for 77 yards.
“I just know that this tape is going to be put away in the library, and I’m not going to watch it,” Taranto said. “There’s really no need to do that. There’s no reason to put myself through that and no need for me to look down upon these high school kids that just left their hearts on the field. It doesn’t really matter what happened in this game, it just turned out the way it is.”
The Coal Bowl series, which started in 1961, will be interrupted after this season due to the Laurel Highlands Conference switching to a full 10-game conference schedule next year. Thus, Cambria Heights wouldn’t have room on its schedule for a non-conference game. The series between neighboring towns had been on a hiatus since 2005 before being renewed last season.
“It’s a shame,” Lewis said. “It’s like the Pitt-Penn State series. Everybody wants it, but for some reason, we can’t seem to get it together. That is above my power, but I’d like to see it, and I know everybody in the community would like to see it. It’s one of the best rivalries in football, if not the best rivalry in football.”