NORTHERN CAMBRIA — With the season on the line, Northern Cambria leaned on its line.
Facing fourth-and-5 from the Saltsburg 10 and down by a score, Colts quarterback Mark Marino followed his offensive linemen for 9 yards on a sneak. He then followed them into the end zone for the touchdown on the next play and then again for the two-point conversion to give Northern Cambria the deciding points.
The top-seeded Colts rushed for 361 yards, and Marino had four second-half touchdowns to rally past and survive a scare from ninth-seeded Saltsburg, 36-34, in the second round of the District 6 Class 1A playoffs Friday night.
Amid the excitement of the game between the Heritage Conference foes were horrendous conditions. The wet, cold weather and sloppy field at Duffy Daugherty Stadium made it difficult for players from both teams to find their footing and hold onto the ball. There were nine fumbles, including four turnovers in four possessions to start the second quarter.
Saltsburg took a 20-6 lead on the opening drive of the second half, but Northern Cambria (9-2) scored touchdowns on four straight possessions, including Marino’s 1-yard score and two-point conversion run with 35 seconds left that proved to be the game-winner.
Ben Vasil rushed for 229 yards to lead the Colts, who stole the momentum in the second half when they were able to get their running game going.
“He’s our senior leader. He’s our senior back,” Northern Cambria coach Sam Shutty said of Vasil. “He had to carry the load once (Logan) Onkst went down, so we put the ball in his hands, and we saw some things at halftime and made some adjustments and were able to take advantage.”
Shutty said he challenged his linemen at halftime to take over the game.
“This was such an emotional roller coaster of a game — ups and downs and turns and twists and turnovers,” Shutty said. “I wanted to hug the guys, then they wanted to punch me in the face. It was just that type of game. That’s why you play the game. This was a great game. Both sides of the ball were winners after this game, they really were.”
Northern Cambria will play host to the winner of tonight’s United-Portage game on Friday night in the semifinals. The Colts have already beaten both teams convincingly this season — they stomped Saltsburg, too, in the regular season, 50-13 — but they know the playoffs are a different animal.
“It doesn’t get easier,” Shutty said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s United, and it doesn’t matter if it’s Portage. I know we played them both before and beat them both before, but obviously the score of the Saltsburg game from before was much different than what we had tonight. Teams get better each week, and we expect no different. It’s going to be much more difficult no matter who we play.”
Saltsburg, which won a playoff game last week for the first time since 1991, ended its season with a 5-7 record.
“The kids played well tonight,” Saltsburg coach Mike Leasure said. “We knew we had a shot coming in. The kids answered everything Northern Cambria had for us. I’m really proud of their efforts tonight.”
Dylan Cindric scored all five touchdowns for the Trojans. He finished with 89 yards on eight carries and caught five passes for 59 yards. Quarterback Josh Gibbons went 8 of 15 for 115 yards and three touchdown passes.
“Dylan and Josh made plays all year, and I knew when given the opportunity if given some space it doesn’t matter what the weather is, they can make plays,” Leasure said. “They did that tonight. It’s tough with these conditions, but they rose to the challenge. They gave Northern Cambria everything they could.”
Neither team folded, but in the end, the Colts were too much up front for the undermanned Trojans as the game wore on.
“They powered us there the last few plays and pushed us around at the end of the game,” Leasure said. “We were concerned about the run game because they started to have some success. They went inside, and it was tough for us.”
Northern Cambria scored on its opening drive, a 25-yard touchdown run by Adam Kopera that gave the Colts a 6-0 lead with 6:59 left in the first quarter.
Saltsburg tied the game on a 10-yard touchdown pass from Gibbons to Cindric with 2:04 remaining in the first. Gibbons connected with Cindric for a 24-yard touchdown 39 seconds before halftime to give the Trojans a 12-6 lead at the break.
Shutty said his team was prepared for Gibbons and the Trojans’ passing attack.
“That’s their game,” Shutty said. “It’s just like us running the ball. It’s what they do, and they do it well. We prepared and trained and did all the things we needed to do.”
Cindric hauled in a 14-yard touchdown pass from Gibbons just four plays into the second half for a two-score lead. Marino scored from 6 yards and 3 yards, respectively, on the Colts’ next two drives to tie the game at 20.
The Trojans answered with a 74-yard drive capped by a 2-yard run by Cindric to regain the lead, 26-20. The Colts then jumped back on top when Marino scored on a 13-yard run and Kopera ran in for the two-point conversion with 4:02 left in the game.
On the next play, Cindric dashed 53 yards around the outside for a touchdown, and Gibbons hit Gino Bartolini on a two-point conversion pass to put the Trojans up 34-28.
“It was a designed play, everybody blocked right and down the sideline I went,” Cindric said.
“It’s just a great way to end the season, and five touchdowns in my last game is something to remember for the rest of your life. Everybody blocked well today and played so good. It stinks we didn’t come out with the ‘W.’”
On their final possession, the Colts drove down to the Trojans’ 10 before facing the crucial fourth down. Shutty took a timeout before the play with 56 seconds left.
“That last timeout, I said, ‘Guys, it’s been a pleasure and it’s been an honor. If we get in or don’t get in, I still love you and am proud of you no matter what happens, and always remember this moment right here.’ And we broke it off from there, and it was a play that they called. It was a play they wanted. It couldn’t have been a more pinnacle moment of my career so far as a coach.”
Northern Cambria’s line and Marino took it in from there.
The Trojans got the ball back with 30 seconds remaining, but Marino picked off a Gibbons pass to seal the victory.
“I’m happy for the kids,” Leasure said. “Last week was a big week, and these kids came up here tonight and gave a nice battle. We fell a little short, but I’m just totally amazed with what the kids were able to pull off this year.”
Saltsburg was confident in its ability to throw the ball despite the weather.
“Josh is an unbelievable quarterback,” Cindric said. “As long as he can get the ball off, we can make some plays for him, and he was still able to do that tonight.”
“It’s fun for the first three hits or so, then it’s just terrible,” Cindric added about the conditions. “Your hands are muddy and you can’t hold onto the ball, you can’t run, it makes nothing right for you and it’s just not good to play in.”
Many playoff games last weekend and this weekend were moved to turf, but the Colts chose to keep their game at home. Shutty said he had the chance to have Friday night’s game moved, but not until Friday afternoon.
“We haven’t played on this field in a while, so we were thinking it was going to hold up better than it did,” he said. “I came down (Thursday) night and checked the field out and it was green. I got a phone call today at 3:30 to see if we wanted to change the game. At that point, I thought it just wasn’t fair to our fans or our players to uproot everybody, so we made the decision to stay. It was just a little bit too late.”
Whether Northern Cambria will play at Duffy Daugherty Stadium on Friday against either United or Portage remains to be seen, but Vasil assured the Colts will be ready.
“We didn’t have a close game like that this year, and it helps us in the playoffs because we’re going to be facing really good teams,” Vasil said. “Every game is tough in the playoffs. You never get an easy game. We have to keep our heads on straight and practice hard and just go out next week and hopefully get another win.”