BLAIRSVILLE — Cambria Heights is experiencing a season of firsts.
It’s the Highlanders first year in the Heritage Conference, where they won their first game and then the next seven to take home the title of conference champions — what could be the first of many. Cambria Heights sealed the Heritage title with a 20-7 victory over a fierce River Valley team on Friday night at Memorial Field.
The Panthers came out hot when running back Angelo Bartolini, in his first game back since a leg injury kept him sidelined against Homer-Center last week, took a pitch from quarterback Braden Staats on the first drive of the game and sent it downfield to wide receiver Cage Kinney for a 60-yard touchdown pass. The extra-point kick by Keith Behanna, his 31st of the season, gave River Valley a 7-0 lead less than a minute into the game.
It was the first time that Cambria Heights trailed all season. Add it to the list.
The Highlanders followed Kinney’s touchdown with a nine-play drive that saw the Cambria Heights trio of fullback Ryan Haluska, quarterback Ty Stockley and tailback Tanner Hite take the ball 58 yards. Haluska ended the drive with a 10-yard rush into the end zone. Junior kicker Zech Scott also nailed his 31st extra-point kick of the season to tie the game at 7 apiece.
“This team has high character,” said Cambria Heights coach Jarrod Lewis. “We have great senior leadership, and what they do, even though we got down early, we never panicked. It was one of those things. We felt like we had time to come back, and, as long as we had time on the clock we thought we’d be all right.”
“We knew we just had to stick together and come back, keep working and keep grinding,” Stockley added. “The line did excellent tonight and paved our way through.”
After evening things up, the Highlanders never let off the gas pedal. However, the pacing was set at slow and steady rather than a high-speed race, which is exactly how CH likes to play.
River Valley picked up just 12 yards on its next drive, allowing Cambria Heights to take over on downs at their own 25-yard line. The Highlanders gobbled up over six minutes off the clock on a 10-play, 75-yard drive that ended with Haluska’s 3-yard rushing touchdown and Scott’s 32nd extra-point kick of the season to give CH a 14-7 lead that it wouldn’t give up.
Scott’s two extra-point kicks put the junior at No. 1 in the Heritage in kick scoring.
Cambria Heights ended the first half with another one of its signature long drives for a score. This one a 13-play, 5 minute, 48 second, 84-yard trek downfield that started and ended with 5-foot-11 Stockley. The drive kicked off with Stockley slipping through River Valley’s defenders for a 26-yard gain and ended with a 1-yard quarterback keeper to give the Highlanders a 20-7 lead that would wind up being the final tally.
The core group of guys that Lewis depends on weekly put in the work to hurdle over the Panthers. Stockley completed 1 of 2 passes for 38 yards, while running for 122 on 22 keeps. Haluska scored two touchdowns as he ran for 120 yards on 25 carries, and Hite added 49 rushing yards on 12 attempts. Cambria Heights ended the night with 307 total offensive yards.
“They’re our horses,” Lewis said. “We have four guys that we depend on and did well. We’re very happy with them. It was a total team effort tonight. The line did a great job and our running backs ran extremely hard tonight.”
With a healthy lead, Cambria Heights entered the second half with the sole purpose of keeping River Valley’s dangerous offense off the field.
“They can’t score if they’re not on the field, and our offense did a great job,” Lewis said. “I’d like to have punched in a couple of those drives, but nonetheless it did what we needed to do to keep them off the field so they couldn’t score.”
The Highlanders did exactly what they set out to accomplish. The Panthers never held onto the ball for more than three minutes at a time. The defense suffocated a River Valley offense that going into the night boasted 336.8 yards and 41 points a game.
Bartolini was held to just 19 rushing yards on 11 carries and 75 receiving yards on three catches. It’s the first time this season that Bartolini, the Heritage’s leading scorer, didn’t earn a touchdown.
The 6-foot senior also recovered a fumble after a bad snap sailed over the head of CH kicker Bailey Horvath with three minutes left in the third. Unfortunately, the Panthers couldn’t capitalize and went 4-and-out with Stockley stopping Bartolini at Cambria Heights’ 4-yard line to give the Highlanders back the ball.
Sincere McFarlin, who missed last week’s game due to a knee injury, came up big on defense but was held to just 11 rushing yards on two opportunities.
Staats went 8-for-16 and 137 yards.
River Valley had all its trains running on Friday, but the Panthers could never leave the station due to a crippling Highlanders defense.
Junior Brett Bills and freshman Garrett Jasper each sacked Braden Staats for heavy losses in the second half, while Stockley blocked a fourth-down pass with 1:22 left in the game to seal the victory.
“We were able to put some pressure on the quarterback, which is good,” Lewis said. “What we try to do is make them one dimensional, which we were able to do and put some pressure on. But they battled the entire time. That’s a good football team.
“We knew they were going to fight. That’s one heck of a football team. Credit Coach Houser and his staff, they battled us for the entire game. They’re a good football team. Luckily we were able to come out with a win tonight.”
While it may be a season of firsts for Cambria Heights, there’s one first that can wait: the first loss. Despite taking the title of Heritage Conference champs, Lewis and the Highlanders are looking to the future.
“We still got another week here,” Lewis joked. “Honest to God, it’s a great accomplishment, but we’re going to enjoy it tonight and get ready for Purchase Line next week starting tomorrow.”
“We have a lot more left to do,” Stockley added. “This isn’t our end goal. We still have playoffs coming up and D-6 in mind, so we know we have to work harder. This is the best team chemistry we’ve had. We stick together. We’re family. We’ve been working hard. We have to keep working harder.”
Cambria Heights (8-0) hopes to remain undefeated as it welcomes Purchase Line (4-4) next week, while River Valley (6-2) heads to Northern Cambria (1-7) looking to bounce back after two straight losses to tough teams.