ALTOONA — It was a painful ending for Ligonier Valley, and what hurt the Rams most was the fact they had to walk away knowing they suffered too many self-inflicted wounds.
Richland got out to a fast start, took advantage of Ligonier Valley’s mistakes and eventually pulled away for a 34-6 victory in the District 6 Class 2A championship game at Mansion Park on Friday night to defend its title.
The much-anticipated battle of previously unbeaten teams pitted the top-seeded Rams against the second-seeded Rams — both of whom entered the game ranked in the top five in the state. The Richland Rams were able to work around their adversity in the title game while the Ligonier Valley Rams squandered opportunities in the season-ending loss, a game that was most likely the program’s last as a member of District 6.
“First off, give credit to Richland,” Ligonier Valley coach Roger Beitel said. “They overcame a lot. They lost their quarterback and made plays. Ultimately, they capitalized on what we did. Most of those things were mistakes that were self-inflicted. It was one of those things we couldn’t overcome. Every time we got momentum, got it rolling, we’d turn the ball over. That’s just a really tough way to end the season.”
Ligonier Valley (12-1) entered the postseason with just six turnovers but then turned the ball over 11 times in three playoff games. Both teams turned it over three times Friday.
Richland, the defending champion, scored on its first two possessions of the game to take an early lead and scored on its final two drives to put the game out of reach. Richland also beat Ligonier Valley in last year’s title game, 21-12.
“I’m so happy for our kids,” Richland coach Brandon Bailey said. “Going back-to-back, going through the Laurel Highlands undefeated then coming here and beating a really good Ligonier Valley team twice, it’s certainly something to be proud of. I’m really excited for the community.”
Bailey’s team advanced to take on Bishop McDevitt, the District 12 champion, in the state quarterfinals next weekend. The Royal Lancers were 28-13 winners over Dunmore on Friday.
Ligonier Valley, which was playing in its fourth straight District 6 title game, awaits its fate as the WPIAL will vote Monday on whether to admit the school into District 7. The move then has to be approved by the PIAA to become official. The Rams are the four-time defending Heritage Conference champs, won the Appalachian Bowl four times and the senior class went 40-0 in regular-season games.
Kyrie Miller rushed for 105 yards on 17 carries to wrap up his record career, and fellow senior Sam Sheeder rushed for 75 yards and a touchdown and passed for 124 yards.
Richland standout Caleb Burke passed for 148 yards after taking over at quarterback when starter Kellan Stahl injured his wrist in the first half. Burke caught a touchdown pass, rushed for a score and threw for two TDs. Trevor Tustin caught three passes for 103 yards and two touchdowns, and Griffin LaRue had three receptions for 108 yards and a touchdown.
“We got off to a fast start,” Bailey said. “We have some athletes. They did some things to keep us from getting the ball to Caleb Burke. Some other guys stepped up. They had a big interception, then Kellan kind of went down with an injury that kept him from throwing the football. The momentum shifted. We went into the half and sorted some things out, and Caleb was Caleb.”
Stahl hit Burke for a 12-yard touchdown pass with 8:01 left in the first quarter, and after Ligonier Valley fumbled the ball away at the Richland 37-yard line, Stahl connected with Tustin on the next play for a 14-0 lead.
John Beard picked off Stahl in the end zone on Richland’s next possession, but Ligonier Valley was unable to capitalize.
With 2:59 left in the first half, Ligonier Valley took over at the Richland 27-yard line after a Tustin fumble. Three plays later, Ligonier Valley gave the ball right back inside the Richland 5.
“We had a golden opportunity to go in at half 14-7,” Beitel said. “We just didn’t make the plays when we needed to, and that’s a credit to a good opportunistic defense.”
Ligonier Valley picked off Stahl again, this time just three plays into the second half to gain some momentum. But again, the Rams turned it back over when Burke intercepted a Sheeder pass in the end zone.
Tustin hauled in a 31-yard pass from Burke for a touchdown with 4:16 left in the third quarter to give Richland a 21-0 lead.
“Even in the second half, we got exactly what we wanted,” Beitel said. “My mantra always is that the most important drive of every football game is the first drive of the second half. We come out, we get the interception, we get the ball at midfield, and we’re like, ‘Man, we’re in business.’ It just didn’t happen for us.”
Ligonier Valley did answer with a 64-yard drive capped by a 1-yard touchdown leap by Sheeder to pull within 21-6. But Richland answered right back, and Burke scored on a 16-yard scamper with 10:02 remaining in the game. Burke hit LaRue on a 31-yard touchdown pass with 2:42 left to seal the win.
“Our kids battled, that’s for sure,” Beitel said. “They’re sad. I told them to keep their heads high. What they have accomplished as a team, there’s not many places around that have done what they’ve done in terms of wins and things like that. It’s a tough way to go out with a great group of kids.”