KENWOOD — It seemed like old times: Saturday night football at Penns Manor and Saltsburg winning playoff games.
Regular Saturday night football games ended about 15 years ago at Penns Manor, though there have been Saturday playoff games there since then. The last Saltsburg playoff win goes back a little further.
The No. 9-seeded Saltsburg Trojans defeated the No. 8 Penns Manor Comets, 35-28, in the first round of the District 6 1A playoffs under the Saturday night lights of Pat Corrigan Field and posted their first playoff win since 1991. The win earned the Trojans a quarterfinal game at Northern Cambria on Friday.
“All week we were talking about it,” Saltsburg senior running back Dylan Cindric said. “The whole town was behind us. We had pep rallies and had everyone all pumped up. We knew what we had to do to come up here and shut them down.”
The win became the latest chapter in a fascinating season for the Trojans, filled with upsets, disappointments and a controversial forfeit.
But Saltsburg secured a playoff berth for the first time since 2011 and won its first playoff game since beating Meyersdale in states in ’91.
“For the kids to get this win tonight, it feels amazing,” Saltsburg coach Mike Leasure said. “It has been a long season and a lot of off-the-field stuff, but these kids, every week they’ve have rebounded. You can’t say enough about these kids and their attitude.”
Just as the Trojans showed resilience just to get to the playoffs, they came through when it really counted in third- and fourth-down situations to beat the Comets. Saltsburg converted nine of 13 third downs, including three for three in critical fourth-quarter situations.
“I told our line last week that if we wanted to win this ball game, it was on them,” Saltsburg junior quarterback Josh Gibbons said. “I told them again tonight and they came out and helped us on those third-down conversions.”
Saltsburg led just 28-20 with 7:11 remaining in the last quarter. The Comets had just scored with a 2-yard dive by Matt Somogyi on a fourth-down run, and Penns Manor could ill afford to allow Saltsburg to put together a time-consuming scoring drive.
The Trojans did just that, thanks to two big third-down plays. Gibbons completed a pass to tight end Gino Bartolini, who ran over defensive back Dimitri Lieb and gained 41 yards to dig Saltsburg out of a third-and-13 holes. Three plays later, Gibbons found wide receiver Nate Slapinski for 15 yards to convert a third-and-3 and set up a 1-yard scoring run by Cindric.
The touchdown and kick by Ryan Elwood gave Saltsburg a 35-20 lead with 4:28 left in the fourth quarter.
Gibbons completed 12 of 17 passes for 243 yards. Bartolini caught four of those passes for 103 yards, and Slapinski pulled in seven more for 126 yards. Cindric gained 80 rushing yards and scored three times, including a 14-yard pass.
“They made some big plays and our pass coverage was really bad tonight,” Penns Manor coach Bill Packer said.
Penns Manor answered Cindric’s latest touchdown with another scoring run of three yards by Somogyi, who finished with a game-high 90 rushing yards. The Comets trailed just by just seven points.
The team with the ball seemed to be the team with momentum, and with 3:12 remaining, Penns Manor didn’t want to put it back in Gibbons’ hands. Penns Manor kicker Brandon Baird attempted an onside kick and the Comets thought that Tommy Hamilton had recovered it, but Saltsburg’s Alex Lassick came out of the pile with the ball.
The Comets dropped Cindric and Gibbons for six-yard losses on the first two plays of the series and put the Trojans far behind the chains at third-and-22 on their own 35.
One more time, Gibbons scrambled until he saw Cindric and Slapinski in the same area near the Penns Manor 40, though surrounded by defenders. Gibbons launched the pass and Cindric went up for it, but Slapinski came down with it for 26-yard gain.
“It was sort of a broken play at first,” Slapinski said. “My route was broken. Luckily we have an athletic quarterback here that can run outside the pocket, and all I had to do was find open space. I tried doing that and he put a good ball up for me — a 50-50 ball — and I came down with it.”
With no timeouts left, the Comets could not stop the Trojans from running out the clock on the next four plays.
After a scoreless first quarter, Hamilton gave the Comets the first lead with a 1-yard run three minutes into the second quarter.
Gibbons answered with a 45-yard touchdown pass to Bartolini, as defenders Somogyi and Garrett Patterson appeared to collide on the coverage.
The Trojans came right back with an onside kick recovered by Cindric and were right back in the end zone in two plays: A 34-yard completion over the middle to Slapinski and the 14-yard pass to Cindric for the score.
Saltsburg added a 28-yard touchdown pass to Slapinski late in the second quarter to take a 20-8 lead.
Bartolini fumbled after a catch in the third quarter, but the ball bounced forward and Saltsburg recovered. The Trojans were still faced with a fourth-down-and-2 at their own 44, but they opted to go for it and Cindric burst through the line and into the secondary for a 56-yard scoring run.