NuMINE — Saltsburg has done it.
After suffering through 22 consecutive losing seasons, the Trojans have a winning football program again.
With a 21-7 victory over West Shamokin on Friday night, Saltsburg improved to 6-2 on the year and remained in a tie for second place in the Heritage Conference with two weeks remaining in the regular season.
More importantly, the Trojans officially put a stop to the dubious streak and assured themselves of finishing the year with a winning record for the first time since the 1996 team went 5-4.
That was most certainly not lost on anyone inside the Saltsburg locker room.
“I told these kids before the game they were playing for all the other teams that have played and put that uniform on,” Saltsburg’s fourth-year coach Mike Leasure said, “and what these kids did tonight was they went out and they played for Saltsburg and the community. To do what they did tonight was on them. This was all about the kids tonight. They went out and they wanted this for Saltsburg.”
“It just feels amazing to come out on top in this game,” senior quarterback Josh Gibbons said.
The last time Saltsburg won at least six games in a season was 1991, when the Trojans went 12-2 and won the District 6 title. In the 27 seasons since then, the Trojans made the playoffs just twice, had one winning season and won one playoff game.
That lone playoff victory came last year, and it appears to have been a stepping stone for this year’s team.
“I don’t take any credit for it by any means because there have been other coaches here,” Leasure said. “It’s these kids. The kids are great kids, and they’ve been playing this game together for a long time. They wanted to put Saltsburg football on the map, and they did it tonight.”
Gibbons ran for 129 yards and threw for another 70, accounting for 199 of the Trojans’ 282 total yards Friday.
After falling behind 7-0 late in the second quarter, Saltsburg reeled off 21 unanswered points en route to its fourth straight win.
For comparison, the Trojans had four victories in a season just three times during the 22-season losing stretch.
Gibbons played a role in all three Saltsburg touchdowns, running for one and throwing a pair of scoring passes to Tristan Roessler, who is likely not to forget this game any time soon.
In addition to being part of the team that ended the streak of losing seasons, the junior receiver also caught his first two career touchdowns.
“I hadn’t had a one-touchdown game yet,” Roessler said, “so it feels pretty good to win and get two touchdowns.”
Following a scoreless opening quarter, Saltsburg appeared well on its way to a touchdown midway through the second quarter. But a promising eight-play, 76-yard drive fizzled out when the Trojans fumbled the ball inside West Shamokin’s 5-yard line.
The Wolves promptly responded with a 12-play, 95-yard scoring drive and took a 7-0 lead on freshman Dylan Wolfe’s 6-yard run with 2:00 remaining in the first half.
But their lead was short-lived because the Trojans — as they did a week earlier — scored in the closing seconds of the first half to tie the game at 7.
Gibbons connected with Roessler for a 6-yard touchdown pass with three seconds left in the half. In last week’s comeback win over Homer-Center, Saltsburg scored with eight seconds remaining in the first half to cut into the Wildcats’ lead.
Just when it looked like West Shamokin might take the momentum into the halftime break, Saltsburg stole it right back with the late touchdown.
“That’s just huge,” Gibbons said. “Going into halftime, you always want to have some points on the board, you want to be in the lead. But we believe we’re a second-half team. … We liked where we were at that point. Coach put together a good game plan at halftime and we came out and executed it.”
“It felt good to get points up before the half and it got the momentum rolling,” Roessler said.
Gibbons scored on a 25-yard scramble late in the third quarter to give Saltsburg a 14-7 lead, and he fired his second touchdown to Roessler, a 10-yarder, with 9:48 remaining in the fourth to round out the scoring.
A shifty, quick runner, Gibbons was largely held in check by the Wolves’ defense in the first half. While he managed to find more running room in the second half, West Shamokin coach Jon McCullough was still pleased with his team’s defense.
“I don’t think we could have played any better defensively tonight,” he said. “Outside the Ligonier game, that’s probably the best anybody’s played them defensively. We followed them. Gibbons is phenomenal, phenomenal, and we did a pretty good against him tonight all in all. They just made plays when they had to. We didn’t make it easy for them, that’s for sure. We just couldn’t get out of our own way with mistakes. We’ve got to limit the penalties.”
The Wolves committed six penalties totaling 80 yards and fumbled the ball inside their own 35-yard line late in the third quarter, which set up Saltsburg’s final touchdown.
West Shamokin also had a touchdown wiped out by a penalty.
On their first possession of the second half, the Wolves appeared to take the lead when quarterback Bo Swartz connected with Jaiden Haswell for a 46-yard touchdown pass.
Haswell was called for offensive pass interference, the play came back and the Wolves’ drive ended with them facing a fourth-and-52. West Shamokin was called for four penalties of 10 yards or more on that possession.
Haswell finished with a team-high 99 rushing yards for the Wolves. Swartz completed 11 of 19 passes for 135 yards.
With 7:09 remaining in the game and holding on to their 21-7 lead, the Trojans got the ball back and managed to run out the clock with an impressive 12-play drive.
“I’m just proud of their effort tonight, the way they finished this game off,” Leasure said. “Things weren’t going great in the first half, but we showed some grit in that second half, which we’re going to need down the stretch. We came out and we were able to run the ball in the second half. … As we move forward, we have to be physical, and West Shamokin is a very physical team, and we matched their physicality tonight.”
With the streak behind them, the Trojans will now turn their focus to even bigger goals.
“Now, we’ve got some big games ahead of us, and we can’t celebrate this too much,” Leasure said. “We’ll celebrate this down the road. Definitely just proud of the kids and this accomplishment for them.
“But we’ve got to move on, and Purchase Line is the next obstacle and we’re going to work hard to do what we can to compete.”