The Altoona Mountain Lions are playoff-bound for the first time since 2007.
The Lions trimmed Connellsville, 27-12, on Friday night at Mansion Park, and, after all of the dust had settled in the West, coach John Franco's squad had earned the wild card spot in the WPIAL's Class AAAA playoffs .
Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich
Altoona’s Avery Howsare (13) is congratulated by Brandon Bernazzoli (50), Jake Diviney and Jeff Hancock (7) after a touchdown.
Altoona finished 4-4 in the Foothills Conference and 4-5 overall. The Lions, Hempfield and Kiski Area all were 4-4 in the conference. Hempfield [fourth] and Kiski Area [fifth] earned Foothills playoff spots while Altoona qualified as the wild card on a complicated point system between the sixth-place finishers in the WPIAL's three Quad-A conferences.
The Mountain Lions celebrated their finest hour in five years by dominating on senior night, giving Franco a Gatorade dousing - actually, it was water - and posing for pictures at midfield for family and friends before heading to the showers.
The Lions entered the night not knowing for sure if a victory would be good enough to earn a playoff spot, but they played like it was a must win, building a 27-0 lead before Connellsville punched over two scores in the final six minutes.
"It was a nice way to end the regular season," Franco said. "I'm happy for the seniors to have won their last two games on the turf here at Mansion Park.
"It's good to see smiles on their faces," he said. "That was our goal this week to have the seniors leave Mansion Park for the last time with smiles on their faces, and we accomplished that."
Connellsville took the opening kickoff and marched to the Altoona 27 before turning the ball over own downs.
"On the first drive, we got to the 27 and had a decision to make because it was fourth-and-2," Connellsville coach David McDonald said. "We had a guy wide open in the flat and the ball was tipped.
"If we had gotten the first and and then gone into score, who knows what might have happened," McDonald said. "But, give Altoona a lot of credit. They played well."
But, Altoona made the stop and immediately marched 73 yards in nine plays for its first score - a 2-yard blast by fullback Mante Barnes.
The Lions added a pair of scores in the second quarter on a pair of Brennan Luciano TD passes to Avery Howsare (14 yards) and Jeff Hancock (24 yards).
Barnes scored from six yards out in the first minute of the fourth quarter to make it 27-0 before the visiting Falcons scored twice against Altoona reserves in the final six minutes.
"Everybody played well," Franco said. "I don't know if one guy stood out. Brennan [Luciano] did a superb job. He's been doing that week in and week out."
On the TD pass to Howsare, Franco noted: "It was a hot read and we picked up the blitz and dumped it into an open area. Avery made a great run and that was nice because he's worked really hard."
Altoona pounded the ball on the ground the second half.
"It was a good job by Barnes and an even better job by the offensive line," Franco said. "The offense did a really good job the whole game."
Defensively, Franco pointed to solid work by Austin Rosenberry and Brandon Bernazzoli.
"Together, they really controlled the line of scrimmage," the coach said. "This team [Connellsville] really had a lot of weapons, and to shut them down was outstanding."
Franco, in the first year of his second stint at Altoona after 18 outstanding seasons at Tyrone, downplayed his role in the Lions' success this season.
"It's pretty special," Franco admitted. "With all the adversity these guys have faced over the last several years ... it's the third system they've been under since junior high, and it's hard to do, especially for the seniors.
"We asked them to completely change all of their habits and it's tough," he said. "But, our goal coming in was to make the playoffs and go from there."
The players, however, gave their coach a lot of the credit and showed it with the water bath in the closing seconds.
"I told them the only time they could do it [dousing] was if we make the playoffs," Franco said. "I completely forgot about it, and they got me good."
It was a special night for the Altoona seniors.
"It feels great," Howsare said. "To get to the playoffs, it feels great.
"It's great to turn the program around. This was a big year for us," he said. "To be honest, we wanted to be remembered for turning the program around."
"It's really special," Bernazzoli said. "To move on and go to the playoffs for the first time since 2007 is really great."
Game notes: WPIAL seedings will be made early next week and it's presumed the Lions will face North Allegheny, the state's No. 1 ranked team. ... Eddy Hancock, class of 1983 and a winner of the Cohen Blanket Award, was the Lions' honorary captain.
SCORE BY QUARTERS
Connellsville0 0 0 12 - 12
Altoona7 13 0 7- 27
A-Barnes 2 run (Savino kick), 4:17.
A-Howsare 14 pass from Luciano (kick failed), 9:48.
A-Hancock 24 pass from Luciano (Metzgar kick), 3:04.
A-Barnes 6 run (Metzgar kick), 11:08.
C-Cellurale 3 run (kick failed), 6:05.
C-Cellurale 27 fumble recovery (run failed), 4:56.
RUSHING: Connellsville-McCrae10-34, Maher 4-22, Russell 2-8, Cree 2-1, Cellurale 3-0, Nichelson 11-0, TEAM 1-(-16). Altoona-Howsare 17-95, Barnes 11-54, Givens 1-8, DeCriscio 4-7, McConnell 1-2, Luciano 2-1, TEAM 4-(-33)..
PASSING: Connellsville-Maher 11-17-1-100, Cellurale 3-3-0-61. Altoona-Luciano 16-21-0-207, Dry 1-1-0-11.
RECEIVING: Connellsville-Ross 6-86, Norton 4-72, McCrae 2-5, Parlak 1-1, Cree 1-(-3). Altoona-Diviney 6-104, Barnes 4-19, Hancock 2-33, Howsare 2-23, Steinbugl 1-21, Buffalii 1-11, Ward 1-7.