Football teams that are a minus-10 in turnover margin aren't supposed to have winning records, let alone be winning playoff games.
Just don't tell the Northern Cambria High School Colts that. Or try to get their coach, Paul Taranto, to try to explain it.
"Hats off to our kids," Taranto said. "I think it's just overall ability and desire. I keep telling the kids we have yet to play our 'A' ballgame, and we're doing pretty well.
"I'm excited to see if we can play a game without any mistakes and see how good we can be. Luckily, the kids have been battling, and they never gave up."
Taranto would be especially pleased if Northern Cambria was saving its best football for now. The unconventional Colts - who don't seem quite as out of place in what has been an unconventional District 6 Class A postseason so far - will try to knock off their second straight higher-seeded opponent tonight and punch their ticket into the championship game for the first time in nearly a decade when they meet perennial power Bishop McCort tonight at Point Stadium in Johnstown.
Both teams bring 8-3 records into their 7 p.m. semifinal clash.
Who: Northern Cambria Colts (8-3) vs. Bishop McCort Catholic Crimson Crushers (8-3)
When: Tonight, 7 p.m.
Where: Point Stadium, Johnstown
Coaches: Northern Cambria - Paul Taranto (24-26, five years). Bishop McCort - Kevin Sheridan (15-7, two years).
Last meeting: Bishop McCort, 28-0 (1988)
All-time series: Bishop McCort, 10-5 (first met in 1955)
How they got here: Northern Cambria - defeated Penns Manor, 28-20; lost to Homer-Center, 25-18; defeated United, 36-0; defeated Blairsville, 29-26; defeated Purchase Line, 28-0; lost to Berlin Brothersvalley, 21-19; defeated Marion Center, 18-12; defeated Salsburg,40-3; lost to Ligonier Valley, 36-26; defeated Cambria Heights, 29-20; defeated Portage, 20-14, in the district quarterfinals. Bishop McCort - defeated Bishop Carroll, 38-13; defeated Forest Hills, 10-6; lost to Somerset, 19-13; defeated Bedford, 38-14; lost to Richland, 17-10; defeated Westmont Hilltop, 35-0; defeated Johnstown, 28-18; lost to Cambria Heights, 21-19; defeated Bishop Guilfoyle, 37-0; defeated Central Cambria, 38-13; defeated Penns Manor, 32-29, in the district quarterfinals.
When Northern Cambria has the ball: Northern Cambria offense - QG Jeff Hogan (sr., 18), RB Nate Zacheskey (sr., 47), RB Dartagnan Suchar (jr., 20), WB Derek Bearer (sr., 10), WR Adam Polites (sr., 19), WR Rick Sheredy (sr., 5), T Alex Atkins (sr., 67), T Justin Sedlock (jr., 63) G Josh Platko (sr., 59), G Evan Ludwig (sr., 79), C Jay McGary (jr., 72). Bishop McCort defense - DE Drake Leech (jr., 66), DE Ryan Siwy (sr., 6), DT Lake Dorn (so., 74), DT Christian Roman (jr., 79), OLB Tyler Rugg (jr., 17), OLB Nate James (sr., 27), ILB Gap Barbin (sr., 52), ILB Ethan Neiderhiser (jr., 24), CB Jacob Burgo (jr., 3), CB Luke DiFrancesco (jr., 23), S Jordan Spangler (sr., 9).
When Bishop McCort has the ball: Bishop McCort offense - QB Zaine Tomkowski (sr., 13), RB Wyatt Jackson (sr., 30), RB Nate James (sr., 27), WR Jordan Spangler (sr., 9), WR Luke Di Francesco (jr., 23), TE Ryan Siwy (sr., 6), T Christian Roman (jr., 79), T Charlie Kleman (sr., 59), G Drake Leech (jr., 66), G Ryan Gritzer (jr., 50), C Gap Barbin (sr., 52). Northern Cambria defense - DE Josh Platko (sr., 59), DE Nate Zachesky (sr., 47), DT Darren Benamati (jr., 57), DT Chris Barrett (jr., 60), NT Nick Frontino (jr., 58), LB Evan Ludwig (sr., 79), LB Alex Atkins (sr., 67), MON Nolan Paronish (jr., 16), CB Adam Polites (sr., 19), CB Derek Bearer (sr., 10), S Dartagnan Suchar (jr., 20).
What's next: The winner plays Bellwood-Antis for the District 6 Class A championship on Nov. 24 at Altoona's Mansion Park.
Notable: These are the sixth and seventh seeds in the 6-A field. Three lower seeds won in the four quarterfinal games last week. ... This is the second year in a row that the Colts have gotten through the opening round on the road. Last year, they won at Glendale when the 6-A playoffs included an extra round then lost at eventual champion Penns Manor in the quarterfinals. Northern Cambria only has been to the championship game once before, falling to Bishop Carroll in the 2003 District 5-6 finals. ... Since 2001, McCort has won five District 6 championships, including two in Class A. The Crushers lost to Carroll in the 2010 finals and were ousted from the playoffs by Bellwood-Antis in the semifinals last season. ... Both teams boast exceptional defenses: Northern Cambria is surrendering 203.0 yards per game, while McCort is allowing 254.2. ... Hogan is 68-for-136 for 1,122 yards, 15 touchdowns and seven interceptions, while Tomkowski has connected on 107-of-197 passes for 1,643 yards, 15 TDs and six interceptions.
- Philip Cmor
Not only has Northern Cambria committed far more turnovers than it has forced, the Colts have been flagged for 19 more penalties than their opponents this year and gotten outscored by 25 points in the first quarter.
However, ask McCort coach Kevin Sheridan, and he'll reel off a long list of reasons no one should be selling NC short and why he thinks the Colts present a very difficult obstacle.
"We realize how tough our opponent is and how tough the task is," Sheridan said. "We have to limit the big plays of Adam Polites, a six-two receiver who really has a knack for going up and getting the ball. Derek Bearer is a shifty wingback who also has the speed to break one. The fullback [Nate Zachesky] has a knack for churning out yardage and keeping those chains moving. Alex Atkins at linebacker is one of the most physical kids we've seen. You don't see a kid his size run as well as he does and find a way to get to the football every play.
"We have to keep in mind we're playing a team that has beaten a Cambria Heights team that we were unable to beat and has also beaten [defending PIAA semifinalist] Penns Manor."
Polites is averaging more than 23 yards per catch and is tied for the area lead with eight touchdown receptions, while Bearer has found the end zone seven times and has nearly 550 yards as a rusher and receiver. Zachesky tops NC ground gainers with 811 yards, teaming with Dartagnan Suchar for more than 1,300 this season.
Colts quarterback Jeff Hogan, who is also an all-star-caliber talent in basketball and volleyball, has passed for 1,122 yards and 15 touchdowns while only being picked off seven times. The 6-foot-2, 235-pound Atkins is averaging around a dozen tackles per game and is being recruited by colleges Division II level and above.
Northern Cambria is coming off a 20-14 quarterfinal-round victory at second-seeded Portage on the strength of Suchar's 87-yard interception return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. It's the second year in a row the Colts have won an opening-round district playoff game on the road.
They ended the regular season with an upset win over Class AA Cambria Heights.
"Every week, I think they get a little more confidence and believe a little more in themselves," Taranto said of his players. "It's always good for your confidence to beat a team that was 9-1 [Portage]. You should feel pretty good about yourself after knocking them off."
That actually only was one of three wins by lower-seeded teams in the 6-A quarterfinals. McCort arrived at this point via a 32-29 win at Penns Manor. Jordan Spangler picked off a pass in the end zone with a little more than a minute left to preserve the victory for the Crimson Crushers.
That, combined with Northern Cambria's win, gave the Crushers a semifinal home game. McCort is 5-0 at home this season, including wins over Forest Hills and Bishop Guilfoyle, both of whom are still alive in the playoffs.
"That's where we play our best football," Sheridan said.
The Crushers are keyed by the passing combination of quarterback Zaine Tomkowski and Spangler, who have hooked up 49 times this year for 710 yards and eight TDs.