JOHNSTOWN - Things started off almost as well as they could for Northern Cambria, with Alex Atkins stripping the ball and recovering at the Bishop McCort 36 on the first play from scrimmage.
The bottom dropped out abruptly, though, for the Colts.
Northern Cambria was unable to capitalize on great field position the first two times it got the ball. After weathering the early troubles unscathed, McCort pounced on the Colts for 17 first-half points, then scored four touchdowns in the third quarter on its way to a 45-6 win in Saturday's District 6 Class A high school football semifinal game on Saturday night at Point Stadium.
Photo for the Mirror by Tami Ogline Knopsnyder
Northern Cambria’s Nate Zachesky runs the ball in the second quarter against Bishop McCort on Saturday.
"My father-in-law's a big fisherman. I said I threw everything in my tackle box at them. I couldn't get anything going," Northern Cambria coach Paul Taranto said. "I pulled all the stops out tonight. As an offensive-minded guy, you don't want to scramble. But we ran our basic stuff. It didn't work. We ran our fancy stuff. It didn't work."
Possessing some of the most explosive offensive players in the area, Northern Cambria managed just 120 yards - 60 of which came on a Derek Baker run in the third quarter that accounted for the Colts' only points.
It was the fewest points scored by the Colts in a game this season by two touchdowns. Northern Cambria finished the year 8-4.
"The defense has been the strongest part of our team all season long, especially our defensive front. They stood up tonight, and they really were able to control the line of scrimmage and to control the way the game was played," McCort coach Kevin Sheridan said.
The Crimson Crushers improved to 9-3 and will play Bellwood-Antis on Saturday, Nov. 24 at Altoona's Mansion Park for the district championship. Luke DiFrancesco scored three touchdowns - on a 55-yard pass, a 56-yard punt return and a 29-yard interception return - to lead McCort, which also got 145 yards on 19 carries from Wyatt Jackson.
"We came into the game confident," DiFrancesco said. "We know we have all the ability in the world to get this D6 championship, and we just want to get it."
DiFrancesco had two of McCort's four interceptions of Colt quarterback Jeff Hogan, who'd only been picked off seven times coming in while throwing for more than 1,100 yards. While DiFrancesco scored in the third quarter on a theft, the bigger pick might have been the one he made at his own 1 just 2:31 into the game.
After Atkins had gotten the ball for the Colts, NC drove 20 yards to the 16 before DiFrancesco's pick thwarted the drive. The Colts then got the ball back at the Crusher 34 following a short punt, but Jordan Spangler intercepted Hogan again to keep the game scoreless.
"Our defense has been playing well all year. We trust in them. We trust in each other," DiFrancesco said. "Our defensive line is the best in the [Laurel Highlands Conference]."
McCort came into the game with 30 takeaways and added five more. The defense scored another touchdown when Ryan Siwy recovered a fumbled snap on a punt in the end zone in the third quarter.
"Up front, both sides of the football, their O-line and D-line were outstanding," Taranto said. "They're a well-coached team. It's hard to get them on counters or anything."
McCort took advantage of the second interception with Zaine Tomkowski immediately going up top on a stop-and-go pattern for a 55-yard touchdown. Dustin Belskey added a 4-yard TD run and Spangler a 22-yard field goal in the second quarter.
It was a season-high scoring total for the Crushers, who enter the district final with 32 points or more in four straight games after only reaching that mark three times in their first eight contests.
"Offensively, we're still coming together. We're still learning our responsibilities and how to execute," Sheridan said.
Tomkowski scored on a 1-yard sneak, which combined with Siwy's touchdown and two DiFrancesco scores in the third quarter to bring the running clock into play and put the game out of reach of the Colts.
"I think at halftime, we still had a shot," Taranto said. "But once it snowballed out of hands with interceptions, punt returns, fumbles, I'm pretty sure any high school kid is going to hang their head."
Taranto had seven senior starters in the lineup on Saturday night, six of whom started both ways. The seniors left with a pair of district playoff wins over the last two years.
"The biggest thing I said to them was 'Thank you,'" Taranto said. "On and off the field, they're good kids. We're standing here on the Astroturf at Point Stadium in the district semifinals because of our seniors.
"It just didn't work out for us tonight."
SCORE BY QUARTERS
Northern Cambria0 0 6 0 - 6
Bishop McCort7 10 28 0 - 45
BM-DiFrancesco 55 pass from Tomkowski (Spangler kick), 7:02.
BM-Belskey 4 run (Spangler kick), 10:59.
BM-Spangler 22 FG, 3:43.
BM-DiFrancesco 56 punt return (Spangler kick), 7:24.
BM-Siwy recovered fumble in end zone (Spangler kick), 5:23.
NC-Baker 60 run (run failed), 5:09.
BM-Tomkowski 1 run (Spangler kick), 2:13.
BM-DiFrancesco 29 interception return (Spangler kick), 1:09.
RUSHING: Northern Cambria-Zachesky 15-27, D. Bearer 4-(-10), Suchar 1-5, Baker 4-65, Polites 2-(-1), Hogan 3-(-14), Novella 1-7, Tomallo 1-4, B. Sheredy 1-5, Sowalla 1-2. Bishop McCort-Jackson 19-145, Belskey 8-32, Tomkowski 3-(-3), Thompson 5-29, Pickerill 4-34.
PASSING: Northern Cambria-Hogan 4-15-4-22, Pershing 1-1-0-8, D. Bearer 0-1-0-0. Bishop McCort-Tomkowski 7-11-0-124.
RECEIVING: Northern Cambria-Baker 1-13, D. Bearer 2-10, Polites 1-(-1), Olish 1-8. Bishop McCort-Siwy 3-55, DiFrancesco 1-55, Rugg 1-3, Spangler 2-11.
INTERCEPTIONS: Northern Cambria-none. Bishop McCort-DiFrancesco 2, Spangler, Siwy.