DuBOIS - It was a season the Central Scarlet Dragons and their fans always will remember.
It was ended by seven minutes they'd just as soon forget.
The Dragons led throughout Saturday afternoon's PIAA Class AA football quarterfinal game with District 10 champion Hickory at E.J. Mansell Stadium. Things came completely unraveled for Central in the final half of the fourth quarter, though, and the Hornets scored 16 points to emerge from a big play-filled game with a 37-27 victory that left the Dragons feeling as cold as the chilly late November air.
Mirror photos by Gary M. Baranec
Assistant coach A.J. Hoenstine consoles Central’s Austin Conrath following the Scarlet?Dragons’ loss to Hickory on?Saturday. For more photos, go to the CU portion of www.altoonamirror.com.
"They made the big plays in the second half," Central coach Dave Baker said. "They made the plays that won the game, and we couldn't quite do it."
Central led by 13 points with 7:30 left in the third quarter on the strength of Austin Cunningham's 202 passing yards and three touchdown completions to Bradi Moore to go along with three fumble recoveries by the defense - one that set up a score, one that resulted in an Austin Conrath touchdown and another that resulted in a touchback when Hickory quarterback Matt Voytik was about to break into the end zone.
However, Voytik connected with sophomore Andrew Pryts for a 65-yard touchdown pass at the 7:23 mark of the third quarter that cut Central's lead to six. Then, down the stretch, everything that could go wrong for the Dragons seemingly did.
After Moore's 51-yard punt pinned Hickory at its own 10, Voytik reared back and fired a deep pass over the middle to his cousin, Pryts. Pryts hauled it in over his shoulder at midfield with Moore in coverage and raced the rest of the way to the end zone for a 90-yard touchdown.
On Central's next play from scrimmage, Cunningham, who led all rushers with 47 yards, almost got to the outside but was tripped up and had a Hornet defender roll up on his leg, knocking him out of the game. One play later, Dragon backup quarterback Noah Benton was brought down for a 13-yard loss at his 1.
Hickory converted the short field after a Central punt into a 12-yard touchdown run by Voytik with 1:19 to play. The Dragons tried a reverse on the ensuing kickoff, but that resulted in a 15-yard loss to their own 2, which turned into a safety when Cunningham, back in the game, was tracked down by Jordan Wombacker to ice the contest.
Central finished the year 11-3.
"We needed to make stops. That's just what we couldn't do," said Jared Ponder, one of Central's senior captains. "We were definitely feeling pretty good. It was just a matter of coming out, we needed to keep pushing the ball down their throat, and we couldn't capitalize when we needed to.
"I felt we needed to score one more time, and they would have just started to give up."
Hickory, though, didn't, and ran its record to 12-1 while winning their first interdistrict playoff game since 1991. The Hornets were knocked out of the playoffs the last two years by Tyrone and Richland.
"We just needed a break for ourselves. It started to turn our way when we got that break," said Hickory coach Bill Brest, who was so hoarse he was barely audible. "Special teams and big plays really helped us in the second half."
Voytik, the cousin of one of Pitt's quarterbacks, completed 9 of 13 passes for 231 yards, 179 of which came in the final two quarters.
Five of Voytik's completions went to Pryts for 191 yards. The son of former Penn State linebacker Ed Pryts also returned a kickoff 84 yards for a score immediately following Conrath's fumble recovery for a touchdown when Ponder sacked Voytik in the second quarter.
"Bubba's a stud," a smiling Voytik said of Pryts.
Central managed to regain the lead late in the first half when Cunningham fit a pass into a tight window to Moore along the side of the end zone with 1:45 left. That was set up when Ponder recovered a punt fumbled by Pryts and returned it to the Hickory 28.
Cunningham and Moore teamed again to give Central a 27-14 lead with 9:13 to play in the third quarter on a beautiful 38-yard touchdown pass two plays after Cunningham picked off Voytik in Dragon territory and ran it back 28 yards.
Moore started the scoring when he capped an eight-play, 80-yard game-opening drive with a 47-yard hookup from Cunningham. Moore batted the ball up in the air a couple of times before finally hauling it in behind the Hickory defense.
"Their guys were getting up in our face. Our line blocked, and I knew Bradi could get past their guys, so I just put it up and let out guys make plays," Cunningham said.
Dragon tight end Adam Frederick also had a big day with three receptions for 99 yards before Hickory changed the coverage to try to better handle him.
Hickory had an opportunity to tie the game going into the half, but Voytik was stood up and stripped of the ball at the Dragon 1 at the end of a 20-yard jaunt in the final minute of the second quarter. The ball rolled into the end zone, where Moore recovered it.
Central, though, couldn't quite deliver the blow to knock out the Hornets, who will next face WPIAL champion South Fayette in the state semifinals.
"We knew they still had life. In the state playoffs, everyone is good," Frederick said.
"It's tough. A lot of us have been playing since we were wee little, second or third grade. Football's your life. We put the time in, day after day, for almost four months now. To make it this far and lose, it's heartbreaking," Frederick added.
SCORE BY QUARTERS
Hickory7 7 7 16 - 37
Central7 14 6 0 - 27
C-Moore 47 pass from Cunningham (Slagenweit kick), 7:25.
H-Voytik 10 run (Wombacker kick), 0:19.1.
C-A. Conrath fumble recovery in end zone (Slagenweit kick), 5:48.
H-Pryts 84 kickoff return (Wombacker kick), 5:34.
C-Moore 13 pass from Cunningham (Slagenweit kick), 1:45.
C-Moore 38 pass from Cunningham (kick failed), 9:13.
H-Pryts 65 pass from Voytik (Wombacker kick), 7:23.
H-Pryts 90 pass from Voytik (Wombacker kick), 6:34.
H-Voytik 12 run (Wombacker kick), 1:19.
H-Safety, Cunningham sacked in end zone, 0:48.8.
RUSHING: Hickory-Derloni 18-33, Carr 7-33, Voytik 12-31, Pryts 2-6, TEAM 2-(-3). Central-Cunningham 17-47, Emerick 5-18, A. Conrath 2-10, Prokop 0-9, Moore 5-(-13), Benton 1-(-15), TEAM 3-(-7).
PASSING: Hickory-Voytik 9-13-1-231, Pryts 1-1-0-16. Central-Cunningham 8-17-1-202, Moore 1-1-0-34, Benton 0-1-0-0.
RECEIVING: Hickory-Pryts 5-191, Cannone 2-36, Pryts 1-16, Derloni 1-4, Carr 1-0. Central-Moore 4-97, Frederick 3-99, Slagenweit 1-34, Helsel 1-6.
INTERCEPTIONS: Hickory-Cannone. Central-Cunningham.