Potential for scoring: Explosive Dragons, Rams set for title clash

This year’s District 6 Class AA football championship game has a chance to be one of the most entertaining clashes Mansion Park has hosted, and at least one of the coaches thinks the fans will get their money’s worth of scoring while the scoreboard gets a workout.

“If we are going to challenge, we are going to have to score more than a couple of touchdowns,” Dave Baker said. “I don’t think you can say, ‘we’re going to stop these guys and win the game.’ That will not happen.

“I don’t think you can say, ‘we’re going to hold these guys to one touchdown.’ You can say that, but, if you do, you are kidding yourself.”

Baker’s probably right. The fewest points defending champion and top seed Richland has scored all season has been 28 and the unbeaten Rams average 46.9 points.

Baker, though, is coaching one of the few teams that might be able to match Richland point for point: His 10-2 Central Scarlet Dragons have eclipsed the 60-point mark three times this year and haven’t scored fewer than 42 in six weeks.

The two highest scoring teams in the region face off on Friday night. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m.

The third seed entering the tournament, Central is looking for its first district trophy since 2008.

“It’s exciting. It’s an opportunity. There’s a lot of excitement around here. A lot of our people are excited. Our fans are excited. Our players are excited – they really feel good about this,” Baker said.

And there probably are a number of fans with no allegiance to either school that share that feeling. These two teams have combined for nearly 1,100 points this season.

On the one hand, Richland quarterback Matt Shaffer has thrown for 2,267 yards and 30 touchdowns and has run for another 718 yards, while Ram running back Tanner Solarczyk has 1,576 yards on the ground, found the end zone 18 times and is averaging 9.2 yards per attempt.

Central, though, boasts two of the best broken-field runners around, let alone on one team. Throwbacks to the time when rushers would give ground and jitterbug constantly looking to break the big play, Dragon quarterback Austin Cunningham and running back Bradi Moore have combined for 3,017 yards from scrimmage, 46 touchdowns and more than 1,200 yards passing, to boot.

Moore, by himself, has scored 32 touchdowns and 198 points. Seven teams in the Mirror coverage area this season didn’t do that.

“We look at these kids like some of the kids we played in the playoffs last year from Aliquippa and Hickory. Anywhere on the field, they can score,” Richland coach Brandon Bailey said. “We spent a lot of time this week as a coaching staff going through everything Central does and does so well. It will be a challenge for our kids to execute our gameplan, just like it will be for the Central kids. There’s tremendous athletes on both teams. It should be fun for spectators, but it’s taxing on the coaches.”

While the statistics are fairly similar, the defending champs have a big edge in one area: experience.

Richland’s seniors are playing in their third district final, and this is their 11th postseason game over the past three campaigns. The Rams are 8-2 in the playoffs from 2011-2013 and 36-4 overall.

By contrast, Central only has played three playoff games in that time. The Dragons haven’t been to the championship game since it beat Central Cambria at Mansion Park in 2008.

“I do think it’s different your first time there, especially as a 16-or-17-year-old kid,” said Bailey, who played in the district finals while at Forest Hills. “It’s a difficult thing to comprehend, and you can’t really understand it until you are coming through that tunnel for the first time. We’ve been there, and we’ve been through that.”

Baker’s been in this position before, though, when he was coach at Williamsburg 20 years ago.

“We can’t let them get the idea that the stage is bigger than them. This is a football game. I think, if it can be done, we can do that,” Baker said. “This is why I’ve always wanted – and we basically have – players who play other sports. They’ve been in competition all the time, so they think this is no real big deal.”

While the respective offenses will be taking aim at the 6-AA final scoring record of 46, the role of the defenses and special teams will be amplified, trying to give either team that slight advantage. Central averages more than 23 yards per punt return and nearly 20 per kickoff return.

“We’re going to have to make some stops,” Baker said. “Our defense is going to have to be effective. We’re going to need a stop or two that will affect the game.”

Bailey is gearing up for a down-to-the-wire contest.

“This is one of those games that could end up 49-45, and the last team with the ball wins, or it could be a 14-10 game, because both defenses are outstanding,” Bailey said. “It’s my opinion that the team that doesn’t turn the ball over and wins the penalty game will have the best chance to win.”