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Backyard Brawl Part II:Titans, Panthers meet again for district title

When Northern Bedford lost a fourth-quarter lead in Saxton the fourth week of the season, Black Panthers coach Garry Black vowed to work the rest of the season to get another shot at Tussey Mountain.

“We talked on the bus (back to Loysburg), and as soon as we got back to school, we decided to make our rally cry ‘finish,'” Black said. “We had an opportunity up 22-20 in fourth quarter inside Tussey’s 15-yard line and couldn’t get in to extend the lead. Then we got a good kick return after we lost the lead and fumbled on the next play. We weren’t able to finish. We hope to be able to finish this game and finish the local part of our postseason the right way. Finish is the word we have talked about since Week 4.”

For the most part, that’s exactly what Northern Bedford has done since that game with its only blemish coming in a 20-13 setback to undefeated Class 2A school Bellwood-Antis.

Tussey Mountain continued to roll through its season until it played the Blue Devils and lost 20-0, but the Titans weren’t thrilled with how they played against the Black Panthers the first time, either.

The teams will meet again at Hollidaysburg’s Tiger Stadium Friday in the District 5 Class 1A championship game at 7 p.m.

“We had some guys miss (the Northern Bedford) game and some of our defenders got caught out of position because of it,” Tussey Mountain coach Anthony Sottasante said. “That’s not to take anything away from them. They did a good job of creating mismatches, and we have to try to make sure that doesn’t happen again and be ready with our assignments.”

Northern Bedford’s first three scoring drives all came on one play, but Black said the team doesn’t go out of its way to push the ball down the field.

“That’s sort of something that’s happened all year, but you can’t rely on it,” Black said. “When you have athletes like we do, hopefully they can get out in space. Tussey has a good defense and is well coached, hopefully it can happen again.”

Thad Leidy has thrown 21 touchdown passes — the most in the Mirror’s core coverage area — and Dalton Smith has 1,355 yards rushing and 20 touchdowns for the Black Panthers. But Black says its his defense that has improved the most as the season has moved along.

“Defensively, the team has come together and is playing team football,” Black said. “It’s been better than ever for this group. We’ve grown as a team. Now everyone understands their job, and they are doing their own job and not trying to do too much. We try to be opportunistic, because turnovers don’t just happen. We have stripped footballs multiple times recently and matured as a defense.”

Northern Bedford will have to lean on that improved defense as the Titans outgained the Black Panthers, 513-255 in the regular season matchup.

“We want to stay balanced on offense, that’s key,” Sottasante said. “We have to match their intensity. The first game was really close, and both teams have gotten better. We’ve both got kids really good on both sides of the ball, good running backs, quarterbacks and nice receivers.”

Matt Leonard, a four-year starter at Tussey Mountain at quarterback, just broke the program’s career passing record last week. His main threat through the air is Tyler Rhodes, who has 33 catches for 555 yards and five touchdowns. Rhodes is also closing in on 1,000 yards rushing as he’s just 21 yards short.

Kaden Lucko has already long surpassed that milestone with 1,422 yards, and Jarred Sipes has 843 yards rushing and is averaging 10 yards per carry.

“They lean more on the run and hit big plays in passing game when you aren’t expecting it,” Black said. “They keep pounding at you, and then when you’re not ready for it here comes the pass.”

While Northern Bedford missed the playoffs last year, Tussey Mountain was experiencing its first trip since 2014.

“It would be incredible to win a district title, because since the first meeting I had last year with the kids we’ve talked about it,” Sottasante said. “We worked hard for it, and we just hope we can make that dream a reality Friday night. I’m sure they want it just bad as us. Our whole community wants it, and it would be a community-type accomplishment. This is not just about the coaches and players, everyone plays a role.”

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