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Titans, Panthers will meet for D5 football title

Mirror file photo Senior running back David Smith is one of the weapons the Tussey Mountain football team has counted on this season.

When Northern Bedford and Tussey Mountain walked out of Tiger Stadium last year following the Titans’ 28-23 thriller of a victory in the District 5 Class 1A title game, there was little doubt that both teams would be back for another shot at the title in 2020.

That day will come Friday back at Hollidaysburg’s Tiger Stadium at 7 p.m. when the experienced rivals clash again with a combined record of 12-1.

“The kids on our football team have worked really hard since last November to get to this point,” Northern Bedford coach Garry Black said. “The fact it’s against Tussey again in the same venue is cool. It’s something we have spent a year working for, and we’re glad we get this opportunity to go and try to win a district championship.”

Following a season-opening loss to Bellwood-Antis, the Black Panthers have won six straight, including last week’s triumph over Conemaugh Township in the District 5 1A semifinals. Tussey Mountain enters the game at 6-0 and received a bye last week as the top seed.

“It’s extra special when you get to play your rival in a championship game,” Titans coach Anthony Sottasante said. “It hasn’t happened too many times, so for it to happen two years in a row is really special.”

Both teams return plenty of talent, though it appears on paper that Northern Bedford has the edge with its skill players while Tussey Mountain relies on its advantage up front.

“They are really physical up front,” Black said. “Chad Morningstar was their center last year, but they moved him out and put Aaron Day at center. It has helped, and not just those two, but their whole line gets off the ball well, and it sets up what they want to do on offense. We’re going to have to play well up front, and I think we took a big step in doing that this past week against Conemaugh Township.”

Morningstar has an incredible 27 tackles for loss, including five sacks, in just six games. The Titans have actually combined for 101 tackles for loss. Meanwhile, Tussey Mountain has rushed for 2,270 yards as a team and have four different players with at least 273 yards rushing.

“Chad is great on both sides of the ball,” Sottasante said. “We really have three or four really good linemen that are just phenomenal, and that’s the strength of our team. We were the No. 1 or No. 2 rushing team in the state in 1A. We have Kaden Lucko and a quarterback that’s really running the ball well. We’re a pretty balanced running team, and we’re pretty solid up front. We like that about our team, and we’re capable of throwing it, too. We just haven’t had to.”

Northern Bedford has also run the ball well with Dalton Smith and Cadin Ebersole and not passed as much due to some lopsided victories, however Black has been opening up the playbook more recently.

“Early in the season, we didn’t really showcase everything we can do offensively,” Black said. “The last couple weeks, we have had some competitive games with Juniata Valley and Conemaugh Township where we have had to rely on the pass more. It’s been part of our plan from last year.

“We have some burners that can run, with Brady Clark, Cadin Ebersole, Dalton Smith and Evan Clouse. All four are real fast kids. We’ll do what we can to get them good, positive matchups. Dalton has been in some big spots and made some huge catches. He has good hands and could be a receiver. He’s definitely a weapon.”

The play that turned last year’s game in Tussey Mountain’s favor was an 80-yard touchdown pass from Matt Leonard to District 5 sprint champion Tyler Rhodes with just 27 seconds left in the third quarter in a game Northern Bedford led 10-0 at the time.

Leonard, Rhodes and fellow sprinter Jarred Sipes have graduated, and it could be the Black Panthers in position to connect on a couple big plays in this year’s title game.

“They spread the ball around and have a lot of really good skill kids,” Sottasante said. “We’re going to have to be prepared for what they do on offense, and they are pretty good defensively too. It’s going to be a challenge, and I think it’s going to be a very competitive game.”

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