The score of Central’s PIAA District 6 Class AA semifinal victory over Forest Hills certainly caught Brandon Bailey’s attention.
The Scarlet Dragons put up 62 points against Forest Hills while allowing the Rangers only 14.
What impressed the Richland High coach most was the fact that Central actually won in comeback fashion. The Dragons trailed 14-13 late in the first half, until Bradi Moore returned a kickoff 75 yards to put Central in front to stay.
“That’s where they’re similar to us. They’re just so explosive,” Bailey said during a Rams practice on a chilly Tuesday afternoon. “Forest Hills was playing a great game and had a great game plan. It was 14-13 (Forest Hills) and literally less than 10 minutes of football later it was 48-14. They exploded on them in all three aspects of the game. We can’t let them do that to us.”
Top-seeded Richland (12-0) and second-seeded Central (10-2) will play for the 6-AA title on Friday night at Mansion Park in Altoona.
While the teams had to earn their way into the championship round, this potential match up has been on the minds of many football fans since August.
Last season Richland won its first 14 games on the way to a state semifinal appearance. Central was upset by Forest Hills early in the playoffs, thus thwarting a potential meeting of the Rams and Dragons a year ago.
“It’s a huge game and it means a lot to our program and our community,” Bailey said. “We know it’s going to be a great challenge. We know how good of a football team Central is. These are the types of games you want to play in.”
Central has scored 60 or more points three times this season and collected 54 in another game. The Dragons have tallied 305 points in their past six games, an average of 50.8 a game.
Led by playmakers Austin Cunningham and Moore, Central has outscored opponents 506-199 while rushing for 3,157 yards and passing for 1,698.
“Central has some excellent players, probably some of the best we’re going to see all year,” said Richland senior Tanner Solarczyk, who ranks second in the area with 1,576 rushing yards and has 18 touchdowns. “Our defense has to step up big in this game.”
Cunningham is a senior quarterback who can run and throw. He’s rushed for 1,160 yards and 10 scores while also completing 76 of 115 passes for 1,264 yards, 17 touchdowns and four interceptions.
Moore has 1,032 rushing yards, 660 receiving yards and 2,460 all-purpose yards including kickoff and punt returns. The senor back has 31 touchdowns and 192 points.
Last week Moore had four touchdowns, and Cunningham ran for a pair and threw for two TDs against the Rangers.
“Central has a lot of great weapons, obviously with their quarterback Austin Cunningham and their running back,” said Rams junior wide receiver-defensive back Dom Farina. “They’re going to be hard to stop. We’ve just got to be able to play our game and execute on offense and defense.”
Six Dragons were named first-team Mountain League all-star selections on Tuesday, including Cunningham, Moore, guard Casey Lythgoe, lineman Austin Conrath, linebacker Zac Emerick and tight end Adam Frederick.
“No. 2 (Cunningham) and No. 34 (Moore) are two of the best players that I’ve seen in a long, long time,” Bailey said. “We’ll have our hands full. They’re just so good in space.
“Bradi Moore has over 30 touchdowns already. Austin Cunningham lines up all over the place, typically at quarterback. He’s so elusive. They just make people miss all night long. They both return punts. They both return kickoffs. We’re going to have to focus on where those guys are all night.”
Central will have many similar concerns while attempting to contain the Rams.
Senior quarterback Matt Shaffer has completed 142 of 233 passes for 2,267 yards, 30 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Shaffer is just as productive on his feet, rushing for 718 yards and 11 touchdowns.
In addition to Solarczyk, the Rams have playmakers such as area leading receiver Kyle Flick (41 catches, 831 yards, 13 touchdowns) and Nico Pecora (27 catches, 424 yards, four TDs).
Last week against Tyrone, Richland lined up in a power set with extra tight ends and ran the ball on a nine-play, 79-yard scoring drive. That march set a trend in motion, as Richland rushed for a season-high 350 yards on a season-high 47 carries, an average of 7.5 per run.
“We came out and wanted to set a mind-set that we can be physical as well,” Bailey said. “We had some sets with four tight ends on the field at the same time. We were able to run the ball down the field and score on Tyrone.”
The Rams will need to be diverse against an opponent that mirrors Richland in many ways.
“The dominance of both teams throughout the year really stands out,” Bailey said. “We’re 12-0. They’re 10-2 with their two losses to undefeated football teams (Class AAA Clearfield and Fort Hill, Md.). They’re outstanding.”