DuBOIS, Pa. — The last time these teams met, it took a special teams play in the second half to tip the scales in the favor of the Curwensville Golden Tide. Friday night, the Tide will try to beat the defending champion Ridgway Elkers a second time to win their first District 9 Class 1A title since 2010 when they square off at E.J. Mansell Stadium starting at 7 p.m.
The Elkers (8-3) won their first district title since 1989 a year ago and along the way, they blanked the Tide twice, including 33-0 in semifinals and 28-0 during the regular season.
But Curwensville (9-2) won this year’s regular-season showdown at home back on Oct. 6 in a 14-11 slugfest that was decided by Nick Stewart’s 77-yard return of a blocked field goal in the third quarter.
Yards and points weren’t easy to come by, so it could be a replay of that theme Friday night. Ridgway outgained Curwensville, 210-174, and limited Stewart, the district’s all-time leading rusher to 85 yards on 26 carries in the first meeting. He also added the Tide’s other TD on a run. Quarterback Bryce Timko completed 7 of 17 passes for 75 yards.
For Ridgway, Neil MacDonald ran for 81 yards on 14 carries while quarterback Johnny Mitchell completed 11 of 22 passes for 113 yards with a touchdown, but was intercepted five times.
Since then, Curwensville has won three of four games —a 43-12 pounding of Elk County Catholic, a 23-14 loss to Bradford followed by a 48-19 rout of Philipsburg-Osceola in the regular-season finale. Then last week against Redbank Valley in the semifinals, the Tide dominated their way to a 47-13 win. Stewart ran for 251 yards on 35 carries and scored five touchdowns.
The loss to Curwensville was the Elkers’ second loss in a four-game stretch that saw them lose three times by a combined 11 points. The Elkers lost to Brockway (24-21) then beat Bradford (21-7) before losing to the Tide and AML champion Kane (19-14) before two lopsided wins against Union/A-C Valley (41-14) and Coudersport last week.
In last week’s win over the Falcons, the Elkers ran out to a 27-0 lead by halftime and led 47-0 before giving up a late touchdown in a 47-6 win. They limited Coudersport to just 120 yards of offense, the Elkers’ calling card all last season during their title run and this year as well.
For the year, they’re giving up just 8.9 points per game with Brockway’s 24 points the most scored against them all season. They’re yielding an impressive 158 yards per game, allowing over 200 yards in just three games.
Not surprisingly, the individual defensive statistics back that up as well. Junior Evan Furlong (13.6) leads the team in tackles per game with seniors Neil MacDonald (10.0) and Max Cowan (8.7), and sophomore Robert Briggs (7.4) leading the way. Cowan leads the team with 7 1/2 sacks while seniors Aaron Hinton and Andy Breier sharing the team lead with three interceptions.
And all of that’s even with the loss of standout Joey Elinski’s season-ending injury four games into the season. He was averaging 9.3 tackles before getting hurt.
Offensively, the Elkers’ run-heavy attack averages 331 yards per game — 257 rushing and 74 passing. MacDonald (135 carries, 999 yards, 4 TDs) is one yard away from a 1,000-yard season. He’s also Mitchell’s top receiving target with 19 receptions for 235 yards and five TDs. Breier has eight catches for a team-best 250 yards and 5 TDs.
Mitchell has completed 56 of 109 passes for 787 yards with 11 TDs and 17 interceptions. He’s also the second-leading rusher at 477 yards and one touchdown.
Also out of the backfield, Jake Zimmerman (53-327, 2 TDs) and Hinton (32-279, 1 TD) could get some carries.
Stewart ran for 2,030 yards a year ago on 283 carries in 11 games, but this year’s workload dropped off considerably. He missed the first game recovering from an injury, but in 10 games this year, he’s rushed for 1,628 yards on 217 carries with 24 touchdowns.
Stewart accounted for 65.4 percent of the Tide’s yards from scrimmage last year and in the 10 games he’s played in this year, it’s 51.5 percent. That’s due in large part to the ability of the supporting cast to perform. Senior quarterback Bryce Timko has thrown for 1,413 yards, completing 88 of 170 passes with 14 touchdowns and six interceptions.
Timko’s top receivers are Josh Terry (35-632, 5 TDs) and Noah Von Gunden (22-337, 5 TDs). If Stewart isn’t carrying the ball, it’s probably fullback Avery Francisco (55-311, 4 TDs) or Blake Passerelli (55-240, 3 TDs).
Overall, Tide average 355 yards per game — 222 rushing, 133 passing.
But don’t think the Tide won’t make their foe stop Stewart first. The Bulldogs couldn’t last week as Stewart ran for 251 yards on 35 carries. He also completed a 75-yard hook-and-lateral play for a touchdown while catching another pass for a TD.
However, the Elkers might have the answer to stop Stewart. He managed just 90 yards on 41 carries in last year’s two matchups.
Defensively, the Tide are led by their standout senior lineman Stephen McClure, whose six stops per game tops the unit. McClure also has 15 tackles for loss, including a team-high six sacks. Francisco (5.6), senior Logan Waroquier (5.5) and Matthew Carter (5.4) round out the top tacklers while Terry’s seven interceptions lead a unit that’s picked off 20 passes.
Other odds and ends:
•Friday’s winner advances to the PIAA playoffs next week, facing either District 10 champion Farrell or District 5 champion Northern Bedford in the quarterfinals. Those teams square off Friday night at Slippery Rock High School. The winner of that matchup would then meet the WPIAL champion Dec. 1 or 2 in the semifinals.
•Ridgway’s first title came in a 3-0 win over Johnsonburg, who it now co-ops with, back in 1989. They had only one playoff win since then going into last year’s title run with a 14-0 play-in round win over Coudersport in 1999. Last year, the Elkers beat Curwensville and Elk County Catholic (42-13) to win the championship. They lost to Farrell in last year’s quarterfinal round, 20-7. Lifetime, the Elkers are 5-5 in district playoff games and 2-1 in title games. They lost in the Class 1A final to Clarion-Limestone (33-6) in 1993.
•Curwensville won D9 titles in 2000, 2004 and 2010. The Golden Tide are 16-12 lifetime in the district playoffs, including a 3-2 record in the finals. They lost to Coudersport in the 2001 and 2006 finals.
•Ridgway and Curwensville have split their six games since Ridgway’s co-operative setup with Johnsonburg began in the 2013 season.
•Stewart was the first D9 running back to go over 7,000 yards last week. He stands at 7,162 yards with 989 carries, just 11 from 1,000 attempts.