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Classic Showdown: Union/A-C Valley Hosts Redbank Valley in Pivotal Small School South Clash

RIMERSBURG, Pa. (EYT/D9) — Redbank Valley football coach Blane Gold isn’t sure how Brad Dittman does it.

Sometimes, Dittman isn’t exactly sure, either.

(Above photo, Union/A-C Valley junior Mikey Card tries to shed a tackle/photo by Shelly Atzeni)

Every season the Union/A-C Valley football coach walks a fine line when it comes to numbers. This season, the Falcon Knights have 25 players rostered, but only about 18 to 20 dress for a given game each week.

Still, Union/A-C Valley has flourished this season. The Falcon Knights are 6-1 heading into a huge Small School South showdown against 7-1 Redbank Valley at Union High School on Friday night.

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Redbank Valley, Keystone, and Union/A-C Valley sports coverage on Explore and is brought to you by Heeter Lumber.

“In my mind, Brad Dittman is the best football coach in our conference,” Gold said. “He continues to find a way to win year in and year out with 20 kids. He’s just a great football coach. They’re always so tough and they always seem to have one or two athletes and find a way to get the ball to them to make plays.”

This year, Union/A-C Valley has more than a couple athletes despite losing some key skill players from a season ago.

Senior Caden Rainey has been a threat on punt returns and has made big plays both in the running game and passing game. Junior Mikey Card moved from guard to running back and has a team-leading 625 yards on just 69 carries. And sophomore Dawson Camper has scored 12 touchdowns.

“We kind of had a plan,” Dittman said. “We knew Dawson Camper would be coming up and he would be special. Bailey (Crissman) didn’t play a lot of quarterback last year, but we knew he could probably take over there. And we had plan to move Mike back to the backfield and we had Rainey and Skyler Roxbury and Ryan Cooper back. We thought we had the athletes to win ballgames.”

Card has been a difference-maker for Union/A-C Valley this season. It’s not often an offensive lineman transitions to the backfield after two years, but that’s what Card has done.

“Mike Card, we brought him up as a freshman because we knew he was going to be a special player,” Dittman said. “The first couple of years we needed help on our offensive line and Mikey went and did that. He was a great, great guard for us the past couple of years. But he was a running back coming up through and we wanted to get him back there. We were afforded the opportunity to do that this year.”

Card is a physical runner, drawing on his days as a lineman.

“He’s a tough, hard-nosed, physical football player. He’s a smart football player,” Dittman said. “He just goes 100 mph all the time.”

The key to every season for Union/A-C Valley is health and the Falcon Knights have, for the most part, been able to avoid the injury bug this season.

(Redbank Valley quarterback Bryson Bain has put up some big numbers this season/photo by Madison McFarland)

Part of that has to do with the practice routine that Dittman and his staff have to had carefully map out every season.

With 25 players, it’s difficult to go full-contact very often, yet it is also necessary to have those physical practices from time to time.

“It’s tough with limited numbers,” Dittman said. “You don’t want to go too much with the live stuff because you don’t want to get anyone hurt in practice, but at the same time in practice, you have to get some live work in. It’s tricky to get good reps in with our limited numbers, but we kind of found a system that has worked with us.”

This week will be the ultimate challenge for Dittman and his team.

Both teams have followed the same trajectory this season: difficult open-week losses followed by a string of impressive wins.

Since their Week 1 defeats, Union/A-C Valley has outscored its opponents 247-38 with three shutouts while Redbank has piled up a 344-30 margin with two shutouts.

Last year’s game was a slugfest with Redbank winning 10-7. It was 2-0 at the half and that safety turned out to be huge for the Bulldogs.

“It was a really a defensive effort on both sides last year,” Gold said. “We both found a way to get into the end zone once and ultimately the major difference was that safety.”

This game could also be a slobberknocker.

The key could be who starts the fastest.

Union/A-C Valley has struggled in the first half of games the last three weeks before putting up dominating second halves. Meanwhile, Redbank Valley has built big halftime leads in just about every victory.

“We’ve talked about how big a deal it is to our defense to be able to start fast and get up on teams,” Gold said. “We’ve seen a couple of scenarios — like Bucktail, which limited our possessions by kind of grinding the ball out and running the clock. If we can get up early that’s an advantage for us because it makes their offense be a little more urgent.”

It’s no wonder Redbank Valley opponents have tried to keep the Bulldogs’ offense off the field.

Bryson Bain has thrown for 1,109 yards and 21 touchdowns while completing 66% of his passes.

The senior has a quartet of dangerous targets.

Marquese Gardlock leads the team with 20 receptions for 346 yards. Chris Marshall has 18 catches for 289 yards and six TDs, Tate Minich has hauled in 17 passes for 268 yards and six scores, and Aiden Ortz has turned in some big plays with 182 yards and three touchdowns on just eight receptions.

Both teams entered the game as reasonably healthy as any football team can be in Week 9 of a season.

“We knew the key was to stay healthy,” Dittman said. “I said that all the way back on Media Day (in early August). They’ve stayed healthy by playing hard.”

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Redbank Valley, Keystone, and Union/A-C Valley sports coverage on Explore and is brought to you by Heeter Lumber.

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