SELINSGROVE – Richland’s dream of reaching the PIAA Class AA title game ended on Friday night against a team ranked second in the nation and first in the state.
District 4 champion Southern Columbia turned in yet another dominating performance in the Class AA semifinal round.
The Tigers beat the District 6 champion Rams 49-27 in a battle of unbeaten teams at Selinsgrove High School.
Two-time defending PIAA champion Southern Columbia (15-0) will make its fifth straight appearance in the state championship game on Friday at Hersheypark Stadium. The Tigers have won a record nine state championships.
Richland closed a 13-1 season, tying for the farthest a Rams team has advanced in the postseason. The 2012 team also was a state semifinalist.
“This means everything,” said Richland senior linebacker/running back Lucas Sabol. “It’s been a long time since this program has something special like this. I don’t think anyone is going to forget.”
“This season meant everything to me and I hope it meant everything to everyone else,” Sabol added while fighting back tears.
Southern Columbia has won 47 consecutive games.
The Tigers, whose first-team defense forced four turnovers and kept the potent Rams offense in check, will face District 7 champion Avonworth in the PIAA championship game. Avonworth beat District 10 Wilmington 33-21 on Friday.
“We gave up one or two big passes but as a team, overall, our secondary, linebacking corps, overall defense, we played well,” said Southern Columbia senior receiver/defensive back Julian Fleming, who is headed to Ohio State University as the nation’s top recruit.
“We were pressuring the quarterback.
“We were making him uncomfortable.
“We were hitting him. DBs were playing well. Honestly, I’m pleased.”
Southern Columbia took the opening kickoff and moved 62 yards in eight plays.
Gaige Garcia’s 2-yard run and Ethan Haupt’s extra-point kick gave the Tigers a 7-0 lead at 9:51 of the opening quarter.
“It’s one of those things where we came out and ran it down, they came out and ran it down too,” said Fleming, one of four Big Ten recruits on the Tigers’ roster. “It was one of those things, a tie ballgame, 0-0, back to the start.
“We came out and made our presence known and stuck to Southern football.”
Richland answered as sophomore quarterback Kellan Stahl converted a fourth-and-3 with a pass that hit speedy Trevor Tustin in stride near the left sideline. Tustin caught the ball and broke free to complete a 67-yard touchdown pass play.
Autumn Facci’s extra-point tied the game at 7-all at 8:45.
“That play was amazing,” Tustin said. “We figured out the defense and what to do. We did it and went down and got them on the first play. Unfortunately, it didn’t really go our way the rest of the first half.”
The Rams’ Jacob Sabol recovered Colin Pawcio’s onside kick at the Tigers 48-yard line, but Richland had three straight incompletions and punted.
“They knew coming in we were going to be a little bit riverboat gamblers and we were going to go for it,” Richland coach Brandon Bailey said. “We knew if it didn’t go right, the score could add up real quick in Southern Columbia’s favor.
“That’s who we are.
“We gave them our best shot.
“It didn’t work out for us but I’m proud that none of them backed down from probably the biggest challenge that our program’s ever had.”
“It felt real good,” Bailey added. “I thought we were going to be able to light up the scoreboard a little bit. We just weren’t able to connect. They’re so good and they get after it.
“There is a reason they’ve won 81 consecutive regular-season games.”
Southern Columbia’s offense couldn’t be derailed the rest of the half and the Tigers defense stifled Richland.
Southern Columbia scored the final 42 points of the first half. The Tigers rushed for 321 yards and passed for 141 to collect 462 yards of offense – in the first half.
Richland netted 10 rushing yards and passed for 104 through two quarters.
Gaige Garcia ran for three TDs in the half, and his brother Gavin Garcia had two TDs.
Ohio State University commit Julian Fleming caught a 52-yard TD pass and had an interception in the first half to uphold his status as the top recruit in the country according to ESPN. Quarterback Preston Zachman, a Wisconsin recruit had two TD passes and a TD run in the first half as Southern Columbia led 49-7.
Neither team scored in the third quarter with a running clock. The Tigers went to their second string on offense and defense.
In the fourth quarter, Caleb Burke converted on a fourth-and-8 play with a 15 yard run on a trick play. The snap went to back Tustin, who pitched to Burke.
Burke rolled to his right, then broke to the end zone and eluded tacklers for the score with 11:19 left.
“We kept playing hard,” said Burke, who had seven catches for 89 yards, with three of those for 30 yards in the first half. “That’s the most important part. Nobody said, ‘Oh well, we’re down. Let’s just get off the field.’ We kept pushing through and kept playing. We wanted to finish out our season on a bang.”
Stahl and Tustin teamed on an 87-yard TD pass with 7:32 left to make it 49-19. Tustin, 150 receiving yards, caught the ball near midfield and outraced defenders.
Stahl completed 13 of 34 passes for 270 yards, three TDs and three interceptions.
Burke caught an 8-yard TD pass from Stahl and then grabbed the conversion pass to cut the margin to 49-27 with 2:11 left. The 27 points were the most Southern Columbia allowed in a game all season, though the 20 fourth-quarter points came against the Tigers’ reserves.
“We never give up even when we’re down a lot,” Tustin said.
“We’ll always go down there and give it all we got until the end of the game.”