PATTON – Cambria Heights is hitting the District 6 football playoffs running. Literally.
Needing a win to ensure they’d make the postseason, the Highlanders got 100-yard rushing performances from Ryan Haluska and Jared Fox in a 28-14 win over visiting Bishop McCort on Saturday night.
“It was senior night, and we were all pumped up and ready to play this game,” Highlander senior lineman Zach Weakland said. "We knew we had to win this game to make playoffs, and we knew we were going to play our butts off to win this game.
“It was a must-win.”
Heights set the tone with an 80-yard march on 14 running plays the first time it got the ball. Haluska completed the drive with the first of three 1-yard touchdown runs to go with his game-high 191 yards on 33 carries.
His final touchdown polished off a 7-minute, 50-second foray with 2:06 left to answer Trystan Fornari’s 17-yard touchdown pass to Amir Ortega-Andrews that had McCort within six points.
“This was the best week of practice we’ve ever had. I couldn’t be more proud of my guys,” Haluska said. “We knew it was do-or-die. We wanted to get into the playoffs and see what we can do from there.”
Fox added 107 yards, including a 78-yard scoring dash in the second quarter. The Highlanders piled up 336 yards running behind Weakland, Bailey Horvath, Hayden Malloy, Zane Miller and Gavin McConnell, who took over at tackle early in the game when Braden Miller was forced out with a leg injury.
“Our kids wanted it,” Cambria Heights coach Jarrod Lewis said. “We felt that the team that could control the line of scrimmage would win the game. That’s what happened.”
Had the Highlanders lost, they would have dropped to ninth in the rankings for the District 6 Class 2A playoffs, where only eight teams advance. Because fifth-ranked Mount Union is in quarantine, Heights still might have been bumped up into the field, but took matters into its own hands, qualifying for the postseason for the third time in this senior class’s four years.
Cambria Heights (3-3) probably will play at either Bellwood-Antis or Marion Center on Friday.
“It’s just a great feeling for the whole team,” Malloy said.
McCort, meanwhile, was in the same position as Heights but in Class 1A. Now the Crimson Crushers will have to wait to see if someone above them drops out.
The Crushers were coming off their first win of the season, in which they ran for 327 yards against Central Cambria. They were held to 46 yards by the Heights run defense, though, scoring both of their touchdowns on passes by Fornari, who threw for 126 yards.
“I felt we were prepared, but I’m going to give all the credit to Coach Lewis and his guys,” McCort coach Tom Smith said. “That’s their identity. They’re going to come out. They’re going to grind it at you.”
Heights attempted just three passes in its third 300-yard rushing game of the season and 11th in three years. Tight end Ian Eckenrode had the only Highlander reception; his role as a blocker loomed larger.
“It’s good to be a part of it,” Eckenrode said. “It’s definitely carrying the torch. It’s having to play smash-mouth football. We’ve established that we are a tough team.”
Heights amassed 222 yards on the ground in the first half – 104 by Haluska – but the Highlanders’ lead was only 12-7 because of two lost fumbles.
The second of those was especially hurtful. Lewis tried to duplicate the success of a double handoff Fox had taken to the end zone on the previous Highlander offensive play, but a muffed exchanged was recovered by Crusher defensive lineman Joe McGowan at the Heights 20 with 1:06 left in the second quarter.
On the next snap, Fornari hit Josh Goins, who stretched out to snare the ball and then again to cross the plane of the end zone.
McCort threatened two other times. However, on the Crushers’ first possession, Will Haslett’s 50-yard field goal attempt fell short. After the change of quarters, Bishop McCort advanced into Highlander territory only to be stopped on downs at the 23.
Tanner Trybus returned the second-half kickoff 48 yards to the McCort 47. Haluska and Fox covered that distance in eight carries to make it 20-7.