Two-time defending state champion Southern Columbia lived up to its top billing and earned its 18th PIAA final appearance on Friday night.
A decided underdog despite entering the game with an undefeated record, Richland High School left Harold Bolig Stadium with its players’ collective heads held high.
The 49-27 final score in favor of District 4 champion Southern Columbia hardly could diminish the accomplishments of the Rams and coach Brandon Bailey’s staff. Richland came up short in this PIAA Class AA semifinal round game at Selinsgrove High School, but never stopped competing while scoring 20 fourth-quarter points.
Ranked second nationally and first in Pennsylvania, Southern Columbia already has won a record nine PIAA championships and will make its fifth consecutive appearance in the state championship game on Friday against District 7 champion Avonworth at Hersheypark Stadium.
Even by Southern Columbia standards, this current group of Tigers (15-0) is considered special – a once-in-a-generation gathering of Power Five college recruits. Four of those players soon will spend their Saturdays playing in the Big Ten.
“They have great players all around,” Bailey said after his Rams closed a 13-1 season. “There are no weak spots.”
None were evident on Friday night.
Senior Julian Fleming, a wide receiver/defensive back headed to Ohio State University and listed as the country’s top recruit by ESPN, looked every bit the playmaker with a touchdown reception and key defensive plays throughout Friday night.
Wisconsin-bound quarterback Preston Zachman ran for a score and passed for another. Soon-to-be Michigan Wolverine Gaige Garcia rushed for 154 yards and three TDs – in the first half as Southern Columbia built a 49-7 advantage and was on the way to its 47th consecutive win.
Sophomore Gavin Garcia had 121 rushing yards and two receiving touchdowns, also in the first half.
Gaige Garcia’s first TD from 2 yards out gave Southern Columbia an early lead.
But Richland sophomore quarterback Kellan Stahl found senior Trevor Tustin on the left sideline. Tustin made the catch in stride and raced to the end zone for a game-tying 63-yard touchdown reception.
When the Rams recovered an onside kick at the Southern Columbia 48-yard line, Richland gave a large gathering of fans who made the nearly 3-hour drive hopes of a potential upset.
“The sideline was going crazy. We were all excited,” Rams senior running back/linebacker Lucas Sabol said. “But then they overwhelmed us. I think we fought as hard as we could the entire time, but they overwhelmed us.”
Southern Columbia tallied 42 straight points before intermission.
With the running clock, coach Jim Roth played his second and third string players the entire second half.
The Rams’ Bailey told his players at halftime to continue to compete and play the game the right way. He promised his seniors they’d finish their careers on the field.
“We talked about the fact that we probably aren’t going to be able to come back and win the game, but we want to come out and play hard, play all 24 minutes, and play with class,” Bailey said. “None of that post-snap penalty stuff. I think our kids did that.”
Four radio stations covered Southern Columbia in the semifinal. One broadcasting team noted on the air how unlike other opponents who lost one-sided games to the Tigers this season, Richland did not display undisciplined tendencies or take penalties out of frustration while making “chippy” plays.
“At halftime we told the kids, ‘This is your last game for you seniors. We’re going to play hard and play to the end,’” Bailey said. “I kept my word and allowed those guys to continue to play. I’m proud of them for not giving up.”
Seniors Tustin and Caleb Burke, a University of New Hampshire recruit, each finished with a pair of touchdowns for the Rams.
“It was incredible,” Burke said of the historic run. “There is no other way I’d want to end the senior season. We are the second team in Richland history to make it this far.”
Indeed, Richland posted back-to-back 13-1 seasons with championships in the Laurel Highlands Athletic Conference and District 6 Class AA each of the past two seasons.
The success followed four straight losing seasons in which Richland combined to go 14-26.
“It’s really gratifying. The seniors struggled as freshmen and sophomores, and we weren’t able to get over the hump and get into the playoffs,” Bailey said. “I’m really proud of how their last two seasons went, being conference champs, district champs and undefeated regular seasons.”