JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – Richland is hoping the third time is the charm come Friday night.

For the third consecutive season, the Rams meet state powerhouse Southern Columbia in the PIAA playoffs. The 11-time state champion Tigers won the previous two meetings, but the Rams will look to reverse the trend at 7 p.m. Friday at Jim Roth Field, Southern Columbia’s home field.

“This is a veteran team and these guys are really focused on the task at hand,” Richland coach Brandon Bailey said after Wednesday’s practice at Herlinger Field.

“As coaches, we joked we’re more familiar with Southern Columbia than we are with schools like Somerset in our own conference. It’s been a great week of practice and we’re looking forward to the challenge.”

Both teams will be riding seven-game winning streaks into Friday’s contest.

Richland fell 40-13 to Central on Oct. 1, while Southern Columbia had its 93-game regular season and 65-game winning streak snapped in a 41-21 to Wyomissing on the same night. Wyomissing, the 2020 PIAA runner-up, is ranked No. 2 in Class 3A by Pennsylvania Football News.

In 2019, Southern Columbia defeated Richland 49-27 in a PIAA semifinal at Selinsgrove High School. Last year, Southern Columbia prevailed 57-30 in a state quarterfinal played at Mansion Park Stadium in Altoona. This year’s battle will not occur at a neutral site.

“We weren’t happy,” Bailey said of learning the game would not be at a neutral site. “Nobody wants to travel 172 miles to play a football game when you talk about state playoffs and neutral sites. At the end of the day, once we get there, it’s going to be 48 minutes of football between two good football teams. I don’t think that’s going to impact the game.”

Richland, ranked No. 3 by Pennsylvania Football News with an 11-2 record, has outscored its opponents 504-142. Southern Columbia, ranked No. 2 in the same poll with a 12-1 mark, has bludgeoned its opposition by a 571-152 tally.

“They’ve been running the same plays for however long we’ve been playing them,” Richland senior quarterback/safety Kellan Stahl said. “They don’t have the same type of players as they had the past three years.

“Two years ago, they had five Big Ten players. Last year, they had a bunch of seniors. This year, I think it’s our best opportunity to actually get them.”

Southern Columbia, winners of four straight state titles from 2017-20, is led by senior running back Gavin Garcia. The Kent State recruit has totaled 1,875 rushing yards and 32 touchdowns on 140 carries, an average of 13.4 yards per tote.

Garcia also has nine receptions for 188 yards and four scores. He has added six return touchdowns (three on punts, two on kickoffs and a pick-six) for a total of 42 this season and 132 over his career, good for second in state history and six behind his older brother Gaige.

“We’ve been seeing Gavin for three years,” Bailey said. “The next brother (Garrett) plays middle linebacker and is their leading tackler. They’re special football players. We just have to play team defense and do our job every single play.

“Sometimes that’s hard to do in a game, but that’s the mindset we have to have.”

Southern Columbia, which has won 29 District 4 crowns over the past 31 seasons, has compiled 3,961 rushing yards on 439 carries, an average of 9.0 yards per tote. Junior Wes Barnes has 700 rushing yards and 10 scores on 101 carries.

Junior Braeden Wisloski has 536 yards and six touchdowns on the ground over 51 attempts.

Junior Jake Rose has hauled in 25 passes for 526 yards and eight touchdowns. Ever since filling in for an injured Liam Klebon, sophomore Blake Wise has completed 28 of 46 passes for 426 yards, nine touchdowns and four interceptions.

“They always have great football players that play hard, that play the right way,” Bailey said. “I think that’s been a constant for the three years that we played them. Offensively, they’re just in rhythm. They run that Wing-T. Everyone does their job and they just run it so effectively. It’s not flashy, but their players make flashy plays.”

The Tigers are coached by Roth, who has compiled a state-record 468 career wins over his 38 seasons.

Defensively, the Tigers have pitched three shutouts.

“On defense, they are just so overly aggressive that they overwhelm teams that they play,” Bailey said. “We’re going to come in with an attitude we were able to put up 30 points on them last year. We know that to win, we’re going to have to score points again. We think we’ll be ready for it, but we’re going to give it our best shot on Friday night.”

Bailey and his staff dissected film of Southern Columbia’s competitive games against Wyoming Area and Wyomissing.

“They have some freaky-good players, I’ll tell you that,” Bailey said of Wyomissing. “They’re super-talented and I think that was a problem for Southern Columbia. Southern Columbia was banged up. They had some of their stars injured in that game. They also played Wyoming Area (37-30 victory) that is still playing in the 3A playoffs. We were able to pick up things from both of those games to help us in preparation.”

Stahl has completed 59% of his passes to go with 2,605 passing yards, 35 touchdowns and just four interceptions.

The senior has added 383 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns over 76 carries. Junior Grayden Lewis has compiled 730 rushing yards and 10 scores to go with 40 catches for 817 yards and eight scores. Senior Griffin LaRue has accounted for 55 catches for 889 yards and 14 touchdowns, while adding two rushing scores. Junior Sam Penna has added 32 receptions for 582 yards and nine touchdowns. Sophomore Evan McCracken has 488 rushing yards and four scores.

On defense, junior Brock Batche and Lewis each have 82 tackles. Senior Aidan Thomas has 15 tackles for loss, while junior Jordan Nichols has 12 sacks. LaRue has six picks this season and a school-record 14 over his career. Penna has four interceptions.

Freshman Noah Ritko has made 29 of 36 extra-point attempts.

Richland believes it is ready for the tall task ahead on Friday.

“They’re coached really well,” Richland senior Kaileb Ghezzi said. “They’re going to be on their keys. We just got to be better in every aspect.”

The Rams, who have won four straight District 6 titles, are eager to prove themselves against the state’s most successful football program.

“Everyone is very excited to play them,” Richland senior Dominic Bethmann said. “We all want to prove that we can beat them and we’re just as good as them.”

The winner of Friday’s clash will meet the victor of Northern Lehigh and West Catholic in next week’s semifinals.

Jake Oswalt is a copy editor for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter @TheWizOfOz11.

Jake Oswalt is a copy editor for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter @TheWizOfOz11

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