The District 6 Class AA football championship game will be one of the most anticipated rematches of the season.
The teams and the site are the same as a year ago. Many familiar faces return, while some other marquee performers have moved on.
“It is that game that everyone has talked about, I think, since last year,” said Richland coach Brandon Bailey, whose top-seeded and undefeated squad will take on second-seeded and unbeaten Ligonier Valley. “It was such a good District 6 final (last year).
“Both teams had a lot back. Both teams took care of business all year. We’re both here and we both want to play for a championship.”
The Rams vs. Rams matchup will begin at 7 p.m. Friday at Mansion Park in Altoona.
Richland (11-0) is ranked fourth in the state Class AA poll, according to PennLive.com. Ligonier Valley (12-0) holds the third spot in the state rankings.
“I expect the same type of game as last season. I expect a good football game,” said Ligonier Valley coach Roger Beitel, whose seniors have been part of a 51-3 record during the past four seasons. “You have two teams that faced each other in the same game last year relatively familiar with each other.”
A year ago at Mansion Park, Ligonier Valley bolted to a 12-0 advantage, though a missed extra-point after the first score led to an unsuccessful two-point conversion try after the second touchdown.
Richland scored three consecutive touchdowns to win 21-12 for the Cambria County Rams’ second district crown – first since 2012. Ligonier Valley had won the two previous 6-AA titles in 2016 and 2017.
“It’s a good football team,” Beitel said of Richland. “Penns Valley got out to a good start last week (in a 49-21 Richland semifinal win). They just couldn’t match that same intensity. That’s something we have to do. We have to play a good, solid 48 minutes. In the end we hope to make more plays and fewer mistakes.”
Beitel pointed to key miscues as well as the late-game injury to all-state performer Aaron Tutino as factors in the 2018 game.
“There were three things looking back at last year,” Beitel said. “No. 1, missing the extra point was huge. Then we were forced to go for two. We missed a field goal that would have put us ahead 15-14. We fumbled at the 5-yard line when we were ready to go in.
“Then they took control of the football game with their big, experienced offensive line.”
This year, Ligonier Valley has three NCAA Division I commits on the line – Mike Petrof (U.S. Naval Academy), Christian Jablonski (Lehigh University) and Wylie Spiker (St. Francis University). Petrof blocked an extra-point as Ligonier Valley held off Bellwood-Antis 21-20 in last week’s semifinal round.
“You win games by being able to run the ball and being able to stop the run,” Bailey said. “To have such forces on the line has been the key to their success.
“They also have an excellent quarterback and one of the best running backs in the area.”
Senior quarterback Sam Sheeder has thrown for 1,790 yards, 20 touchdowns and five interceptions. Senior back Kyrie Miller has 1,758 rushing yards and 31 touchdowns on 159 carries. He’s surpassed 100 yards in nine of 10 games he’s played.
Against Bellwood-Antis, Miller rushed for 107 yards and a touchdown.
He had 234 yards and three TDs in an Appalachian Bowl victory over Portage.
“We’ve got to stop the run and get them in third-and-long,” Bailey said.
“On offense we have to take what they give to us. If they come out and double cover receivers, we’ve got to make them pay with the run game. If they stack the box, we have to make the most of those one-on-one matchups on the perimeter.”
Richland has a Division I commit in senior receiver Caleb Burke, who has 56 catches for 1,157 yards and 19 receiving touchdowns. He is headed to the University of New Hampshire.
Sophomore quarterback Kellan Stahl has thrown for 2,383 yards, 36 touchdowns and three interceptions.
“Caleb Burke is a generational player. He’s as good as advertised,” Beitel said.
The Ligonier Valley coach also pointed to Richland’s defense.
“The biggest thing is their defense hasn’t been given as much credit throughout the year as they probably deserve,” Beitel said.
Richland has outscored opponents 532-95. Ligonier Valley has posted a 547-80 advantage on the field, as the Rams also had one forfeit win.
“It’s kind of a one-year swap. Last year they had the two D1 kids and ultimately, I think they were the difference in the football game,” Beitel said of Richland graduates Collin Instone, now at University of New Hampshire, and Dylan Dininny. “Those two kids were difference-makers on both sides of the football.
“For us, we’re hoping it’s a role reversal and we can rely on our offensive and defensive lines to have the success that they had last year.”