By Rich Rhoades
ALTOONA — It’s been awhile and to mention the Pittsburgh Pirates in this space might bring to light what’s going on for the DuBois Beavers heading into Friday night’s District 6-9 Class AAAA Championship game against Mifflin County.
With kickoff set for 7 p.m. at Mansion Park Friday night, the Beavers will try to end a 16-year playoff drought with a win over the Huskies. The last playoff win: 1996 when the Beavers blanked Hollidaysburg, 24-0.
Since then, they’ve gone 0-8 in the postseason. The Pirates just ended a 20-year stretch without winning a playoff game. To be fair, the Beavers have had winning seasons and solid teams during the drought. The Pirates, well, not so much.
The point is that the Beavers really want the streak to end Friday night.
“Winning this game would be a giant step forward for our program,” Beavers head coach Frank Varischetti said. “This group of kids is excited to have a chance to take that step. To take DuBois football to the next level these are the type of games we need to win. Playing well in big games is not good enough anymore, it is time we knock the door down and win these type of games.”
It’s the second time Varischetti’s Beavers have reached the District 6-9 or 6-9-10 regional championship game as the top seed in three years he’s been in DuBois since coming over from Brockway for the 2011 season. Last year, the Beavers got a bye to the finals and lost to State College, 35-13. In 2011, the Beavers lost to State College, 28-17, in the semifinals and the Little Lions went on to win the title.
This time around, the top-seeded Beavers take on a team that beat them 21-17 in the season’s opening week. With DuBois getting a first-round bye to the finals once again in the three-team bracket, Mifflin County avenged a regular-season loss to State College by beating the Little Lions, 27-26.
“We have a great deal of respect for the DuBois players and coaches,” Mifflin County head coach George Miskinis said. “They do an excellent job and they cause many sleepless nights as you prepare for them. I believe both teams know they can beat the other and it is going to be another battle. We have each beat each other the last two meetings and we are looking forward to the challenge of playing them again.”
The Huskies (5-6) ended a six-game losing streak with their win at State College. They started the season 4-0, including their win against DuBois. The Huskies scored the game-winning touchdown on Heath Hidlay’s 12-yard run just 29 seconds into the fourth quarter.
The Beavers turned the ball over three times with quarterback Gabe French throwing two interceptions and another turnover directly turning into Mifflin Count points on a 74-yard fumble return. DuBois managed just 142 yards of offense, although Mifflin County managed just 200 yards itself.
So it’s not an impossible turnaround to make for the Beavers, Varsischetti believes.
“The first time around we learned that we could not just line up and run the ball whenever we wanted to like last year,” Varischetti said. “They are a very good defensive team and we will have to do a better job of game-planning run plays. Defensively, we learned that we could slow down their run game when we tackle and have sound gap control.
“A few plays that were the difference in the first game were the fumble we had on their 20 that was returned for a TD,” he said. “A 50-yard pass they caught on a third-and-15 while we leading 17-14 late in the game was big. Mifflin stopping and holding us to a field goal when we had first-and-goal from the 5 with the score tied at 14 in the second half was another key moment.”
The teams’ styles do contrast as Mifflin County relies primarily on its running game, averaging 184 of its 280 yards per game offensively on the ground. Senior Heath Hidlay just went over 1,000 yards (1,065 yards, 16 TDs) after going for a season-high 155 yards against State College. Against DuBois in the opener, Hidlay ran for 77 yards on 16 carries.
“Defensively, it is definitely a matter of physicality in stopping their run game,” Varischetti said. “We also have to be aware of Hidlay bouncing the off-tackle play outside, he is very good at that. When we have a chance to tackle him, we must get him to the ground. He is a very hard runner.”
The Huskies have used two quarterbacks in juniors Hunter Walker (25-for-61, 453 yards, 3 TDs, 6 Ints.) and Brice Christine (26-for-67, 541 yards, 6 TDs, 6 Ints.). Christine played against the Beavers, but Walker has gotten the snaps of late. He was 7-for-15 for 68 yards last week against State College.
The Huskies have some big guys up front as their offensive line features senior guard Colton Craig (6-1, 285), senior tackle Philip Rearick (5-11, 280) and Kyle Bargo (6-2, 280). On the other side, all three will line up and is joined by junior Jesse Rodgers (6-3, 280), who leads the team with 8 ½ sacks, two of those coming against the Beavers.
Senior cornerback John Maclay leads the team with seven interceptions, none coming against French in the opener.
Varischetti’s wide-open offense has certainly improved since the opener. The Beavers are scoring 45 points per game and racking up 450 yards per game. By far, the output against the Huskies was the low point of the season statistically.
Junior quarterback Gabe French has passed for 2,509 yards, completing over 65 percent of has attempts with 26 touchdowns and eight interceptions. French joined the District 9 Jim Kelly Passing Club (Kelly’s 3,915 yards or more) and his 4,158 yards now rank 12th in district history.
“Since the first game, Gabe has been a different player,” Varischetti said. “He has taken his game to another level. I think the key for him will be to stay calm and play within himself. They have a very good secondary. We have to take advantage of some holes they leave open in their zone defense and take our shots deep when they are in man to man.”
French’s top receiving target is Bryson Paulinelli (64 catches, 1,190 yards, 15 TDs). Junior Cole Kriner (31-363, 4 TDs) is one of five other receivers with at least 10 catches and 121 yards, giving the Beavers plenty of options through the air.
On the ground, junior Devin Clark is over 1,000 yards (1,168 yards, 21 TDs) and is just another headache for opposing defenses to deal with.
“I don’t know if you can stop Dubois — I think the best you can do is try to control the damage that they cause,” Miskinis said. “Obviously, we want to try and keep their offense off the field as much as possible and manage the clock and field position.”
“I think we are playing very good offensively right now and the kids have a lot of confidence,” Varischetti said. “I think our quarterback and receivers are on the same page and have a very good understanding of the system. We have to do a better job converting third downs this game and keep their big defensive line on the field.”
In the end, for a playoff drought-ending performance, it just may come down to how good the Beavers are defensively. They’re giving up about eight more points per game this year than last year.
Sophomore linebacker Adam Bankovich is the team’s top tackler at 6.2 stops per game with senior lineman Tyler Fleeger coming in at 5.5 tackles per game.
NOTES: Mifflin County came into existence in 2011 with the combination of Lewistown and Indian Valley school districts. This is the third meeting between the Beavers and Huskies. Last year, the Beavers won the season-opener, 34-24. … Friday’s winner meets Friday’s Allderdice (5-4) vs. McDowell (4-5) winner next weekend. That game is being played at Cupples Stadium in Pittsburgh. From there, the winner of that game meets the WPIAL (District 7) champion Nov. 29 or 30 in the state quarterfinals.