By Rich Rhoades
CLARION — As exciting of a championship win it was last year for the Karns City Gremlins, head coach Ed Conto will push his team hard to win a different way this year.
An they’ll try to repeat the result against the same team they beat last year when 10-1 Karns City takes on 11-0 Kane at Clarion University’s Memorial Stadium Friday night at 7 p.m. Both teams won semifinal games last week, the Gremlins roughing up St. Marys 55-6 and the Wolves beating Brookville, 26-12.
A year ago, the Gremlins scored the winning touchdown with 12 seconds left in the game when quarterback Tyler Kepple threw a 9-yard pass to Dakota Mohney. A 33-27 win over the Wolves gave them their first title since 2009.
In a game that had 926 yards of offense, including 509 from the Gremlins and 417 from the Wolves, it took Karns City’s last-ditch drive to answer a Kane late drive. The Gremlins also overcame three turnovers and some missed opportunities.
“We deserved to lose that game three times over, but our kids came back to get the win and I was very proud of them for that,” said Conto, who is in his 14th year at Karns City and 24th overall. “I don’t want it to be too close. Those are tough ones to get through.”
Meanwhile, the Wolves rebounded from that tough loss in last year’s finals with a somewhat surprising strong run through this year’s regular season, culminating with an Allegheny Mountain League championship two weeks ago.
While the Gremlins have most of their key players back, the Wolves needed a new quarterback and running back to lead the offense. And it worked out fine, obviously.
“I can’t say we’re over (last year), but it’s in the back of our mind a little bit,” Wolves coach Todd Silfies said. “It’s a great opportunity for our kids and it’s what people were looking for in Class AA. It’s what the experts picked. We’re very excited to be 11-0 right now with the opportunity to play a very good Karns City team.”
That Karns City lost 42-7 to a still unbeaten Clarion team back in Week 2 says a lot about both teams. The Gremlins haven’t lost since — a 48-28 win at District 10 Class AAA playoff team Oil City being the most impressive on the season resume — and for the year, they’ve outscored opponents in their 10 wins by an average margin of 51-13.
Quarterback Tyler Kepple runs the Gremlins offense. He’s been effective, completing over 61 percent of his passes for 1,540 yards with 28 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He’s also run for 299 yards and five touchdowns.
“With Tyler, you’re seeing a senior that when he was a sophomore he got some snaps because we saw the potential in him,” Conto said. “He knows his reads, how not to make mistakes and does checks at the line. That’s a blessing to have on your team. And he has a good group of receivers to throw to.”
Mohney, who caught the game-winner last year, leads the team with 33 receptions for 585 yards and nine touchdowns. Logan Moroney isn’t too far behind with 27 catches for 476 yards and eight touchdowns. Five other receivers have at least one touchdown.
In the backfield, the Gremlins have done remarkable work getting a bevy of ball carriers reps. A whopping 12 different rushers have scored touchdowns and seven players have at least 200 yards rushing. Tristan Rhoades (603 yards, 5 TDs) leads the way, but he ran just twice for eight yards last week. Zach Moore (590 yards, 8 TDs) led the Gremlins with 70 yards last week. Wyatt Everetts (492 yards, 7 TDs), Mohney (389 yards, 7 TDs) and Adam Whited (374 yards, 8 TDs) all have had big games this year.
“We tell our kids that we’re putting them in rotation and they’re not guaranteed they’ll get the ball,” Conto said. “They might get 5, 6 7 touches, so they’d better make the most of it. They get the ball and know they might not get it again in a game. The tradeoff is that it takes us four games or so to work out those issues.”
“They have so many different guys who do so many different things,” Silfies said. “I think we’re in that boat too. We might not have as many guys who score as many times, but we have lots of different options. … They’re a difficult opponent to prepare for and they’re very well-coached and they have a lot of really good kids.”
The Wolves had to find a new quarterback and landed what turned out to be a very effective performer in Kevin Cleer. He’s passed for 1,677 yards, completing 65 percent of his attempts for 32 touchdowns to go against just four interceptions. It helps that he has last year’s top receiver back in Jeff Kocjancic, who’s caught 57 balls for 779 yards and 16 touchdowns. Andrew Pierson has 42 catches for 464 yards and five scores.
At tailback, junior John English stepped into the spot left by graduated Jonah Smith and after carrying the ball just six times last year, he ran for 1,239 yards and 13 touchdowns. Last week in the mud against Brookville, English was the workhorse with 170 yards on a career-high 31 carries.
With five starters returning on each side of the ball, the success wasn’t a shock, but certainly a perfect season going into Friday has been a pleasant surprise.
“We’re happy with the way things are going,” said Silfies, in his second year as head coach and eighth season with the program overall. “We started the year with a lot of kids playing their first varsity football. Our core group did a nice job showing the guys the way and making sure everyone stayed grounded during the process.”
NOTES: By the numbers: Karns City averages 476 yards per game (318 rush, 158 pass) while Kane churns out 331 yards per game (176 rush, 155 pass). … Karns City has won nine Class AA titles, six of them since Conto took over the program in 2000. … Kane won its lone district title in Class A in 2007. … This week’s winner plays the District 5-8 champion next weekend. Bedford (8-3) plays Chestnut Ridge (8-3) this Friday at Northern Bedford High School. From there, next week’s winner meets the WPIAL champion in the state quarterfinals Nov. 29 or 30.