By Rich Rhoades
CLARION — Throw in some big defensive plays with the usual offensive efficiency and you come up with another District 9 Class AA football title for the Karns City Gremlins.
The Gremlins claimed their back-to-back championship by pulling away for a 49-21 win over previously unbeaten Kane Friday night at Clarion University’s Memorial Stadium. It’s Karns City’s 10th district title and seventh since head coach Ed Conto took over the program in 2000.
“It’s tough to do and it’s also tough to do it against an undefeated team,” Conto said. “Kane played a helluva ball game. They were physical and came to play. I give our kids credit for hanging in there with the slow start and came back and did what they needed to do.”
The 11-1 Gremlins meet District 5-8 regional champion Chestnut Ridge in the first round of the PIAA playoffs. Chestnut Ridge blasted Bedford, 55-21. The game will likely be played at a District 5 site at a time to be announced. Last year, the Gremlins rallied in the second half to beat the Lions, 35-29.
“It’s step by step, week by week, that’s what we’ve been doing all year,” Gremlins senior quarterback Tyler Kepple said. “We know Chestnut Ridge is returning experience, so we’re going to give it our best shot.”
Once again Kepple led the Gremlins offensive with an effective performance, completing 13 of 19 passes for 200 yards and three touchdowns, two of them to 6-foot-2 junior receiver Logan Moroney. He was a problem all night for the Wolves secondary, catching 8 passes for 121 yards.
Down 14-7 in the second quarter, the Gremlins reeled off touchdowns in five straight offensive possessions to take a commanding 42-21 lead early in the fourth quarter. A defensive stand in the red zone sparked the surge.
“If I could figure out what it was and if that happens and I give a kid the antidote, I’d make a million dollars,” Conto said. “It went back in our favor, the kids kicked it in gear and got going. Maybe a bad play by them, good play on our part, I don’t know what it was to be truthful.”
It was both offense and defense.
While the offense was in clear rhythm, the Gremlins defense contributed greatly to the cause. First, it stopped some Kane momentum by keeping the Wolves out of the end zone following their onside kick recovery after scoring a defensive touchdown of their own on Logan Zuzek’s 48-yard fumble recovery return. Karns City forced four Kane turnovers, intercepting Wolves quarterback Kevin Cleer three times. Cleer came into the game with just four interceptions all season.
“We were in the right spots and had a little pressure,” Conto said. “We didn’t have a lot of sacks, but on those plays we had someone near him and the guys have to be in the right spots.”
After the Gremlins stopped the Wolves on downs at the 12, Kepple and company took over and marched 88 yards on nine plays with Kepple’s well-executed screen pass to Zach Moore went 45 yards to the end zone to tie the game at 14-14 with 1:34 left in the first quarter.
Then on the first play following the ensuing kickoff, Gremlins senior defensive back Wyatt Everetts stepped in front of a Kevin Cleer pass at the Kane 36 and nearly returned it to the end zone, getting pushed out of bounds at the Kane 2. Two plays later, Everetts scored to put the Gremlins up for good at 21-14 with 42 seconds left in the first half.
“We knew we had to find mistakes and capitalize on them,” Everetts said. “(Kane) doesn’t make many (mistakes) and if we found one and we would try to get it. We knew they threw the ball and have a great receiver and quarterback to go with it. They like to throw into the flats and that was in my drop zone.”
Everetts, who also led the Gremlins’ 164-yard rushing attack with 61 yards on 10 carries, wasn’t done defensively. After four more touchdowns in as many possessions put the Gremlins in command, he punctuated the night by picking up a fumble by Kane receiver Jeff Kocjancic caused by teammate Dakota Mohney and returned it 42 yards for a touchdown.
Prior to that, Everetts’ second interception of Cleer came at the Gremlins’ 5 with Kane threatening to score with Karns City leading 35-21 at the 3:22 mark of the third quarter. The Gremlins turned Everetts’ play into points as they went 83 yards on 12 plays with Moore scoring his second touchdown of the game on a 6-yard run.
Everetts finished with his two interceptions, three other passes defended, four tackles and his fumble recovery touchdown.
Kepple’s TD passes to Moroney went for 21 yards to cap the Gremlins’ first score on their first possession and 14 yards on the opening drive of the second half. He was able to find his top target when he wanted to.
“We thought they were trying to stop our run, so we came out and threw the ball and it worked, so we got some balance going and everything helped out,” Kepple said. “Sometimes when they brought the play in, they’d say look to Logan because he had the height advantage. He’s faster and he could go up and get the ball.”
“They were bringing the house, so we needed to settle down and make a play,” Conto said. “We knew eventually we’d catch them and we did several times. If they’re going to bring everybody, that’s going to open some things up and it did open up some big things in the passing game. And when we did get a run through it, it went big.”
After Kane answered Karns City’s first TD of the second half to get back to within 28-21, Kepple went deep again to Moroney for 40 yards on the first play of the ensuing drive. Three plays after that, Ethan Conto scored on his only run of the game from 4 yards out.
From there, Everetts set the table for a game-clinching run, his second TD setting up Moore’s TD run and his own fumble recovery return setting the final score.
Kane got touchdowns from three different players. Cleer, who completed 12 of 26 passes for 138 yards, hit Jeff Kocjancic on a perfect pass to the left corner of the end zone for a 36-yard scoring connection on the game’s opening possession. The scoring drive was continued thanks to a Karns City roughing the punter penalty with Kane scoring three plays after that.
Zuzek’s fumble recovery return put the Wolves up 14-7 with 9:43 left in the second quarter.
The Wolves’ last touchdown came on their first possession of the second half, a 6-play, 75-yard drive highlighted by Cleer’s 30-yard pass to Kocjancic — he finished with 7 catches for 102 yards — on third-and-seven from the Wolves’ 44. Two plays later, fullback James Lingenfelter dashed down the left side for a 23-yard TD run at the 5:31 mark of the third quarter.
NOTES: Karns City’s other titles came in 2011, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2001, 2000, 1999, 1997 and 1993. The Gremlins are now 7-5 in district finals. Last year, the Gremlins beat the Wolves, 33-27, in the finals. … Kane dropped to 1-3 in championship games. The Wolves’ lone title was in Class A in 2007. … Kepple upped his season passing yardage total unofficially to 1,740 and touchdowns to 31. Conto on his second-year starter: “When you have a senior who started the year before, you expect a lot out of him. You act like you’ve been there, execute, don’t get rattled. Early in the game, he was a little rattled and threw a few off his back foot with the pressure. But he settled down and stepped into his throws and ran the options and did what he needed to do and that’s what you expect out of a senior leader.” … Mohney had a 49-yard kick return to set up Karns City’s first possession of the game at the Kane 31. The Gremlins scored five plays later on Kepple’s first TD pass to Moroney.
KARNS CITY 49, KANE 21
Score By Quarters
Karns City 7 14 14 14 – 49
Kane 7 7 7 0 – 21
K – Jeff Kocjancic 36 pass from Kevin Cleer (Dillon Mattis kick), 8:21.
KC – Logan Moroney 21 pass from Tyler Kepple (Zach Moore kick), 5:44.
K – Logan Zuzek 48 fumble recovery return (Dillon Mattis kick), 9:43.
KC – Zach Moore 45 pass from Tyler Kepple (Zach Moore kick), 1:34.
KC – Wyatt Everetts 1 run (Zach Moore kick), :42.
KC – Logan Moroney 14 pass from Tyler Kepple (Zach Moore kick), 8:36.
K – James Lingenfelter 23 run (Dillon Mattis kick), 5:31.
KC – Ethan Conto 4 run (Zach Moore kick), 4:27.
KC – Zach Moore 6 run (Zach Moore kick), 10:46.
KC – Wyatt Everetts 42 fumble recovery return (Zach Moore), 10:31.
First Downs 17 12
Rushes-Yards 39-164 26-90
Passing: Comp-Att-Int 13-20-0 12-26-3
Passing Yards 200 138
Total Yards 364 228
Fumbles-Lost 2-2 1-1
Punts-Avg 1-32 2-28.5
Penalties-Yards 5-35 1-5
RUSHING — Karns City: Wyatt Everetts 10-61, Zach Moore 11-48, Adam Whited 4-25, Christian Turner 2-22, Collin Dunmyre 2-6, Dakota Mohney 1-5, Ethan Conto 1-4, Hemi Curry 1-3, Tyler Kepple 7-(-10. Kane: John English 20-68, James Lingenfelter 3-35, Jake Westerburg 1-1, Kevin Cleer 2-(-14).
PASSING — Karns City: Tyler Kepple 13-for-19, 200 yards, 3 TDs; Caleb King 0-for-1. Kane: Kevin Cleer 12-for-26, 138 yards, 1 TD, 3 Ints.
RECEIVING — Karns City: Logan Moroney 8-121, Zach Moore 1-45, Dakota Mohney 3-25, Tyler Dunn 1-9. Kane: Jeff Kocjancic 7-102, Andrew Pierson 4-22, Tyler Rolick 1-14.
SACKS — Karns City: Dalton Callihan, Adam Whited. Kane: Nate Moore, Andrew Zuzek.
INTERCEPTIONS — Karns City: Wyatt Everetts 2, Evan Stitt.
TACKLES — Karns City: Ethan Conto 7, Dalton Callihan 5, Dakota Mohney 5, Wyatt Everetts 4, Maverick Kelsea 3, Christian Turner 3, Tyler Dunn 2, Adam Whited 2, Cory Ritzert 2, Cody Deal 2, Zach Moore 2, Nathan Barnhart 1, Dan Filges 1, Quinton Bailey 1. Kane: James Lingenfelter 7, Tyler Rolick 7, Andrew Pierson 6, Jeff Kocjancic 5, Nate Moore 5, John English 5, Nathan Klaiber 5, Evan Delong 4, Logan Zuzek 2, Andrew Zuzek 2, Jake Westerburg 1, Keaton Rounsville 1.