The game will be broadcast on C-93, 92.7 FM in Clarion & on the internet by clicking here.
By Chris Rossetti
CLARION, Pa. – As teams go farther into the PIAA football playoffs, one would assume the competition level gets greater.
And that is the case for Clarion (14-0), as it prepares to meet its toughest challenge to date, fellow unbeaten Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic (14-0), the WPIAL champion, in the PIAA Class A semifinals at 7 p.m. Friday at DuBois’ Mansell Stadium.
“They look solid all the way across the board, especially on defense,” Clarion’s 25th year head coach Larry Wiser, who won his 170th career game last week, said. “They want to run the ball, control the clock and play sound defense. Does that sound like anyone else to you?”
North Catholic may not be as dominant as the Clairton team Port Allegany had to face in last year’s semifinals, but make no mistake the Trojans are for real having overcome the loss of starting quarterback Adam Sharlow in Week Eight to roll through the WPIAL playoffs with a 4-0 record and then beat District 5 champion Tussey Mountain, 48-7, last week in the PIAA quarterfinals.
And while North Catholic’s offense hasn’t been as potent without Sharlow, who had thrown for 877 yards and eight touchdowns without a pick while adding 660 yards rushing and six touchdowns before his injury, the Trojans defense has risen to the challenge.
North Catholic allowed 12.2 points per game during the regular season but has reduced that to 5.6 points per game in the playoffs with a pair of shutouts and two more games allowing just a single touchdown. Leading the way on defense is 6-3, 235-pound senior linebacker Jarred Fragapone, who will play at FCS Lafayette next season.
“They have some really good people on the defensive side of the football,” Wiser said. “They play sound, team defense. They basically use a 3-4 with a cover-2 behind it. They are pretty vanilla in what they do, but they do it well.”
The Trojans offense has also been more than good enough to win despite averaging 12 points per game less in the playoffs than the regular season (37 in regular season, 25.4 in postseason).
That is due largely to the play of junior PJ Fulmore, who moved from running back to quarterback when Sharlow went down.
Fulmore has been solid as the QB going 15 of 27 for 173 yards, two touchdowns and an interception since Week Nine (he is 21 of 41, 368 yards, 3 TDs, 2 Ints on the year). But the 5-8, 180-pound junior still does most of his damage on the ground having rushed for 625 yards and six touchdowns in five playoff games. On the year, Fulmore, who missed four games with an ankle injury, has rushed for 974 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Joining Fulmore in making North Catholic’s running game potent are junior Jerome Turner and freshman Mario Latronica.
Turner has rushed for 956 yards and 21 touchdowns on the season, while Latronica adds 424 yards and four touchdowns with most of that coming in last week’s win over Tussey Mountain (190 yards, 1 TD)
Ronnie Meder (23 catches, 421 yards, 6 TDs) and Ryan Kirby (23 catches, 391 yards, 3 TDs) lead the North Catholic receiving corps.
“They don’t run a lot of plays, but they run them out of a lot of formations and it looks like a lot of plays,” Wiser said. “Fulmore is like a tailback at quarterback. It’s almost like the Wild Cat at times.”
But while North Catholic is the toughest test Clarion has faced this year, the Bobcats could very well present the Trojans with their toughest foe yet as well.
Clarion averages 54.2 points per game while allowing just 5.07 per contest. Last week was actually the worst the Bobcats offense and defense has fared scoring “just” 35 points, a season low, while allowing a season-high 20 points, in a 35-20 win over District 10 champion Lakeview in the quarterfinals.
Turnovers played a role in both numbers, as the Bobcats gave the ball up four times in Saturday’s win, something they know they must clean up if they plan on becoming just the third District 9 team to reach the PIAA title game – Smethport and Keystone are the others.
“The bottom line at any time of year for both teams is you want to keep the turnovers to a minimum,” Wiser said. “Last week, we gave Lakeview some opportunities to get back in the game with the turnovers.”
Offensively, Clarion presents a challenge to any defense because of its diversity and numerous formations.
The Bobcats throw everything from the power-back, to the Wing-T to the spread at opponents, and that limits what teams can try to take away.
Take last week for example, Lakeview did a decent job shutting down Clarion’s 1,800-yard rusher Damien Slike (1,869 yards, 37 TDs) limiting the senior to a season-low 33 yards.
But Clarion’s offense never punted in the game thanks to the play of wingback Ian Corbett, quarterback John Katis and wide receiver Cody Hearst.
Corbett, who has 1,247 yards and 20 touchdowns of his own, ran for a season-high 154 yards and a touchdown, while Katis, a 2,000-yard passer (96 of 149, 2,083 yards, 23 TDs, 1 Int), and Hearst, a 1,000-yard receiver (55 catches, 1,169 yards, 12 TDs) also had big games.
Katis, a senior and two-year starter, was 12 of 17 for 188 yards, three touchdowns and an interception, unbelievably his first pick of the year, while Hearst caught seven balls for 131 yards and two touchdowns.
“There isn’t an area of the football field where we aren’t good on offense,” Wiser said. “I imagine it’s hard to defend us because if you take away one thing we can hit you somewhere else. Todd (offensive coordinator Todd Smith) has done a great job with the kids.”
Defensively against Lakeview, Clarion had a lot of trouble with Blake Reddick, District 10’s all-time leading rusher, allowing him to rush for 225 yards and a touchdown. But the Bobcats adjusted in the second half limiting the senior to 53 yards on 13 carries in the half.
That defense, which has tied the District 9 record with nine shutouts this season, is led by junior linebacker Destin Strauser (151 tackles, 4 ½ sacks), Corbett (90 tackles, 12 sacks), junior defensive lineman Jacob Troutman (77 tackles, 8 ½ sacks), junior defensive lineman Ethan Straffin (89 tackles, 12 sacks), senior linebacker Tyler Allen (111 tackles), Slike (103 tackles) and sophomore defensive back Bo Miller (59 tackles, 7 interceptions).
“The kids are playing their responsibilities,” Wiser said. “They all get to the ball, and they are willing to work at it. This is a special group in that way. They have maintained their intensity week in and week out.”
Wiser said his team isn’t just happy to have won a state playoff game, to be in the semifinals.
“They are hungry for me,” Wiser said. “They aren’t satisfied. They are really excited. They have spent more time in preparation this week. Me? I would like to say I have taken the same approach as every week, but I would be lying to you, to them. I’ve put in more preparation too. When you are this close to going to Hershey, that extra 15 minutes of preparation could make the difference.”
NOTES – The winner gets the winner of the Old Forge-Steelton-Highspire game in the PIAA championship Friday Dec. 13, at 1 p.m. at Hersheypark Stadium … Clarion is trying to become the third D9 team, all in Class A, to win a semifinal game and the first since Smethport defeated Rochester 6-0 in 1992. Keystone beat Clairton 15-14 in 1989. Overall, District 9 teams are 2-10 in PIAA semifinal games including 2-9 in Class A games and 0-1 in Class AAA including Port Allegany’s 44-12 loss to Clairton last season … District 9 also hasn’t fared well vs. the WPIAL going a combined 2-16 in playoff games vs. the WPIAL including 2-8 in Class A … Clarion’s 14 wins ties Smethport (1992) and Kane (2007) for the most in District 9 history … The Bobcats won a state playoff game for the first time in school history last week (they are 1-2 overall) … Last week’s win over Tussey Mountain was the first-ever PIAA playoff game for North Catholic, which won its first WPIAL title this year with a 14-0 win over Sto-Rox.