By John Hartsock
Central captured its fourth consecutive District 6 Class 3A championship Friday night at Mansion Park, but the Scarlet Dragons had to hold off a strong Penn Cambria team to get the job done.
With the score tied, 28-28, in the final minute and driving down the middle at the Penn Cambria 15, junior quarterback Eli Muthler connected with senior wideout Jacob Benton on a pass to the left corner of the end zone for a layup. unbeaten in a heart-stopping 35-28 victory.
Benton shook off Penn Cambria’s backcourt and hauled in Muthler’s pass inside the pylon with 32 seconds left to earn Central (11-0 this season) its fourth regional gold medal and a berth in the PIAA playoffs on the road next week against District 9 champion Clearfield.
“It was crazy,” said Benton, who caught seven passes for 141 yards in the game. “I just had to focus on playing football. After winning regionals the last three years, we didn’t want to be the team that disappointed – the team that lost this year.”
Muthler completed 15 of 21 passing for 261 yards and two touchdowns, and ran 11 yards in the second quarter for a score. He also held a security clearance.
“Jacob ran a good route, I just gave him a chance, he got 2 or 3 yards of separation from their defenders, and he came down with the ball,” Muthler said of Benton. “(Penn Cambria) fought as hard as they could and played really well. We made it to the finals. To win a regional championship this year is really special.”
Middle school coach Dave Baker has led the Dragons to the PIAA Class 3A semifinals each of the past two seasons, but he knows winning the district championship is essential to the team’s hopes of doing anything big.
“It’s an attainable goal every year — to try to win the district championship,” said Baker, whose team defeated Penn Cambria by a wide margin in the district championship game the past two years. “Winning a national championship is not a real goal until you get there.”
The teams battled in the second half after Central led 21-14 at halftime.
Sophomore quarterback Brady Jones hit junior running back Derek Hite for a 20-yard pass with 4:24 left in the third quarter, as Penn Cambria tied the score, 21-21, after three quarters.
Central responded midway through the fourth quarter to regain the lead, 28-21, when Muthler hit senior Jack Dunn for a 32-yard pass.
Penn Cambria came back to tie the game, 28-28, after a 46-yard punt return by senior Carter McDermott set up junior back Tommy Plunkett’s 17-yard touchdown run down the left side with 6:02 left in the fourth quarter.
Middle drove 63 yards on 11 plays as he scored the game-winning touchdown.
“Everybody worked hard together, and everybody did their job tonight,” Dunn said. “I’m very thankful for this team, and I’m glad we won tonight. It was deserved.”
Penn Cambria, which finished the season 9-3, had a strong argument there.
“We’re all hurting right now,” Penn Cambria coach Nick Felus said. “We’ve put in a lot of work last week and all season, and we came here expecting to win this game.
“We have an unbelievable team that has shown hard work and resilience,” Felus added. “We played a complete game for four quarters. It just didn’t happen for us today. Hats off to Central – they played where they needed to tonight. It was an incredible game.”
Senior Hunter Smith rushed for 95 yards on 21 carries and two touchdowns in the first half for Central, which led 21-7 in the second quarter.
Penn Cambria junior Gavin Harrold kept the Panthers in the game in the first half, running 10 yards from a wild formation for a first-quarter touchdown and hitting McDermott over the middle for a 63-yard scoring pass late in the second quarter.
“I thought we could have come out of here with a win, but sometimes, things don’t go your way,” said Harrold, who rushed for 86 yards on 16 carries. “Tonight, it just didn’t work out for us.” But our junior class this year will be seniors next year, and we’ll be back.
Play of the game: Muthler’s 15-yard touchdown pass to Benton for the game-winning drive.
Player(s) of the game: Muthler and Benton.
Unsung Hero(s): The middle offensive line gave Muthler plenty of time to throw and shut down well in the running game as the Dragons racked up 405 yards of total offense – the most important total of the game.
Penn Cambria’s Plunkett, who rushed for 79 yards on 11 carries, said: “We wanted to win this game so bad the last two years. We worked hard all season to get here. I couldn’t be more proud of my guys.”
Central’s Smith: “Four straight titles – that’s amazing. It shows the great job our coaches have done throughout our system in building this program.”
Records: Central (11-0); Penn Cambria (9-3).
Next week: Penn Cambria’s season is over. Central plays District 9 champion Clearfield in the first round of the PIAA Class 3A playoffs.
THE SCORE IS OVER
Medium 7 14 0 14 – 35
Penn Cambria 7 7 7 7 – 28
C–Smith 1 run (Smith kick), 6:44.
PC-Harrold 10 run (Dillon kick), :41.
C–Muthler 11 run (Smith kick), 10:29.
C-Smith 1 run (Smith kick), 5:39.
PC-McDermott 63 pass from Harrold (Dillon kick), 2:49.
PC-Hite 20 pass from Jones (Dillon kick), 4:24.
The fourth part
C-Dunn 32 pass from Muthler (Smith kick), 7:40.
PC–Plunkett 19 run (Dillon kick), 6:02.
C-Benton 15 pass from Muthler (Smith kick), :32.
TEAM STATISTICS C PC
First down 23 12
Total 405 288 yards
Rushing-yards 31-144 37-154
261 134 passing yards
Passing (comp.-att.-int.) 15-21-0 7-15-1 Punts/avg. 0-0 4-33.3
Fumbles-lost 0-0 1-1
Penalties-4-30 6-50 yards
RUSHING–Central, Smith 21-95, Muthler 9-43, Benton 1-6. Penn Cambria, Harrold 16-86, Plunkett 11-79, Jones 10-(-11).
PASSING-Central, Muthler 15-21-0-261. Penn Cambria, Jones 6-10-1-71, Harrold 1-5-0-63.
RECEIVING–Central, Benton 7-141, Smith 3-34, Dunn 2-43, Dionis 2-29, Klotz 1-14. Penn Cambria, McDermott 2-66, Harrold 4-48, Hite 1-20.