MANSFIELD - As the final seconds ticked down and blue and white fans rose to their feet, South Williamsport two-way starting lineman Ian Niklaus raised his arm high into the night sky.
Niklaus was there three years ago when South won just one game. He saw the worst of times but of some great times the past two seasons. Friday, he and his teammates experienced the best of times.
Dominick Bragalone ran for 316 yards and four touchdowns and three players intercepted passes, sparking a strong defensive performance as South defeated previously unbeaten Wellsboro, 42-28 in the District 4 Class A semifinals at Mansfield University.
Riley Hengler, left, Sean McCormick, right, celebrate with?Jon Pulizzi, center after a second-quarter interception Friday night vs. Wellsboro at Mansfield University. View additional photos at cu.sungazette.com.
"It's tough but we knew we could do it. We've done it before," said safety Jon Pulizzi, who intercepted a pass in the end zone and made nine tackles. "The crowd, the college field everything was great tonight."
Up next is a district championship rematch at top-seed Southern Columbia.
After having not won a playoff game since 1997 prior to last year, the Mounties are making this championship thing a new tradition. And like last year against high-powered Bloomsburg it used the same formula, a bruising ground game and an opportunistic defense.
Bragalone went 73 yards for a touchdown on the game's first play and South (10-1) never trailed. Wellsboro entered averaging nearly 50 points per game and consistently threatened South. The Mounties, though, never caved, coming up with three stops inside the 25-yard line and intercepting 2,500-yard quarterback Mike Pietropola three times, as many times as 10 previous opponents had.
"We definitely buckled down. We knew we had to get up in their face and stop them," said linebacker/fullback John Peters, who was outstanding on both sides of the ball. "We studied a lot of film and were prepared."
Wellsboro (10-1) enjoyed its best season ever, going undefeated in the regular season for the first time, winning 10 games for the first time and capturing its first NTL Big School championship since 1977.
It looked like the good times might continue after Pietropola hit Dylan Prough with a 58-yard third-quarter touchdown pass to cut a 13-point deficit to 20-14 and when Wellsboro ended the third quarter by driving to the South 30-yard line.
Again, though, South made the critical defensive play at the perfect time. Moments after telling cornerback Riley Hengler he would intercept the next pass, linebacker Ryan Seagrave did so, jumping a route at the 30. Five plays later, Bragalone scored from a yard out and South went up 28-14.
"Defensively the kids bent and bent but didn't break," South coach Chris Eiswerth said. "We wanted to keep everything in front of us and tackle and we hustled around and came out on top."
Pietropola again made it a one-score game just 64 seconds later, scoring from six yards out. South showed on the next play it is every bit as explosive as Bragalone exploded through a big hole up the middle and scored on a 62-yard touchdown run.
Linebacker Noah Martin intercepted a fourth-down pass to end Wellsboro's ensuing drive and Bragalone clinched the win with a 40-yard touchdown run as he topped 300 yards for a fifth time.
Peters also ran for 68 yards and a touchdown as Niklaus, Martin, Cody Nelson, Anthony Caruso, Nick Keeler and Tyler Schonewolf were outstanding up front, again imposing their will on an opponent.
"Those guys just keep coming at you and coming at you," Eiswerth said. "Coach (Charlie) Ackerman does a great job with them."
"We knew it was going to be a four-quarter game," Peters said. "We just had to keep driving and working hard."
South took a 20-7 halftime lead as Riley Thomas made one of the year's best catches on the final play. Matt Boone threw toward the end zone for Schonewolf but a Wellsboro player deflected the ball. Thomas, a first-time player, caught the deflection one-handed before diving into the end zone for a score he will never forget.
"I was just in the right place at the right time," said Thomas, also a key defensive cog. "It got tipped and I watched it all the way in and once I caught it I was just going for the end zone and trying to get some momentum going into the half."
South stopped Wellsboro twice inside the 25-yard line in the first half. Pulizzi made an end zone interception to end a drive that could have put Wellsboro ahead and Sean McCormick was all over, making 10 tackles. First-time player Ryan Foran came up big too, making six tackles and breaking up two passes.
Pietropola threw for 245 yards and two touchdowns. While South played strong defense, Pietropola also was hurt by several drops, including two that would have been touchdowns. He finished his season with more than 2,700 yards and 39 touchdowns.
Brooks ran for 129 yards and went over 1,000 for the season while Brandon Owlett topped 100 receiving yards for a seventh time.
Wellsboro enjoyed a historic season but Friday night belonged to South. The bad times are long gone and the good times continue.
"It was good preparation and lots of studying film and working hard all week," Pulizzi said. "It feels great."