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Turnovers hurt Williamsport as Altoona defeats Millionaires to win District 4-6 Class 6A championship

MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette Altoona's Kyle Murray looks to get a handoff during the Mountain Lions' game against Williamsport at Bald Eagle Area on Friday.

WINGATE–So much had gone wrong, but when defeat seemed imminent Friday night, Williamsport suddenly started doing everything right.

Trailing by 21, the Millionaires scored two quick touchdowns in less than 4 minutes before Joel Feleppa recovered a fumble at the Altoona 9-yard line. The game’s entire complexion had changed and Williamsport appeared on the verge of completing a stunning comeback.

Two plays later, Edwin Franklin was running the other way, taking those comeback hopes and Williamsport’s district title dreams with him.

Franklin returned an interception 94 yards for a back-breaking touchdown and Altoona defeated the Millionaires, 29-14, at Bald Eagle Area’s Alumni Field while capturing the District 4-6 Class 6A championship. Ethan Stroup ran for 149 yards and Williamsport lost five turnovers, including four inside the Mountain Lions 30-yard line as Altoona (4-2) earned a spot in next week’s state tournament against District 2 champion Delaware Valley.

“It felt like we couldn’t do anything wrong there, but just one little thing changes the momentum,” quarterback Dallas Griess said after playing his first game this season. “It was there for a little bit. We just let it slip out of our hands.”

MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette Williamsport's Frankie Morrone rushes against Altoona during Friday's game at Bald Eagle Area.

“The pick 6 just took all the air out of us,” Williamsport coach Chuck Crews said after returning from a two-week quarantine. “If we score there I think we win. It just wasn’t meant to be.”

Griess split time with 1,000-yard quarterback Frankie Morrone and both played well at times. The same could be said for the entire team. So often, though, when Williamsport took one step forward, it then took three steps back.

Five turnovers, nine penalties and some bad luck doomed the Millionaires who were seeking their first district title since 2016. Even when Williamsport did things right, they sometimes went wrong like when Cam Sims slipped on the wet turf for an 8-yard loss instead of what looked a big first-quarter play.

Even after the pick-6, Williamsport still had life as it quickly moved inside the red zone. On the door step of making it a one-score game, however, disaster struck again and Altoona recovered a fumble at the 2-yard line. The Millionaires forced a punt with 3 minutes, 38 seconds remaining, but on fourth-and-6, it was called for 12 men on the field. That brought up a 4th-and-1 and Williamsport jumped offsides. With no Millionaire timeouts remaining, Altoona could all but pop the sparkling grape cider as it continued a comeback season a year after going 1-9.

Williamsport starts only two seniors and not one player had competed in a district football final before. Maybe it was nerves. Maybe it was bad luck. Whatever it was, Williamsport had too much of it. The effort was there, the execution, too often, was not.

MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette Williamsport's Lajear Whaley stiff arms a Altoona defender during Friday's game at Bald Eagle Area.

“They fought and never gave up. That’s not our makeup at all, but we just made too many mistakes,” Crews said. “The scoreboard says it all.”

Altoona effectively ran its triple-option offense on the game’s opening series, going 65 yards on 11 plays and taking a 7-0 lead on Stroup’s 9-yard touchdown run. Williamsport moved from its 34 to the Altoona 16 on the ensuing series, but was in third and fourth-and-long situations throughout the drive with three bad snaps wreaking havoc. That drive ended with an interception in the end zone and another bad snap forced a quick three-and-out a possession later.

Altoona effectively controlled the line and the clock throughout the first half, holding the ball for nearly 16 minutes. But the Millionaire defense stiffened twice and it looked like Altoona might lead just 7-0 at halftime. Williamsport rolled the dice and tried a fake punt late in the half and Altoona stopped Griess two yards short of the first down, setting up a short field at the 34-yard line. Marcus Day then found Tyreke Green for a 21-yard touchdown, making it 14-0 at halftime. Another end zone interception ended a Williamsport third-quarter scoring threat after Feleppa recovered a fumble and Altoona took advantage of Williamsport’s third turnover, navigating another short field and moving ahead, 21-0 late in the third quarter.

The way Altoona can control the clock, it appeared that touchdown might be the dagger, but the charging defense continued making plays and the offense came alive. Griess, who broke his collar bone in a preseason scrimmage, made a super cut upfield, broke toward the sideline, shed some tacklers and went 27 yards for Williamsport’s first touchdown. Following a short Altoona punt, Williamsport needed just three plays to make it a one-score game with Keith Freeman’s 19-yard run setting up Nasir Hennigan’s bruising 8-yard touchdown run.

“The energy definitely came back. Regardless of what’s going on, even with the injury this year, the adrenaline kicks in,” Griess said. “I was just happy to be on the field again. I gave everything I had and so did everyone on the team tonight. We just didn’t pull through.”

Still, when Feleppa came bursting through the line and knocked the ball loose before recovering it at the 9, it looked like Williamsport might. Griess was held to no yards on a first-down run before Franklin sat on a slant route, jumped it and went untouched on his way to the end zone. Sims returned the kickoff 28 yards to the Altoona 45 and, with three timeouts and a little less than six minutes remaining, Williamsport still had life. The fifth turnover, however, sealed its fate.

“If we don’t have our energy at one point of the game, with the players on this team, their mentality comes back real quick,” Griess said. “We had it, it just got away from us.”

The result was disappointing, but it might not be the end. Crews said Williamsport will try scheduling two more games so it can reach the PIAA 10-game maximum. The Millionaires have come a long way, doubling last year’s win total while overcoming the COVID-19 chaos and a series of costly injuries.

The experience gained last night may be painful now, but could help moving forward. The Millionaires really have not been full strength all year, but still have thrived. Obviously, they believe last night might just be a start, not an ending.

“We’re a year ahead of where we thought we would be. Coming into this season we thought we would be able to make a run next year,” Crews said. “We’re losing just two senior starters so we fully intend on making some noise. They did a really nice job of coming together and growing as a team. I’m excited to see what the future holds.”

Two-way starting lineman Dade Splain is one of the returning players next year and was outstanding last night, making a team-high 10 tackles while helping slow Altoona’s inside running. Williamsport held Altoona to 3.3 yards per carry and surrendered just one offensive touchdown in the second half with Sebastian Robinson making a 15-yard sack and linebacker Riley Bower adding seven tackles.

Nassir Jones continued enhancing his statewide credentials and made eight tackles, including one for loss. He also caught three passes for 62 yards and his 23-yard catch on second-and-20 set up Griess’s touchdown two plays later.

“He’s going to be a big loss, but I’m really excited about his future. He’s going to go somewhere big,” Griess said. “I love that kid. He deserves all-state. I’m definitely rooting for him.”

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