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Balancing act: Canton’s Ward stumbles to winning TD in overtime

CHRIS MANNING/Sun-Gazette Correspondent Canton players celebrate after Hayden Ward scores the game-winning touuchdown in overtime of the PIAA Class A quarterfinals against Old Forge at Danville.

DANVILLE – The initial hit at the line of scrimmage took one of Hayden Ward’s legs out from under him. He put his hand to the turf to steady himself. As the Canton running back looked forward he knew if he could just get that leg back under him he could get to the goal line.

Ward showcased the strength and balance which has made him one of the best wrestlers in District 4 for the last two years. In this moment, though, the balance and strength was about helping his Warrior football teammates. If he could get to the end zone, Canton would win a playoff game it had no business winning when the fourth quarter started Saturday afternoon at Ironmen Stadium.

So Ward balanced himself, got his bearings, and lunged toward the end zone setting off a raucous celebration which had the home side bleachers rumbling like an earthquake was afoot. His 8-yard touchdown run in overtime gave Canton a 20-14 win over Old Forge in a game it trailed by two scores with fewer than 6 minutes remaining in regulation. There is absurd, and then there is the way Canton rallied from the depths of near-certain defeat to win only the second state tournament game in school history.

But how Canton got to the promised land of only its second-ever state tournament win wasn’t as important as getting there. For three-and-a-half quarters, seemingly nothing went right for the Warriors. For the final half-quarter and overtime, everything went right and it put Canton in the PIAA Class A semifinals for only the second time in school history.

Canton advances to the state’s Final Four for the first time since 1990 and will face District 6 champion Bishop Guilfoyle next weekend at a site and time to be determined.

CHRIS MANNING/Sun-Gazette Correspondent Canton's Michael Davis runs against Old Forge during Saturday's PIAA Class A quarterfinal at Danville.

“Every week we keep proving to ourselves what we can do and we keep building confidence as we go,” said Canton’s Riley Parker, who scored both of his team’s touchdowns in regulation. “We’ve never made it this far before. But it’s really cool. It feels like we have the whole town behind us and we want to keep going.”

Every week is a new experience for a team of players who were more than a decade from being born the last time Canton played in a state semifinal. But it was an especially new experience Saturday when the Warriors went into halftime trailing Old Forge, 14-0. It was the second consecutive week the Warriors trailed at halftime after not trailing during the entire season prior.

Canton was getting beat through those first 24 minutes. Old Forge dominated the first 24 minutes up front, holding the Warriors vaunted running game to just 3.8 yards per carry while the Devils themselves rolled up 180 yards of offense. Murphy’s Law was running wild for the Warriors. Even when they did force turnovers, they couldn’t capitalize.

Canton turned over the ball on downs in Old Forge territory three times in the first half, including once on the 8-yard line when the Warriors missed on a fourth-down fade in the end zone. The Blue Devils, meanwhile, did just enough to maintain control of the game. Quarterback James Sobol fired a frozen rope to Casey Holzman on a deep slant for a 16-yard touchdown in the first quarter. He then took advantage of broken coverage by the Canton secondary to hook up with Mario Samony on a 45-yard catch-and-run to give the Devils a 14-0 lead at halftime.

Truth be told, there weren’t any real bright spots to lead Canton to believe it could find a way to get back in the game in the second half. They were getting beat in all phases of the game and there didn’t seem to be much hope on the horizon.

CHRIS MANNING/Sun-Gazette Correspondent Canton's Riley Parker runs during Saturday's PIAA Class A quarterfinals against Old Forge at Danville.

“I had told the kids before the game you’re going to have to weather the storm at some point,” Canton coach Tyler Sechrist said. “It isn’t always going to go right for championship teams. The ball isn’t always going to bounce your way. When you play competition this good, sometimes you’re going to have to weather the storm and give yourself a chance.”

Canton did give itself a chance by keeping the deficit at only two scores. First it forced a fumble which Austin Allen recovered on his own 14-yard line to start the second half. And then it was an Allen interception – one of five by the Canton defense – which ended a 16-play drive by Old Forge which bridged the third and fourth quarters and ran more than 7 minutes off the clock. Then it was Ward intercepting a tipped pass in the middle of the field to stop another Blue Devils scoring opportunity.

And with what minuscule amount of momentum Canton had finally gained, they grabbed it all when quarterback Cooper Kitchen found Ward running wide open down the seam for a 71-yard pass play to flip the field. Four plays later, on a do-or-die fourth-down snap, Kitchen threw a perfect fade pass to the back left corner of the end zone which Parker grabbed while falling backwards and still keeping a foot in for a 12-yard touchdown pass.

It was in that moment, for maybe the first time all game, Canton could take a deep breath. Something had finally gone right.

“I had a feeling in the back of my head that could be a big play,” Parker said of the touchdown catch. “I relied on Cooper to give me a perfect ball and he did.

“We needed that first score so badly,” Ward said. “That put us back in the game and gave us the confidence we needed.”

Frankly, Parker’s touchdown reception is when all hell broke loose on a fourth quarter which was one part gut-wrenching and one part exhilarating. After Parker’s touchdown with 7 minutes, 3 seconds remaining, Canton and Old Forge combined for two turnovers and two blocked punts. The first of two blocked punts by Ward led to Parker’s 3-yard touchdown run to tie the game with 5:33 to go.

Sechrist had noticed in the first half Old Forge was taking substantial time getting punts off. He thought there was a gap on the right side which Ward could expose. So when the Warriors forced and three-and-out after Parker’s first touchdown, he told Ward to make a run at that gap. Ward did just that, seemingly taking the ball off the punter’s foot.

It set up Parker’s second touchdown which tied the game and reset a game which had seemed so far out of reach just minutes prior.

“That’s just Hayden making a play,” Sechrist said. “I knew we needed to make something big happen in the second half, so let’s find a seam and block a couple.”

“We never thought we were going to lose. We kept playing football and never quit,” Canton lineman Gage Pepper said. “In the fourth quarter we blocked that first punt and I said ‘we’re in now boys, we’re going to win.'”

Ward’s second blocked punt just 2 1/2 minutes later set the Warriors up with the ball at the Old Forge 11-yard line with a chance to go ahead, but Old Forge and its stingy defense forced a fumble which Angelo Fumanti recovered to give the Devils one last chance in regulation.

Old Forge quarterback James Sobol marched the Canton 41 with under a minute to go, but on a fourth-down heave downfield, Parker picked up Canton’s fourth interception to force overtime.

“All game we were saying to just push through and keep our heads up,” said Pepper, who had one of Canton’s interceptions. Those blocked punts changed everything.”

Canton forced the fifth interception by Sobol (210 passing yards, 94 rushing yards) by putting pressure on the junior signal-caller. He rushed a throw to the end zone on second-and-goal from the Canton 16, and Weston Bellows was alone in the back of the end zone to bring it in and end the series.

After a 2-yard run by Bellows on first down, Ward got his chance to end the game and didn’t miss. He stumbled after the initial contact before regaining his balance and finding his way across the goal line marking one of the more remarkable wins the school has ever seen.

“That’s the balance you get from wrestling right there,” Ward said. “I knew if I could just get back up, I could get in.”

“It was nuts, I thought he was down,” Pepper said. “Then he’s bear-crawling into the end zone. I look over at the ref and he threw his hands up and it was like, ‘we finally got it.'”

“They have a tough defense,” Sechrist said. “But the two runs we scored on, the second effort of our kids, to break through and score was so big.”

Now Canton is in a spot where so few could have imagined three months ago. Ward always thought in the back of his mind this kind of run was something the Warriors were capable of. Now he’s seeing his teammates become believers week by week as well.

“We know we can beat any team in the state if we play our game,” Ward said. “(Saturday) we didn’t play our game and we still came out on top. So if we play our game, we feel like nobody can beat us.”

“We have a whole community backing us up and cheering us on,” Pepper said. “We’re going to keep going one by one and try to win one game every week.”

Canton 20, Old Forge 14, OT

Old Forge 6 8 0 0 0 — 14

Canton 0 0 0 14 6 — 20

First Quarter

OF – Casey Holzman 16 pass from James Sobol (kick failed), 1:34

Second Quarter

OF – Mario Samony 45 pass from Sobol (Josh Spindler run), :13

Fourth Quarter

C – Riley Parker 12 pass from Cooper Kitchen (Bailey Ferguson kick), 7:03

C – Parker 3 run (Ferguson kick), 5:33

Overtime

C – Hayden Ward 8 run (no attempt), N/A

OF Can

First Downs 18 8

Rushes-Yards 31-131 40-126

Comp-Att-Int 17-39-5 5-10-0

Passing 210 112

Total Yards 341 238

Fumbles-Lost 2-1 3-2

Penalties-Yards 6-45 8-47

Individual statistics

Rushing: Old Forge — James Sobol, 20-94; Josh Spindler, 7-38; Hezekiah Deitz, 1-4; John Greenfield, 1-(-1); Casey Holzman, 2-(-4). Canton — Riley Parker, 18-52, TD; Hayden Ward, 8-44, TD; Cooper Kitchen, 6-15; Weston Bellows, 4-7; Michael Davis, 2-5; Hudson Ward, 2-3.

Passing: Old Forge — James Sobol, 17-38-5, 210 yds., 2 TDs; Team 0-1-0. Canton — Cooper Kitchen, 5-10-0, 112 yds., TD.

Receiving: Old Forge — Mario Samony, 8-104, TD; Casey Holzman, 4-36, TD; Ethan Tallo, 3-43; Josh Spindler, 1-19; Andrew Bartnikowski, 1-8. Canton — Hayden Ward, 1-71; Weston Bellows, 1-17; Riley Parker, 1-12, TD; Michael Davis, 1-12; Austin Allen, 1-0.

Interceptions: Canton, Gage Pepper, Austin Allen, Hayden Ward, Riley Parker, Weston Bellows.

Sacks: Canton, Hayden Ward. Old Forge, Josh Spindler.

Records: Old Forge (11-1); Canton (13-0).

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