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Riley Parker helped lead the way for Canton

DAVE KENNEDY/Sun-Gazette Canton’s Riley Parker runs against Steelton-Highspire during last week’s PIAA Class A playoff game at Towanda.

Canton fans arrived early and cheered loud. And that was before the opening kickoff.

Towanda’s Endless Mountains Complex was rocking last Saturday afternoon as Canton tried winning its first-ever Class A state tournament game against defending champion Steelton-Highspire. Obviously, the players were excited but that atmosphere added a boost.

“It felt really loud here. The crowd was amazing,” running back/linebacker Riley Parker said. “During the pregame they were loud and hyped and when the game started we brought it to another level.”

Parker helped lead the way.

In a season filled with terrific performances, Parker may have produced his best one yet. The junior ran for 138 yards and four touchdowns while adding three tackles for loss as Canton made history and dethroned Steel-High, 32-27. Up next is another big challenge against the state’s top-ranked team, Old Forge in the quarterfinals Saturday at Danville.

Last Saturday, Parker went right at the challenger, providing some punishing runs as Canton eventually wore down Steel-High. Hayden Ward, Cooper Kitchen and Weston Bellows provided similar tough running and Parker’s hard-nosed approach proved contagious.

“He had an extra level on his physicality and was setting a tone,” Canton coach Tyler Sechrist said. “I don’t know what Steel-High thought coming up here, but I said come out and we’ll punch them in the face. Hit them hard and let them know we’re here to play. That sets a tone when instead of taking the lick, you deliver it.”

Parker provided plenty of licks on both sides of the ball and his bruising effort started taking a toll on Steel-High. He sent a message on Canton’s first play, driving the pile an extra five yards on a nine-yard gain. He turned short gains into something exciting, never going down easy, and those short gains became bigger ones as the game progressed and Steel-High tired.

As the offensive line surged throughout the second half, Parker showed his gratitude by running as hard as they were blocking. He produced 99 yards and three touchdowns over the final two quarters, scoring each time from 11 or more yards. Parker’s 15 and 16-yard third quarter touchdown runs gave Canton a 25-14 lead and it never trailed again.

“He was hitting people hard,” linebacker Michael Davis said. “At the start of the game he was a little off, but toward the end of the game he was turning it up.”

“It feels awesome to know if we give him a hole he will get five yards almost every single time,” lineman Mason Shultz said. “There’s nothing better than when you put in the hard work and the running back takes it hard, hits that hole and goes.”

Parker has gone hard all season, producing 1,224 yards and 22 touchdowns. He is the first Canton player to reach 20 touchdowns in a season during the 2000s and Parker’s 1,224 yards rank second on the yardage last during that span. He is one of four runners to go over 500 yards and has averaged 8.7 yards per carry, showing he is as explosive as he is tough.

As the games have grown bigger, Parker has grown better. Starting with the Old Shoe Game against Troy which doubled as the NTL-I championship, Parker has run for 398 yards nine touchdowns against three excellent opponents. Parker is making the most of this playoff opportunity because he knows how quickly it can be taken away.

Starting for the first time a year ago, Parker averaged more than 100 yards per game and was a key part of a stifling defense as Canton went 4-0 and earned the top seed for the district championship. A few days before that game against Muncy, however, Parker was sidelined due to COVID contact tracing. Canton dropped a 21-16 heartbreaker and the pain Parker felt being unable to help hurt more than the loss itself.

He cannot get the past back, but Parker certainly has seized on the present.

“It’s one of those deals where once you don’t have it, you realize how much you miss it,” Sechrist said. “That was hard for him last year. He had to watch it from home and the situation didn’t work out for us. I think that is in the back of his mind. He’s not going to let an opportunity slip away.”

Parker can slip away from defenders but against Steel-High he often just ran them over. He did so midway through the second quarter, turning what would have been a five-yard loss into a three-yard gain. Parker did so again late in the fourth quarter when he treated a defender like a bowling pin and drove him on his back while heading into the end zone. The touchdown run was called back because of a penalty but Parker went back to work and gained seven hard yards on his next carry as Canton continued draining precious time off the clock.

Equally effective defensively, Parker often knifed through the line and made three tackles for loss. Steel-High is explosive and produced some big plays but Canton still held it 20 points below its season average.

This was a big win but it was not a fancy one. The Warriors were as physical as they were good and every player did his part. Parker helped fuel the fire and by game’s end the flames had carried Canton into the state quarterfinals.

“I knew that we could outgrit these guys and hit them hard,” Parker said. “That’s what we came out here to do.”

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