LV's Miller gets blocking, finds running room

Ligonier Valley’s Kyrie Miller (29) gets blocking from Wylie Spiker (66) and Michael Petrof (54) as fullback Ayden Kelley also looks to clear some running room during the team’s Heritage Conference game against Northern Cambria earlier this season. After winning their fourth straight conference and Appalachian Bowl titles and then defeating West Shamokin in the quarterfinals of the District 6 Class AA playoffs, the No. 2-seeded Rams will host No. 3 Bellwood-Antis in Saturday’s semis at Weller Field.

Ligonier Valley and Bellwood-Antis are a lot alike.

At least in the way they go about things.

Just like last year when they met in the semifinals of the District 6 Class AA football playoffs...and will do so once again on Saturday (7 p.m.) at LV’s Weller Field.

Both teams are undefeated (11-0), and seeded — Ligonier Valley No. 2 and Bellwood-Antis No. 3 — right where they were a season ago.

Both are ranked in the top 10 in the state in Class AA, and so are the other two teams left in the playoffs — No. 1 seed Richland and No. 4 Penns Valley — with all four having only one loss (43-1) between them.

And both LV and Bellwood-Antis would prefer to run the ball, although they’re more than capable of going the other route if necessary.

So, it could come down to which one does it better.

That was the case last year, too. But it was all LV back then as the Rams won by four touchdowns (34-7) on their way to a fourth straight appearance in the district championship game.

About the only thing that’s not the same is how — or, better yet, who — does most of the running for Bellwood-Antis.

Last year, it was the quarterback (Shawn Wolfe) who led the Blue Devils in rushing and — obviously — passing. This season, they’ve used several ball-carriers, but rely mostly on a pair of juniors in running back Zach Mallon (6-1, 185) and fullback Nick Plank (5-11, 190).

“The difference between their team from last year and this year is, last year, they had an explosive athlete at quarterback,” Ligonier Valley head coach Roger Beitel said of Wolfe, who was a district champion in the 200 meters in the spring before his senior season in football, “and everything ran through him. You really had to account for him on defense, but it’s a little bit different this year.

“Everything flows through their running back position and then to their tight end-receiver. They move him (senior Troy Walker) around a good bit.”

Combined, Mallon and Plank have rushed for more than 2,000 yards — 1,111 and 908, respectively — and 28 touchdowns (15 and 13). They also average 7.7 and 8.0 yards a carry (145 and 113).

When Bellwood-Antis — and senior quarterback Trevor Miller — do throw the ball, most of the time, it’s in the direction of Walker (6-0, 180), who has 26 catches for 497 yards (19.1 average) and four touchdowns. Mallon has 15 receptions out of the backfield for 275 yards (18.3 average) and two scores while junior split end Owen Shedlock (5-11, 160) has added 11 for 148 (13.5 average) with Miller (5-10, 160) having completed 70 of 131 passes for 1,179 yards and 13 touchdowns with seven interceptions.

“They are a well-balanced team. But they want to run the football first,” Beitel indicated.

“That’s their identity. They have two good running backs, and they’re both in the backfield a lot.

“Everything we’ve seen on video is that they are devoted to running the football. The better we can stop the run, the more we can devote some kids to their passing game.

“That’s our primary focus...to stop the run. If we can take that away, hopefully it makes them one-dimensional.”

Still, the Blue Devils — again, like Ligonier Valley — just keep on keeping on, having won another Inter-County Conference championship in only Nick Lovrich’s second season as head coach at his alma mater (1991) and then beating No. 6 seed Cambria Heights in the district quarterfinals, but just barely (15-8). And that despite having only a handful of players who started against the Rams in last year’s playoff game.

However, one of those is senior defensive tackle Evan Pellegrine (6-0, 280), a two-way lineman who was named All-State last season when he posted 49 — count ‘em — solo tackles (66 in all) and six sacks. He already has 68 stops, including eight for a loss, with 47 of those solo, and is someone Beitel said his team will have to account for.

“He (Pellegrine) was very disruptive,” Beitel recalled. “He’s definitely someone we’re going to have to prepare our kids for this week.

“But they’re younger than we are. They have a lot of juniors who are their main cogs.

“And even when they do pass, it’s a direct result of their running game. And we’ve done very well against the run.”

That goes for LV’s defense in general. In 10 games played — one of the 11 was won by forfeit — the Rams have allowed only 60 points, the vast majority of those have come in the second half with their starters already on the sideline, with three shutouts, and are a plus-19 in turnover ratio (28:9).

In last week’s 49-7 quarterfinal-round playoff win, Ligonier Valley limited West Shamokin to minus-18 yards for the game and did not give up a first down.

In fact, West Shamokin logged only two plays of positive yardage with its lone touchdown coming on an interception return.

The offense hasn’t been too shabby, either. Ligonier Valley has scored 526 points with 77 total touchdowns and is averaging 445.5 yards a contest.

And it all starts with the Rams’ running game, as well, although they and senior quarterback Sam Sheeder (5-10, 180) can also toss the ball around. LV has rushed for — get this — 3,188 yards this season on 332 attempts, which works out to 9.6 per try.

“That’s kind of how our offense is,” Beitel allowed. “We’re going to try and establish the run and see what our offensive line can do. If those guys can win the line of scrimmage, then we have a lot at our disposal.”

Yeah, “those guys” almost always do. And three of them — seniors Michael Petrof (6-2, 275), Wylie Spiker (6-3, 260) and Christian Jablonski (6-5, 260) — are NCAA Division I recruits (Navy, St. Francis, Pa., and Lehigh, respectively) with the others being senior Alex Torrance (6-0, 250) and sophomore Jude Grzywinski (6-3, 275).

If you don’t believe, Beitel, just ask Kyrie Miller (5-9, 170). The senior running back has 1,651 yards, a school single-season record, on 138 carries — that’s nearly 12 a pop — with 30 touchdowns.

And he didn’t even play against West Shamokin because of an ankle injury. But Beitel said that Miller will return this week.

“With Kyrie, we’re just going to be smart about his reps,” Beitel elaborated. “We’ll see how he is.

“Getting him the necessary rest is important, and that’s an advantage of playing Saturday, but he seems to be fine. With the position he plays, too, there aren’t a whole lot of things we ask our tailback to do that we haven’t already.

“We’re definitely a better team with him, that’s for sure,” Beitel said of Miller, who surpassed his previous single-season mark of 1,561 yards last year. “But Nick Beitel went in an stepped up, and the offensive line did a nice job making sure there were holes for him.”

Beitel — sophomore Nick (5-7, 160), that is, the coach’s son — rushed for 104 yards and two TDs in Miller’s place.

The Rams also got 213 yards and two touchdowns passing (16 of 22), and 76 yards rushing from Sheeder while senior split end John Beard (6-0, 160) had nine grabs for 108 yards, and sophomore Matthew Marinchak (6-1, 170) five for 78 with both scoring TDs.

“I think everyone just collectively pitched in a did a little bit more knowing that a running back like Kyrie wasn’t going to be in the lineup,” coach Beitel expounded. “Beard and Marinchak stepped up in the passing game, (senior tight end) Cage Dowden (6-0, 205) had a couple catches, and Sheeder had a real good game both throwing and running.

“And, realistically, that was all in the first half. Every senior two-way starter did not play one snap in the second half, but their contributions in the first half were very significant.”

In his first full season at quarterback, Sheeder has connected on well over half of his passes — 84 of 133— for 1,586 yards and 18 touchdowns with only three picks. He’s also rushed for 497 yards and another seven TDs on 60 carries (8.3 average) behind Miller and Beitel, who has 637 yards and 12 scores on 54 tries (11.8 average).

The leading receiver is Beard with 40 catches for 679 yards (17.0 average) and seven touchdowns. He’s followed by Marinchak (21 for 361 and six) and Dowden (10 for 287 and two).

“We’re really going to take what they (Blue Devils) give us,” Beitel explained. “If they load up the box to try and stop the run, we have the confidence to throw the football, and vice versa.

“We feel real good about our kids’ ability to do different things. It just really depends on what the opponent gives us.”

Defensively, senior Ayden Kelley (5-9, 220) tops Ligonier Valley is tackles with 61 (46 solo, 16 for loss) from his linebacker position while Petrof has 42 (29 solo) Jablonski has 42 (20 solo, 13 for loss) and Spiker another 12 behind the line of scrimmage.

Senior defensive back Joe Ersick (5-7, 150) has four interceptions, and Sheeder three as a linebacker.

The Rams also go into Saturday’s game relatively healthy, especially with the return of Miller.

“Let’s hope we keep it that way,” Beitel responded. “We’re at the time of the season now where you just rep the game-plan and make sure the kids are ready mentally more than anything else.

“We should have everyone ready to roll.”

This year’s senior class also would like to add to its legacy before LV leaves District 6 for the WPIAL (District 7) with the start of the 2020-21 school year.

During their four seasons, the seniors have won 50 games (three defeats), including 37 straight in the Heritage Conference, and four consecutive conference championships and four Appalachian Bowl (Heritage vs. WestPAC) titles.

“Those are remarkable numbers for any group,” Beitel offered. “They’ve only lost three games, and all of them have been in the state playoffs.”

Now, the Rams will try to capture their third district crown in four years. They won back-to-back titles in 2016-17 over Bishop McCort before falling to Richland in last year’s championship game (21-12).

“We can’t win a district title if we don’t get there,” Beitel stressed. “We want to make sure we can get back there.”

And a rematch against Richland (11-0) in next week’s championship game (Nov. 15 or 16) could be in the offing. But one-loss Penns Valley (10-1) won’t be a pushover, either

“It’s really good football,” Beitel stated. “We’re going to start eliminating each other one by one here until we get a district champion.

“It’s just really good, competitive football at this point. It’s big-boy football from here on out.”

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