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Golden Eagles soar over Forest Hills 31-7 to capture seventh District 5-6 championship title

For one game, the black face paint was back, and with it the swagger that led Tyrone teams to back-to-back District 5-6 AA championships in 1999-2000.
But the Golden Eagles’ retro makeover was only a sidebar by the end of Saturday’s AA District championship game at Mansion Park, after Tyrone made defending title-holder Forest Hills look like anything but a team that had won nine consecutive games.
Tyrone picked off standout quarterback Brian Kudlaweic twice, sacked him on two other occasions and forced four turnovers – converting three into touchdowns – as part of a dominant defensive effort that gave the Eagles a 31-7 victory and their sixth District 5-6 AA championship under coach John Franco.
It was Tyrone’s first District championship appearance since 2000, and the Golden Eagles’ combination of offensive balance and smothering defense was reminiscent of their legendary predecessors, who took eye-black artistry to a new level four seasons ago on the way to a PIAA championship.
“We had two mediocre years that were bad by Tyrone standards,” said senior defensive end Max Soellner, who teamed with classmate Justin Clark twice to drop Kudlaweic in the backfield. “Then we have a great year like this. I think that makes it that much better.”
The win gave Tyrone its seventh overall championship and put the Eagles, now 11-1, into the PIAA inter-district playoffs against District 10 champion Slippery Rock. That game will be played next Friday at Mansion Park.
The Eagles’ workman-like handling of Forest Hills surprised Franco, as did his team’s effectiveness running the football. Tyrone rushed for 296 yards, led by junior Brice Mertiff’s 177 yards on 18 carries.
“I thought we blocked really well,” said Franco. “Our offensive line really controlled the line of scrimmage. Terry Tate and Justin Clark, Jake Houck, Ronnie Miller, Max Soellner and Tad Chamberlain – those guys were tough. They really did a great job against an outstanding defensive team. You just don’t run on Forest Hills.”
Running on Tyrone is no picnic either, nor is trying to get into the endzone.
Against a Tyrone defense that stopped six Ranger plays behind the line of scrimmage, just getting the ball across the 50-yard line was an exercise in futility for Forest Hills. The Rangers penetrated Tyrone territory twice on their first 11 possessions, and both times Forest Hills turned the ball back over to Tyrone in short order.
“They beat us in every aspect of the game,” said Forest Hills coach Don Bailey. “They beat us up front and we couldn’t run the ball very well. They got a lot of pressure on the quarterback. We couldn’t throw very well. Give Tyrone all the credit. They just simply outplayed us tonight.”
Forest Hills turned the ball over three plays into its first series when Ryan Wess was separated with the ball on the heels of a 21-yard pass completion. Sophomore Leonard Wilson got the recovery at the Tyrone 45, and Wess, who led the Rangers with over 600 receiving yards, left the game with an injury.
Ben Gummo missed a 34-yard field goal on the Eagles’ ensuing drive, but Tyrone got the ball back two minutes later when sophomore Brinton Mingle recovered a Nate Shall fumble at the Eagles’ 43. Four plays after taking over, Tyrone faced a third-and-one at the Ranger 31 when Wilson plowed through the line for 29 yards to the two-yard line on a quarterback sneak.
Gummo went off tackle from the two on the next play for the game’s first score, then kicked the first of four PATs to give the Eagles a 7-0 lead with 3:55 left in the first quarter.
Tyrone made it 14-0 with just over a minute to go in the first half with an 10-play, 64-yard drive that included nine rushes and one 14-yard completion from Wilson to Soellner on fourth-and-three from the Ranger 32. Four plays later, Wilson sneaked in from the two and the Eagles led 14-0.
In between scores, the Eagle defense smothered the Rangers, forcing two three-play series while limiting them to 63 first-half yards. Junior Terry Tate had four stops for zero or negative yardage in the first half alone.
“I knew I would make some big plays,” said Tate. “We had to get a good pass rush because their quarterback can throw the ball. I knew I had to do something.”
The Eagles used a six-play drive after taking the second half kick to move 37 yards, setting up a 36-yard Gummo field goal that upped their lead to 17-0. But the backbreaker came following a Brandon Maceno interception on Forest Hills’ first series of the half.
On first down from the Tyrone 48, Mertiff broke containment to the outside and outran two Ranger defenders to the endzone on a 52-yard touchdown jaunt that made it 24-0 with 7:26 left in the third quarter.
“Our line gave me a lot of separation and I had a lot of room to make cuts,” said Mertiff. “On the turf, I feel a little more confident than I do on grass, so I thought I could make it. I was kind of happy to make a long run.”
Tyrone scored once more in the fourth quarter, after Wilson picked off Kudlaweic at midfield and returned it 28 yards to the Ranger 22. A seven-play drive ended with another Wilson touchdown, this one from a yard out, making it 31-0.
Forest Hills got its score on the first series after Tyrone’s defensive starters took their curtain call. James Mehall, on in relief of Kudlaweic, found Jude Weiczorek streaking down the right sideline and hit him in stride for a 71-yard touchdown that set the final score with 1:33 to play.
Kudlaweic, who last week surpassed the 4,000-yard career passing mark, ended the game 5-of-16 for 70 yards and two interceptions.
“When you get beat up front like we got beat up front, it makes a big difference in their zone defense coverage,” said Bailey. “We didn’t get into the routes we wanted to. (Soellner) is one heck of a football player. We didn’t block him well all night. And their two inside tackles put a lot of pressure on us.”
“Max Soellner and Justin Clark and Terry Tate have done an outstanding job of rushing the quarterback,” said Franco. “Their motors are so revved up and they put so much pressure on you. Against Forest Hills, that’s what you have to do. You can’t give Brian too much time, because he’s just too good.”
Time is something Tyrone bought at least a week more of with their win, but after embracing a ‘win-now’ philosophy to start the postseason, the young Eagles, who last night started just four seniors along with two sophomores and two freshmen, aren’t satisfied with simply making it to inter-districts.
“We feel great,” said Mertiff. “A lot of people didn’t expect this because we’re young, but I think this year is the year for us. We’ve got to keep playing hard and maybe we can go all the way.”
GRID TIDBITS: Tyrone was seven for 13 on third down conversions….the Eagles had nine runs of eight yards or more…. Wilson was sacked twice….Tommy Crowl had 38 yards on three punt returns…Crowl and Wilson each had pass deflections….Weiczorek averaged 39.6 yards on six punts ….Tyrone improved to 3-0 against Forest Hills in championship games and 11-2 at Mansion Park under Franco….the win gave Franco his 100th career victory at Tyrone….the Eagles’ next opponent, Slippery Rock, is 11-1 and hasn’t lost to a team from Pennsylvania this season.