PITTSBURGH — As the South Fayette Lions approached halftime, their season was hanging on the line. Trailing 21-7 in the WPIAL Class 4-1 final at Heinz Field Saturday, their defense could not get off the field and their offense could not move well enough to keep up.
However, before things began to spiral apart, the Lions dug deep. They went on a two-minute scoring drive to kick a 47-yard field goal, which limited the deficit to 21-10 at the half. That is when the game changed and South Fayette went onto outscore Thomas Jefferson 21-3 in the second half to ensure the 31-24 win.
The game swung on the opening kick off of the half. South Fayette took the kick into Thomas Jefferson territory and score two plays later. Thomas Jefferson was fazed and did not recover similarly to their opponent.
“I thought the game swung when they got that kick return,” Thomas Jefferson head coach Bill Cherpak admitted. “They scored so fast it swung momentum. We had a hard time recovering.”
The score on offense to cut the lead to 21-17 ignited the defense. A group that allowed eight third down conversions on ten tries in the first half limited Thomas Jefferson to 2 of 8 on third down in the second half.
“At halftime, we told everyone that we needed to play more physical,” South Fayette defensive tackle Tom Elia said. “We have to stop their run. We knew we were not playing our game, whether it be 3rd and 1 or 3rd and 8, we needed to set the tone with physicality.”
The physicality did set the tone and despite two TJ drives into South Fayette territory, two turnovers were forced. That gave the offense good field position, a lead and the chance to win the WPIAL championship.
SPECIAL TEAMS WERE SPECIAL
When you get out-gained, 427-275 and only have possession of the football for 13:50, it is hard to win a football game, let alone a WPIAL championship. South Fayette did just that. How? Special teams.
While Thomas Jefferson felt the momentum swing on a huge kick off return to start the half, South Fayette started feeling the comeback when a kick was made to close the half. Ryan Coe drilled a 47-yarder into the open end of Heinz Field to cut the lead to 21-10 before the half.
“The kick return was huge, but the kick before the half started it,” South Fayette head coach Ben Coyne said. “A 47-yarder in Heinz Field, that was no chip shot. People do not look at that as a huge win but it was a huge kick for us.”
That wasn’t the end of the special night for the special unit. Later in the second half, Eamon Horowitz blocked a punt that led to South Fayette points.
“Eamon Horowitz has a knack for blocking kicks,” Coyne said. “I think he has blocked five or six of them. He is a wrestler type, a gritty kid.”
South Fayette was doing all of the little things. That included field position. South Fayette had 123 kick return yards, their opposition had zero. Ryan Coe is a weapon to kick long field goals in high school, but also helps dominate field position.
“The 20-yard line makes it tough,” Coyne acknowledged of his opponents starting mark. “Coe was awesome, he may kick on Sundays someday as he continues to grow.”
Kick returns, blocked punts, long kicks and touchbacks. That is how you win a game without the ball in your hands much.
South Fayette held onto the lead, but not before being tested with it twice. Early in the fourth quarter, the Lions made a stuff on fourth down to turn the ball over. Inside the 10-yard line with the game on the line, cornerback Mike Trimbur won the game on a game saving interception.
“He ran a fade,” said Trimbur, walking through the play. “He started to roll across the front of the end zone. I wanted to tail off a bit to get the quarterback to throw it to him, then it was crash in hard.”
Trimbur was there, and seemingly everywhere else on the field, too. He caught five passes for 135 yards and two touchdowns, he made sticks against the run and he made the play of the game when it mattered the most.
“(Trimbur) is such a great athlete,” Cherpak said. “We knew he was great coming in but he made so many plays for them.”
It was almost destined for Trimbur to win the game. Another key factor to the second half comeback was a strong ability to shut down the run game. This required loading the box and leaving Trimbur on an island. South Fayette was confident in this matchup, and it paid off in the end.
When asked how he felt after Trimbur made the interception, Coyne smiled and simply said “relief.”