IMPERIAL, Pa. — The guys on WBVP radio said Avonworth finally made it over the Beaver-County hump en route to the WPIAL Championship following Friday’s 41-14 victory over Riverside.
More specifically, the hump was a 15-mile stretch of Route 65 between Riverside and Freedom.
Since the team’s last WPIAL Championship appearance in 2014, the Antelopes were eliminated in 2016 and 2017 by Riverside and by Freedom in 2018 before Friday night’s win.
The bypass through Route 65 may be worth it on their way to Norwin High School where the Antelopes will take on No. 1 Washington.
“It’s big for our community and our school,” said quarterback Park Penrod. “We’ve been here a few times, but we’ve gotten a lot of love from our community. We’ve been striving for it, working hard, it’s good to see it pay off.”
This group of Avonworth seniors meddled around .500 the past three seasons and had one playoff win to show for it, but felt this season there was a chance to win the team’s first outright WPIAL Championship (the team split a championship with Union in 1959).
“We seniors, the last three seasons we’ve been through heartbreak, not being able to get past the first or second round. We’ve been hungry all those years, we got so close and we can’t get there. We’ve been hungry. We’ve been chomping at the bit to show we can do it.”
The Antelopes defense, which came into the game surrendering 10 points per game, stopped Riverside twice inside the 10-yard line and led 13-0 late in the second quarter.
Avonworth’s offense started to click in the second half, scoring three touchdowns and adding a pick six to seal the victory.
“Our defense was strong in the red zone, they answered the call when they needed to,” said Avonworth coach Duke Johncour. “It was huge for our defense to be able to shut them out in the first half when they were inside the 10-yard line.”
“Our defense definitely leads the team,” said senior Jax Miller. “Sometimes our offense doesn’t always contribute as much as we should, but our defense is solid every single time. Our motto is ‘bend don’t break’, and there will be times where it’s been fourth-and-two and we get a stop. We haven’t been scored on a lot in the red zone.”
Statistically, Avonworth’s defense is the best in Class 2A at 10.6 points per game and trails only Thomas Jefferson, Central Catholic, Peters Township, Aliquippa, Sto-Rox and Jeannette as far as average points per game go (five of those six teams are also playing for WPIAL Championships).
Riverside entered the game as the sweetheart story of the playoffs as the No. 14 seeded Panthers needed another strong offensive performance in order to pull off another upset.
The Panthers scored 42 and 41 points in the first two rounds against Burgettstown and McGuffey, but faced a much tougher task in Avonworth.
The defense limited four-year starting quarterback Ben Hughes to 173 passing yards and two interceptions. Hughes’ final three passes accounted for 119 yards.
Senior running back Hunter Nulph and Hughes combined for 114 rushing yards in the loss.
“They’re a good football team, give them all the credit in the world. We had a couple opportunities in the first half, didn’t cash in, and they took it to us a little bit in the second half,” said Riverside coach Ron Sciarro.
The loss was the third time in the past four seasons the Panthers were eliminated in the WPIAL semifinals.
NOTES FROM THE PRESS BOX
Senior running back Jax Miller laid flat on his back on the sideline following his 20th carry of the night, a 70-yard touchdown that put his team up 33-0 on the first play of the fourth quarter.
He had a smile on his face and said he wasn’t tired, more enjoying a moment of levity with his teammates.
Even if he didn’t admit it, Miller had to have been tired following his last two rushing performances against New Brighton and Riverside.
Miller rushed for 254 yards on 20 carries and four touchdowns to go along with his 231 yards on 25 carries and two touchdowns last week against New Brighton.
“Jax is special, he’s absolutely special,” said Avonworth coach Duke Johncour. “He’s flown under the radar, but he’s one of the best players in the WPIAL, and it showed tonight.”
“It feels so good (to have him in the backfield),” said quarterback Park Penrod. “To be able to take that pressure off me and open up the passing game. Teams can’t ignore Jax in the backfield, and it opens things up for the passing game.”
Without showing much of the wildcat formation in the first half, Avonworth opened the third quarter with nine consecutive runs from the wildcat led by running back Jax Miller. The drive ended with a 12-yard touchdown run as quarterback Park Penrod spent most of the second half on the sideline.
Miller carried the load offensively, but a few rushes by Ian Syam in the second half upped the team’s total rushing yards to just under 300 in a win that showed the offense’s diversity.
“We ran it a lot last week and it worked really well for us, so we said we’d try it and see what it does for us. It worked well and we stuck with it,” said Penrod.
“Once we tried the wildcat and it was working every single time, I told them, ‘Keep running wildcat, give me the ball, I want it and I’m just going to shove it down their throats,’” said Miller.
Penrod entered the game with 26 touchdowns and just five interceptions, but threw two against the Panthers, both by Josh Bishop.
“We saw a lot of one-on-ones, they play a lot of man and we love our receivers against theirs,” said Penrod. “Those (interceptions) were my fault I still have confidence though, I’m not afraid to throw it. I’ll always take shots.”