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High School Football

A Year in the Making: Penn Hills Had to Have This Win Over Gateway

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When Penn Hills lost to Gateway earlier this season, a 41-13 loss at Yuhas-McGinley Stadium, it hurt. But a 14-0 loss to Gateway in the 2020 WPIAL 5-A quarterfinals at Antimarino Stadium, well, that hurt a bit more. It was a loss that Indians sophomore Amir Key never forgot.

And with time slipping away late in 2021’s rendition of the WPIAL 5-A quarterfinal game between Penn Hills and Gateway, Key found himself with just one thought in his head as the Indians lined up inside the five with the game on the line.

“I’m like, ‘I gotta get this, I gotta get this,'” Key told PSN. “We were here last year, my seniors got sent home crying, I had to get that. I needed that bad.”

Key took a direct snap in shotgun, with sophomore quarterback Julian Dugger coming out for a player after leading the PH’s offense the length of the field on basically one leg, and bounced a run to the outside, following his blocker. Key dashed into the corner of the end zone, restoring a once 17 point lead that had slowly evaporated over the course of the second half with just 40.6 seconds left on the clock.

With a 17-0 lead at the halftime break, courtesy of one- and 35-yard touchdown runs from Dugger, and a 30-yard field goal, Penn Hills looked well on their way to a semifinals matchup with just 24 minutes left to play. However, as Dugger missed large chunks of the second half due to intense cramping he experienced in both calves, Gateway clawed back into the game.

And for Key, he wouldn’t have had it any other way. “Oh, it’s the playoffs, you expect it,” Key said. “You just gotta fight back, fight harder.”

Gateway sophomore quarterback Brad Birch and senior wide receiver Patrick Body Jr., after a very, very slow start, finally began to heat up, connecting on a 78-yard catch-and-run touchdown in the third quarter and then a go-ahead 19-yard touchdown strike with just under three minutes remaining in the game — Birch passing for 320 yards and three touchdowns with Body racking up 111 of those yards and two touchdowns.

As Dugger sat on the sidelines for large parts of the second half, watching Birch will the Gators back into the game, he didn’t let it impact his mental game. And even with limited success in trying to get back into the game at points in the second half, he came out under center with the game on the line.

“I was still cramping, but I knew I had to stay on the field no matter what ’cause that could’ve been our last drive of the season,” Dugger told PSN. “We weren’t going out like that, just had to make a play and came out with the win.”

With the ball on their 41-yard line after a Gateway squib kick, Dugger limped back out on the field and mustered enough strength to convert a 15-yard for a first down before firing a deep strike 41 yards to senior Chase Barney — setting up on the Gateway three-yard line.

“I never put my head down really,” Dugger said. “After the North Hills game, I knew our team got what it has to fight back when we’re down and go score at the end of the game. So, I never lost hope and I believed in us at all times.”

After a 2-3 start to the season, in the midst of a close game against North Hills in early October, Penn Hills fought to a 35-29 victory at home to get back to .500 and kickoff the start of a six-game winning streak. However, while the results have been great since then, the bond built in that game laid the foundation of the streak.

Key’s touchdown with 40.6 seconds left, capping a 77-yard night on the ground, didn’t put the Gators away though. Birch and the Gateway offense battled downfield on their star sophomore’s arm and managed to set up a 30-yard field goal to force a tie. It appeared that an initial kick sailed through the uprights, but after the play was blown dead before the snap for encroachment, the second kick sailed wide. And that finally sealed the win.

For the Penn Hills’ seniors, the chance of Friday’s game being the final game of their high school careers was a real possibility. But Dugger didn’t want to chance it for the group of seniors which includes his older brother Jaden, especially after last season’s loss in the same game.

“It could’ve been [Jaden’s] last game,” Dugger said. “We told him before the game, ‘this is not going to be your last game and just go to prove that we’re the best at what we do.'”

Penn Hills proved to be the best on Friday, and while Gateway wasn’t the final game of Jaden’s — or any of the Indians’ seniors — high school career, next Friday could be. So, Dugger is going to keep studying Moon, keep watching film on Moon, keep game-planning for Moon and keep practicing… for Moon.

With Moon defeating Woodland Hills, 21-13, Friday night, Penn Hill’s semifinal opponent is set. The top-seeded Tigers will play the Gators, but Key didn’t care who his opponent was going to be. He just wants to keep winning now.

“I want ’em both,” Key said. “I just want to go to Heinz, man.”

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker

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