By Lynn Saternow
Herald Sports Editor
DuBOIS, PA. — Some people could say the “third time is a charm.” For the Hickory High Hornets it was much more than that. In fact, it was glorious.
After losing in the first round of the PIAA Class AA playoffs the last two years, the Hornets finally nailed down a victory with a 37-27 triumph over the Central Dragons from Martinsburg.
“What do they say ... we got the proverbial monkey off our backs,” said a happy Hornets coach Bill Brest whose team won a playoff game for the first time since 1991.
But it didn’t come easily.
The Hornets had to overcome numerous turnovers to pull out a game they trailed at halftime, 21-14.
“We made some mistakes that are uncharacteristic of our team,” said Brest, regarding 3 lost fumbles and an interception. “We preach taking care of the football. But these kids kept pushing. We’d move the ball and we were relentless on defense. We had great special teams and big plays. I have great faith in our coaches and our kids.”
Central showed it’s offensive prowess right from the start, taking the opening kickoff and marching 80 yards in eight plays for a touchdown. Outstanding quarterback Austin Cunningham hooked up with running back Bradi Moore for a 47-yard pass play for the score. Zach Slagenweit connected on his first of 3 PAT kicks for the day.
Hickory bounced back, however, after Hornet Austin Aikins recovered a fumble at midfield. Six plays later and quarterback Matt Voytik carried the final 10 yards to paydirt and Jordan Wombacker kicked his first of 5 PATs with only 19 seconds left in the first period.
Turnovers proved very costly to Hickory in the second quarter. Center scored midway through the period when Austin Conrath recovered a Voytik fumble in the end zone for a 14-7 lead.
But again Hickory bounced right back when Andrew Pryts returned the ensuing kickoff 85 yards to tie the score. “Pryts was down on himself after missing a couple of assignments (on pass coverge). But he came back with a big play. He grew up a lot today, said Brest.
Later in the frame, Pryts was hit and fumbled on a punt return and the Dragons took control at the Hickory 28. On a fourth down play from the 13, the Cunningham-Moore connection again worked for a TD and a 21-14 margin with only 1:45 left before intermission.
But again Hickory pushed back. With the aid of a couple of 15-yard penalties against Center, the Hornets moved to the 21. On the next play, Voytik broke loose and looked to be headed for a touchdown. However, he was hit and fumbled at the 1-yard line and the loose ball was recovered in the end zone for a touchback.
The Dragons then took a knee twice to head to halftime.
Turnovers again haunted Hickory early in the second half. With Hickory driving, Cunningham picked off a Voytik pass and returned it to the Hickory 39. Two plays later he threaded the needle between two Hickory defenders to Moore who scored again. The PAT kick missed, but the Dragons still led 27-14.
Still, Voytik came right back on the next series. Starting at the Hickory 25 he connected with Pryts on a 10-yard completion on the first play. A short time later, he again hit Pryts with a bullet and Pryts did the rest on a 65-yard catch-and-run TD. Wombacker’s kick cut the margin to 27-21.
A few plays later, it was a Central mistake that could have proved costly. Hornet Anthony Cannone picked off a Cunningham aerial and returned it to the Hickory 41. However, the Dragons defense rose up and forced a punt that Wombacker drilled to the 2-yard line.
The Hornets defense held and forced a punt from the 10 and Hickory took over at the Central 47.
But the drive stalled and after an exchange of punts, Hickory started at their own 10 with 6:46 to go. On the first play Voytik dropped back and fired downfield to his cousin Pryts, who hauled in the pass at the 50 and out ran everyone for a 90-yard scoring play. Wombacker’s PAT gave Hickory the lead for the first time in the game, 28-27.
Then it was up to the Hornets defense and they came through big time. On the first play, Cunningham was hit after a short gain and injured and was replaced by Noah Benton. Benton was sacked back at the 2. After an incompletion the Dragons punted and Hickory took over at the 38.
The Hornets churned out two big first downs. Then on a third down play, Voytik scored on a naked bootleg of 12-yards and Wombacker’s kick made it 35-27 with 1:19 remaining. “Coach Mac (Jason McElhaney, offensive coordinator) came me and told me about the play. He told Matt to go down if it was covered, but it was open and he took it in.”
On the ensuing kickoff, the Dragons tried a reverse but the swarming Hornets nailed Moore at the 2-yard line. On a fourth down play, Wombacker sacked Cunningham with some help from Zack Cirillo in the end zone for a safety.
Hickory then ran out the clock to move on.
“We have a lot of faith in our quarterback,” said Brest, speaking with a very hoarse voice. “He made mistakes, but he stayed positive. The coaches stayed positive and he stayed positive with the other kids. Our captains Anthony Cannone, Daulton Linton and Matt Voytik led this team to the victory.”
Next up for the Hornets is a tough task, District 7 champion South Fayette, which rolled over Karns City, 57-21, Saturday.
“In 1989 (Hickory’s state championship season when Brest was an assistant coach with the Hornets), they told us we couldn’t beat a great Steel High team. But we did. We know we will be facing a great team next week, but we’ll show up,” Brest said with a smile.
Something he couldn’t say the last two years!
Notes: Pryts, a sophomore, had a monster day with the kickoff return for a touchdown and 5 pass catches for 180 yards. ... While both teams have had solid run game this season, it was mostly passing Saturday that worked well in a dual between Voytik and Cunningham. ... Hickory moved to 12-1 on the season, the most wins for a Hornets team since that 1989 state championship season. Central finished 11-2.
HICKORY 7 7 7 16 37
CENTRAL 7 14 6 0 27
C - Moore, 47 pass from Cunningham (Slagenweit kick)
H - Voytik, 10 run (Wombacker kick)
C - Conrath fum. Rec. in end zone (Slagenweit kick)
H - Pryts, 85 kickoff ret. (Wombacker kick)
C - Moore, 13 pass from Cunningham (Slagenweit kick)
C - Moore, 38 pass from Cunningham (kick failed)
H - Pryts, 65 pass from Voytik (Wombacker kick)
H - Pryts, 90 pass from Voytik (Wombacker kick)
H - Voytik, 12 run (Wombacker kick)
H - Safety
16 First downs 9
92 Rushing yards 48
234 Passing yards 240
14-10-1 Att-comp-int 18-9-1
326 Total yards 288
3-3 Fumbles-lost 3-1
7-45 Penalties-yards lost 6-60
Rushing: HICKORY — Derloni 17-31, Voytik 10-22, Carr 7-35, Pryts 2-6, Team 2-(-2); CENTRAL — Cunningham 18-47, 4-(-8), Emerich 3-4, Conrath 3-13, Mock 1-(-15), Prokop 1-9, team 2-(-2).
Passing: HICKORY — Voytik 14-9-1-214, 1-1-0-16; CENTRAL — Cunningham 16-8-1-186, Benton 1-0-0-0, Moore 1-1-0-34
Receiving: HICKORY — Pryts 5-180, Cannone 2-36, Derloni 1-3, Voytik 1-16, Carr 1-(-1); CENTRAL — Frederick 3-99, Moore 4-97, Slagenweit 1-34, Heintel 1-6.