By Ed Farrell
Herald Assistant Sports Editor
SLIPPERY ROCK — Brett Brumbaugh brought Bill Brest back to reality.
Brest seemed, Saturday afternoon, momentarily lost in thought when a post-game question was posed. Perhaps it was because it had been 3 months since he had experienced the disappointment of defeat.
Brumbaugh-led South Fayette’s football team short-circuited a splendid season a step shy of the statewide stage for Brest and Hickory High with a 23-20 win over the Hornets in the PIAA Class AA western regional championship game.
“ ... We just ran out of time ... ” Brest assessed from Bob DiSpirito Field at Slippery Rock University’s Mihalik-Thompson Stadium.
Brumbaugh’s brigade broke the Hornets’ hearts by erasing a 14-9 halftime deficit, snapping the Stingers’ 11-game win skein that had stretched from its lone prior setback, Sept. 6.
J.J. Walker went 4 yards on the 3rd period’s next-to-last play and Brumbaugh bagged Conner Beck with a subsequent 2-point conversion, forging Fayette to a 17-14 lead.
The play was set up when the teams traded turnovers within a span of seconds. Andrew Pryts recovered Hunter Hayes’ fumble at Hickory’s 17-yard line with 2:16 remaining in the 3rd. On the ensuing play, however, Hickory’s Charles Carr coughed up the ball at the 17, and it was covered by Fayette’s Ryan Schmider.
Only a junior, Brumbaugh has broken — or is on the verge of breaking — every single-game, single-season and career WPIAL passing statistic. But Brumbaugh, against Hickory, posted pedestrian numbers: 22 of 37 for 175 yards, an interception and 2 sacks.
However with the Hornets having to drop into coverage in order to contain Brumbaugh and 1,000-yard receivers Justin Watson and Beck, Grant Fetchet fueled Fayette.
With 10:20 remaining in the 4th frame and the Lions leading 17-14 Fetchet high-stepped to a 37-yard scoring sprint as South Fayette assumed a 23-14 edge.
“We knew they were gonna make plays, we knew that they might nickel-and-dime us, which was fine because of the potency of their type of offense,” Brest said. “Our game-plan worked again ... we just ran out of time.”
However, whereas Brest’s scouting reported noted South Fayette passed approximately 63 percent of the time, the Lions largely ran the ball after intermission.
Fetchet finished with a game-high 22-carry, 159-yard, 2-TD rushing performance, helping forge Fayette (15-0) to the PIAA championship game for the 2nd time in 4 years. Fetchet fashioned 118 yards rushing after intermission, while Brumbaugh brokered only a 6-for-12, 49-yard, 2nd-half passing performance. During the 1st half Brumbaugh burned the Hornets for 126 yards on 16-for-25 accuracy.
South Fayette finished with 391 total yards, but considerably more from its ground game (216) than Brumbaugh’s bevy of receivers (175). Also, offensively, it seemed as though the Lions left the field very seldom, running 77 plays from scrimmage.
“We, sometimes, are hard-headed and don’t want to run the football; we love throwin’ it,” related Joe Rossi, South Fayette’s head coach. “But they were dropping nine guys. So at halftime we said we’ve gotta come out and do a better job with our run-offense, and the second half, I think we did.”
“We got pressure on the quarterback; nobody could do that. We took some things away from them. Defensively, our kids played great,” Brest praised after Anthony Cannone copped an interception and fumble recovery and Zack Cirillo secured a pair of sacks, forcing 4 South Fayette turnovers.
“When we’re dropping eight, nine, sometimes ten in coverage, we were rolling the dice with that, and that was one of my biggest fears coming in — them possibly being able to run the football,” Brest admitted. “And they did. But we stole their signals. We knew they were running the ball, but they did a nice job executing.”
Fetchet and Brumbaugh benefitted from the Lions’ line of center Spencer Girman, guards Zach Radinick and Zach Walker, tackles Ben Berkowitz, Davidson and Jason Sears, and tight end Logan Sharp.
’Stingers’ signal-caller Matt Voytik vaulted Hickory to that 14-9 margin at intermission by turning a pair of read-options to the left into 56- and 26-yard 1st-half scoring sprints.
Those sandwiched a safety Voytik was forced to take 54 seconds into the 2nd stanza when the Lions mauled him for consecutive sacks off edge blitzes, the 2nd by end Anthony Davidson.
But from the time of Voytik’s 2nd score — with 70 seconds remaining in the 1st half — until his 3rd — a 4th-and-goal, 1-yard dive with 38.9 seconds left — the ’Stingers were not moving the sticks.
“We did have a little trouble moving the ball offensively,” Brest began. “And I also thought one of the keys was that we lost field position in the second half. (South Fayette) did a smart thing: They kicked into the wind, so they could get the wind in the fourth quarter. But we lost field position, and that was one of the biggest things in the game, I thought, in the second half.”
The Stingers’ first 6 second-half series ended in 4 punts, the aforementioned fumble, and on downs at South Fayette’s 32-yard line with 7:57 left.
Down 2 scores Hickory had life when Cirillo sacked Brumbaugh on a 4th-and-8 from the Hornets’ 26 with 4:06 left.
An ensuing 13-play, 74-yard drive resulted in Voytik’s plunge, drawing Hickory within 23-20. However Jordan Wombacker’s ensuing on-side kickoff was covered by Beck.
“They hit us with a couple sets in the first half, got number four (Voytik) loose on a couple unbalanced sets, which was nice design on their part. But we made some adjustments ... and played well,” summarized Rossi, who returns to Hershey with another Brumbaugh.
In 2010 quarterback Christian Brumbaugh and the Lions lost to Philadelphia-West Catholic.
“They’re just great, tremendous quarterbacks that have led us there,” Rossi related. “It’s just a great family of quarterbacks, there’s three brothers. They’re just tremendous and have done a great job.
“(South Fayette’s 11 seniors) set the goal at the beginning of the season to win a conference title, to win a WPIAL title ... there’s a lot of pride in that, and getting to Hershey with a chance to win a state championship,” Rossi added.
Unlike Rossi, however, Brest will bid adieu to his seniors, including Voytik, Cannone, Daulton Linton, De’Quan Lewis, Dylan Brenneman, Tyler Reardon, Zach Walters, Kenny Ezi-Ashi, Toby Alexander, Blase Hudson, Chase Brown, and Michael Steach.
“ ... It breaks my heart that they don’t get to go to Hershey,” Brest began. “They’re a great group of kids, champions on and off the football field. I’m just so proud of them.
“The winningest football senior class in the history of Hickory High School (43-9, including 12-2 this season), highest GPAs (grade-point-averages) of any team in the history of Hickory High School. ... We had great senior leadership this year, and, doggone it, I’m so proud of them and proud of the coaches,” Brest concluded.