By Ed Farrell
Herald Assistant Sports Editor
AMBRIDGE — Brian Hoffman doesn’t have a particular taste for sweets, but the West Middlesex High head football coach will be on a sugar high for the next week.
That’s because Hoffman is headed to Hershey.
“I don’t eat candy, and the players know it, but I just may this week,” a happy Hoffman admitted.
Quarterback Kolten Hoffman threw three touchdown passes, ran for another and tossed a pair of 2-point conversions Saturday afternoon, rallying the Big Reds to a 37-30 win over WPIAL champion Clairton for the western regional Class A crown.
By virtue of the victory West Middlesex — which established a single-season Mercer County mark for wins (15) — will meet Southern Columbia 1 p.m. Friday at Hersherpark Stadium for the PIAA plateau. Southern Columbia (15-0), a 35-0 winner over Bellwood-Antis in the Eastern Regional title tilt, is the 4-time reigning commonwealth kingpin.
“This is every coach’s dream. It took me 10 years to get here, and I’m just real happy,” admitted the third-year Middlesex mentor. “It’s the biggest victory in school history. ... They came out and set the tempo, and I don’t think they were going to be denied today. They played with a real passion, and I’m just real proud of them,” Hoffman, his voice cracking with emotion, added.
Playing on a high ankle sprain that limited his mobility, Kolten Hoffman had a hand in every score, including the clincher with 76 ticks to play.
“Oh my God! It’s indescribable. We worked all year for this, but never imagined it’d come true. It’s a dream come true!” Kolten Hoffman said.
After cracking Clairton’s coverage with a 15-for-29, 172-yard passing performance through 3èquarters, Hoffman optioned right on a 2nd-and-9 play from his own 47-yard line and broke several tackles en route to a 53-yard scoring sprint. Though Josh Brown’s conversion kick was wide left, Hoffman’s heroics afforded the Big Reds a 37-30 bulge with 1:16 to play.
“We were running our ‘power scheme,’ but (Kolten Hoffman) said, ‘Coach, if I pull it (the handoff) I think I can get the corner,’ and sure enough he took it the distance,” coach Hoffman related.
“I just said, ‘Coach, if I pull that ball, I’ve got bodyguards in front of me,’ ” Kolten Hoffman echoed. “Once adrenaline kicks in, you don’t think about (the injury) too much.”
But the Bears rebounded, advancing to West Middlesex’s 21-yard line with 27 seconds remaining. Clairton QB Leroy George completed passes of 3 and 10 yards, respectively, to Deon Pompey and Kevin Weatherspoon, then scrambled for 17 yards with 39 ticks to play. However George’s next pair of passes intended for Deontae Howard and Manny Williams fell incomplete, then he was dropped for 4-yard third-down loss by blitzing Steve Andrusky.
With 8 seconds left George scrambled out of the pocket to his right, then threw across his body toward the end zone for 6-foot-6 Brittan Davenport, but the 4th-down pass was well shy of the goal line.
The Bears’ defense had mauled most opponents, but Hoffman never was sacked and intercepted just once, owing to the efforts of offensive linemates Cory Ketler, Travis Wojtalik, Jimmy Forsythe, Tyler Gilmore and Cody Kilar.
The teams were stalemated at 16 at intermission.
Clairton claimed an 8-0 edge 1:49 into the contest on Zaire Washington’s 43-yard scoring sprint and George’s 2-point conversion pass to Weatherspoon.
But Brown’s interception of George’s 3rd-and-7 first-quarter pass and ensuing 39-yard return brought the Big Reds to Clairton’s 27. Four plays later Hoffman and Lucas Allen collaborated on an 8-yard TD. Running a fade to the right corner, Allen actually was not covered in making the catch. Brown then ran for the game-tying deuce.
The Bears’ subsequent drive resulted in a punt, and the Big Reds embarked on an 11-play, 79-yard, 4-minute, 43-second march. Highlights included Hoffman’s 9- and 15-yard connections with Andrusky and Chachi Ruffo, back-to-back bursts of 10 and 8 yards by Andrusky and Brown, and ultimately Hoffman’s 5-yard TD toss to Andrusky on 2nd-and-2. On the conversion attempt Hoffman, faking a handoff to Brown to the right, instead allowed Andrusky to counter left for the 2 points and a 16-8 lead with 7:05 remaining.
Clairton clawed back to a 16-all draw on its ensuing 15-play, 77-yard, 6-minute, 59-second series, generated by George’s ad-libbing.
After completing passes of 13 and 10 yards to Weatherspoon and Williams and running 3 times for 10 yards, George was faced with 4th-and-goal from West Middlesex’s 8. Flushed out of the pocket he backpeddaled to about his 29-yard line before righting himself, running left to the near sideline, then squaring his shoulders and tossing an 8-yard TD to Davenport in the end zone’s corner with 2 ticks to play. George’s run knotted the count at intermission.
West Middlesex manufactured a go-ahead score, resulting from the second of its trio of interceptions of George. Following his pick of a 2nd-and-25 pass, Ruffo’s return to Clairton’s 46 set up the second of Hoffman’s TDs. On consecutive passes Hoffman connected with Tyler Barris and Andrusky for 18 and 13 yards and ultimately Andrusky again from 16 yards out.
Andrusky, who hauled in a handful of Hoffman hurls for 47 yards, beat a linebacker and made the running catch over his shoulder as he entered the end zone. Hoffman and Ruffo’s 2-point collaboration boosted the Big Reds’ bulge to 24-16 with 70 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
The Bears bounced back immediately, however, on Howard’s 31-yard kickoff return, 9- and 14-yard runs by George and Washington, and George’s 15-yard option keeper to the right just 35 ticks into the fourth frame. However West Middlesex’s 24-22 lead remained as George’s 2-point pass intended for Troy Webb was short.
But the Bears burst for the go-ahead score midway through the quarter.
Ruffo — who earlier had launched 65- and 46-yard punts — from his own 6-yard line floated a 28-yarder that was downed at West Middlesex’s 34. Pompey powered 22 yards on a jet sweep to the left, then the girating George jolted the Big Reds with his second score in 6èminutes, a 12-yard keeper with 5:43 remaining. His 2-point toss to Williams enabled Clairton to claim a 30-24 lead.
The Big Reds rallied on their subsequent series, an 11-play, 72-yard drive in which Hoffman connected with Barris, Andrusky and Brown for gains of 23, 3 and 17 yards.
However Hoffman’s highlight was a 4th-and-10 pass to Barris from Clairton’s 21-yard line with 3:57 left. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound Barris, running a waggle from right to left, hauled in Hoffman’s pass for a drive-sustaining 12-yard gain to the 9. Two plays later Hoffman heaved to Andrusky from 6 yards out for the game-tying TD, then Brown booted the conversion for a 31-30 Big Reds’ bulge with 3:15 left.
Lucas Allen’s interception of George’s 3rd-and-6 pass from his own 44-yard line thwarted Clairton’s next-to-last drive. Although George rushed for 93 yards, he completed only 6 of 17 passes for 51 yards, plus the 3 pickoffs.
The magnitude of Middlesex’s memorable season is not lost on the Hoffmans.
“It’s amazing! For years and years and years Middlesex was happy to win two games in a football season. But I’ve had people come up to me and say they’ve been waiting so long for this. This is incredible to be able to inspire the community like this!” Mercer County’s career yards passing leader admitted.
“Maybe somewhere in the back of your mind, I think every coach has that (PIAA championship game) aspiration and you try to sell that to the kids,” head coach Hoffman said. “But I knew I had a special group, and it takes people staying healthy, it takes a game plan, it takes the players making plays. So a lot of things have to go right for your team to get there, and I’m just so proud to be having that opportunity next week.
“I’m not a West Middlesex kid, but you know what?” Hoffman rhetorically asked, continuing, “I’ve been in the community for a while, and I know what (this season) means. I know where the program’s come from to where it is now, and I know a lot of people had a lot to do with that. The administration at the school is great, the school board gives a lot of support, and the community and the Gridiron Club and the parents are outstanding. I work in a good school system, and I’m just glad we’re able to provide them with this opportunity.”
PIAA CLASS A
WESTTERN REGIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP
W.MIDDLESEX 8 8 8 13 37
CLAIRTON 8 8 0 14 30
C — Z. Washington, 43 run (Weatherspoon pass from George)
WM — Allen 8 pass from Hoffman (Brown run)
WM — Andrusky, 5 pass from Hoffman (Andrusky pass from Hoffman)
WM — Andrusky, 1 pass from Hoffman (Ruffo pass from Hoffman)
C — George, 15 run (pass failed)
C — George, 12 run (Williams pass from George)
WM — Andrusky, 6 pass from Hoffman (Brown kick)
WM — Hoffman, 53 run (kick failed)
13 First downs 19
92 Rushing yards 272
172 Passing yards 51
29-15-1 Att-comp-int 17-6-3
264 Total yards 323
1-0 Fumbles-lost 1-0
2-21 Penalties-yards lost 6-50è
Rushing: WEST MIDDLESEX — Hoffman 3-53, Brown 10-24, Andrusky 8-16, Alen 1-(1); CLAIRTON — Z. Washington 18-129, George 21-93, Rochelle 7-28, Pompey 2-22.
Passing: WEST MIDDLESEX — Hoffman 29-15-1, 172; CLAIRTON — George 17-6-3, 51; Webb 1-0-0.
Receiving: WEST MIDDLESEX — Barris 5-89, Andrusky 5-47, Brown 3-13, Ruffo 1-15, Allen 1-8; CLAIRTON — Weatherspoon 2-23, Williams 1-13, Davenport 1-8, Rochelle 1-7, Pompey 1-3.
By Ed Farrell