2 interception returns lift Steelton-Highspire past Jeannette in PIAA Class A football final

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Friday, November 27, 2020 | 2:10 PM


HERSHEY — Steelton-Highspire did to Jeannette what the Jayhawks did to opponents all season: get defensive scores.

Steelton-Highspire returned two interceptions for touchdowns in the fourth quarter and held on to defeat Jeannette, 32-20, on Friday at Hersheypark Stadium to capture its third PIAA Class A football title.

Daivin Pryor’s 79-yard interception return gave Steelton-Highspire a 24-14 lead early in the fourth quarter.

After Jeannette scored quickly on a 47-yard touchdown pass from Roberto Smith Jr. to James Sanders to make it 24-20, Steelton-Highspire’s Damein Hammond thwarted the Jayhawks’ comeback by returning an interception 74 yards for a touchdown with 1 minute, 27 seconds left.

It was Jeannette’s fourth championship game appearance. The Jayhawks won in 2007 and ’17.

“I know it stings right now, but there were two teams left in the state finals, and we were one of them,” Jeannette coach Roy Hall said. “I told them that after the game, but right now it doesn’t register.

“In a few days it will. They accomplished a lot. Honestly, no one ever thought we’d be here, but they were here.”

Even though Jeannette’s defense allowed more than 200 rushing yards, it forced five turnovers, including two in the fourth quarter that gave the offense a chance to win the game.

“I knew it would come down to a play late,” Steelton-Highspire coach Andrew Erby said. “We were fortunate enough to make them. Those cats played their hearts out, also. I was proud to be part of this game.”

Jeannette had trouble running the ball against Steel-High’s defense, but Smith Jr. played well at quarterback in his second start of the season.

Smith Jr., a senior starting under center in place of freshman Brad Birch, who was out with a broken bone in his left foot, completed 22 of 42 passes for 382 yards, two touchdowns and four interceptions. He also rushed for a score.

The Jayhawks had leads of 7-0 and 14-7 in the first half but had trouble stopping Steelton-Highspire’s running game. Odell Greene rushed for 201 yards and a score.

Smith Jr. connected on a 34-yard scoring strike to Brett Birch in the first quarter.Birch made a twisting, over-the-shoulder catch in the end zone. Smith Jr. scored on a 4-yard run in the second quarter after Taishaun Jamison stopped Steel-High punter Jaeion Perry’s fake punt at the Steel-High 35.

Steel-High got a 50-yard touchdown catch by Mehki Flowers in the first quarter, and Greene scored from the 1 late in the second quarter as the teams entered halftime tied 14-14.

Steel-High took a 17-14 lead in the third quarter when Bryan Hernandez booted a 22-yard field goal. Hernandez’s field goal beat Bishop Guilfoyle in the semifinals.

Jeannette was driving midway through the fourth quarter when Pryor stepped in front of Kaelan Piscar to pick off Smith Jr.’s pass and weaved his way 79 yards for the score with 6:27 left.

After a 30- yard kickoff return by Birch, Smith Jr. found Sanders on a wide receiver screen, and he raced 47 yards for a score to make it 24-20. Sanders had five catches for 112 yards.

Jeannette’s defense, which had forced 50 turnovers entering the game, needed to come up big on the ensuing drive and did. Greene was stripped by Ryan Kimmel, and sophomore Elijah Binakonsky recovered at the Jeannette 25.

On first down, Smith Jr. was called for intentional grounding, putting the ball back to the Jeannette 5.

On the next play, the snap got away from Smith Jr. in the end zone, but he managed to pick it up and throw it while falling out of the back of the end zone. Greene intercepted and but fumbled when Birch stripped and recovered the ball at the Jeannette 12.

On the next play, Smith Jr. hit Cline with a screen pass, and the senior raced 46 yards to the Steel-High 42 before Hammond made a touchdown-saving tackle. Cline, who missed Jeannette’s semifinal win over Reynolds, had seven catches for 149 yards.

The Jayhawks moved to the Steel-High 26, but that’s when Hammond picked off Smith Jr. and raced for the clinching score.

“We’re a family,” Cline said. “We don’t ever want to give up on each other. We just made too many mistakes.”

Birch finished with six catches for 98 yards. He and Cline also intercepted passes.

Hall also didn’t want to play the “what if” game. Missing Brad Birch hurt, but he agreed Smith Jr. played well.

“I don’t want to take anything away from what Roberto did for us,” Hall said. “For being a backup quarterback, he stepped in and did a wonderful job. Who knows what would have happened if Brad played?”

Hall also was pleased how the defense stayed tough in the back-and-forth game.

“We did a good job holding them in check,” Hall said. “That was a high-powered offense. We had an opportunity and we had momentum, but some things didn’t go right.”

Paul Schofield is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Paul by email at pschofield@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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