Antonio Epps powers South Allegheny past South Park in Interstate Conference battle

Friday, October 16, 2020 | 11:44 PM

South Allegheny needed a win to keep any hopes of a wild-card appearance in the WPIAL Class 3A playoffs alive, and that’s exactly what they got.

A gladiator-like effort from senior running back Antonio Epps on senior night gave South Allegheny a much-needed win over South Park, 14-7, at Glassport Stadium.

Epps rushed for 676 yards in five games coming into the night and needed 216 to break the school’s longstanding single-season rushing yards record. Epps came up just shy of that mark in an impressive 192-yard outing, not only rushing for major yardage and scoring both South Allegheny touchdowns but also hauling in a game-saving interception with less than five minutes to play.

“Antonio is a heck of a young man,” Gladiators coach Frank Cortazzo said. “We knew that this is not just his record; it’s a team record. It’s been around for 23 years, since I played back in the day. The kids were up for this. They wanted to see him walk away with it and go get the W.”

The Gladiators opening the game on a six-play drive that ended with an 11-yard touchdown run by Epps.

Then, the scoring came to a grinding halt.

South Allegheny and South Park traded turnovers, keeping each other off the scoreboard for the remainder of the first half.

Twice, South Park running back Alex Yanity fumbled, and both times the ball was recovered by Gladiators juniors Dillion Hynes. In between those drives, South Allegheny also fumbled and South Park recovered, but none of the first-half turnovers resulted in points.

South Park was looking at a lengthy drive if it was going to score to end the first half, but an Adam Johnson fumble was recovered by the Gladiators with 27 seconds left. South Allegheny worked quickly to get in position and score before the end of the second, but after spiking the ball with what appeared to be one second on the clock, the officials ruled that time had expired and the Gladiators didn’t get their shot.

South Park looked more comfortable in the third quarter, putting together a lengthy drive. Going for it on fourth-and-inches, Johnson was stopped by the Gladiators defense and South Allegheny took over on downs.

With the ball in the hands of Epps, who amassed 142 yards in the first half, the Gladiators marched back into the end zone with 1:06 to play in the third on a 6-yard carry for six points. Epps ran in the 2-point conversion, taking ownership of all 14 points scored by South Allegheny, running behind a solid Gladiators blocking crew that consisted of everyone from offensive linemen to wide receivers.

“Louis Campano, Will Hynes, Eric Park, Travis Mullen, Damon Campano — those guys have really worked very hard. They’re the key to it. If they get some blocks, the sky’s the limit,” Cortazzo said.

Facing a 14-0 deficit, South Park marched down the field in just 2:19 to score the Eagles’ lone touchdown of the game, a 6-yard run by Johnson to pull within a score of the home team.

With less than five minutes to play, South Park was threatening a tying touchdown. Sophomore quarterback Harper Conroy launched a 22-yard pass to the end zone, but Epps came through on defense, swiping the ball out of the air with a one-handed grab, to dash the Eagles’ hopes one more time.

“We take a lot of pride in the defensive performance, try to fly around to the ball and cause turnovers,” Cortazzo said of his defense, which caused four turnovers on three fumbles and an interception.

South Park wouldn’t go away. After getting a stop, the Eagles had one final drive to tie the game. Facing third-and-long, Conroy had time and scrambled before the Gladiators defense broke through as they’d done and threatened to do for the bulk of the game, sacking Conroy for a 15-yard loss and bringing up fourth-and-30.

Conroy was replaced by Xander Robertshaw for one play so the Eagles could take a Hail Mary attempt, but it was picked off by Epps with three seconds left.

Not so fast.

The Gladiators were flagged for pass interference and Conroy returned to give it one final shot at a game-tying score. His heave to the back of the end zone went right through the hands of Eagles wide receiver Brendan Wood to bring the game to a close, a 14-7 victory for South Allegheny, keeping the hopes alive for a slim chance at a wild-card spot in the modified WPIAL postseason.

“I hope we get a shot because I think this team has definitely improved and turned it around this season and deserves a shot at the postseason,” Cortazzo said. “We wanted that win last week against Elizabeth Forward, and it didn’t happen, but we told the kids we just have to win out and give ourselves a chance, and we did that tonight.”

The Interstate Conference season comes to a close with South Allegheny sporting a 3-3 mark, with the losses coming by a touchdown or less each game. The Gladiators will wrap the regular season next week visiting nonconference Deer Lakes, hoping to add another win to the resume in Cortazzo’s first season at the helm.

“We have a good team and we’re going to try to keep rolling the same way we’ve done the last four weeks, go out with a winning season, and hopefully get a shot at the playoffs,” he said.

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