Avonworth punches ticket to Hershey for first time in program history with win over Wilmington

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Friday, November 29, 2019 | 9:53 PM


The Avonworth Antelopes will play for a state championship for the first time in program history.

The fact that they accomplished something so significant was special, but how they went about their 33-21 PIAA Class 2A semifinal victory over District 10 champion Wilmington made the Hershey’s chocolate during their postgame meeting that much sweeter.

Four seconds into the fourth quarter, the Antelopes (15-0) found themselves trailing in a game for the first time this season. The Greyhounds (12-1) had just taken a one-point lead when junior quarterback Caelan Bender wiggled his way into the end zone from a yard out on a quarterback keeper.

So, Avonworth coach Duke Johncour looked at the guy who has done so much for his team all season long and told him to go to work.

“It was important for us to do what we kept doing,” Johncour said. “I looked at Jax (Miller) and told him it was time to take over and do what you do, and he had some big runs and some big plays and did a great job.”

Before Wilmington’s go-ahead score, Miller had only mustered 47 yards on 15 carries after running for 291 yards and four touchdowns on 43 carries in the WPIAL Class 2A championship game against Washington.

But the Avonworth running back went to work. He broke off big runs of 8, 31 and 16 yards, then capped off the 11-play, 77-yard drive with a 3-yard touchdown run that gave his team a five-point lead after a failed two-point conversion.

“We were just saying it’s a battle of inches. You just gotta get one inch and we’ll fight for those yards,” Miller, who finished with 130 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries, said of the talk in the huddle during that drive. “It starts on the line, and if we can get a good push, we just had to keep moving and try and score.”

While Miller gave Avonworth the lead, senior quarterback Park Penrod was the Antelope that answered the call throughout the game Friday at Slippery Rock High School.

He completed nine of his 14 passes for 163 yards and three touchdowns. Anytime the Greyhounds countered an Avonworth score, Penrod put his team in position to answer, and the biggest instance came just before the half.

Bender had scored on an 8-yard touchdown run with 32.7 seconds remaining in the half to tie it at 14.

The Antelopes returned the ensuing kickoff to the 48-yard line. Penrod completed a 15-yard pass to Jake Horigan, spiked with ball with 15 seconds left, then found Theo Newhouse for a 37-yard touchdown pass to put the Antelopes up 20-14 heading into the half.

“I don’t really remember much of it. It was all in the moment,” Penrod said. “All I know was that I was playing my heart out.”

Penrod may have not of been able to recall the play sequence, but Johncour knew how big his senior quarterback was when he needed him most.

“That was huge, huge,” Johncour said. “We knew we had a mismatch on the corners and our kid got behind him, and it was just a great pass and a great catch.”

Just a week ago, the Antelopes won the first outright WPIAL title in school history. Now, they’ll go and play for their first-ever state championship. What does that feel like for a school venturing into uncharted territory?

“It’s exciting,” Johncour said amidst a large group of Avonworth spectators and fans. “The community is excited. I mean, look at the community people around this. It’s just great.”

Avonworth will play District 4 champion Southern Columbia at 1 p.m. Friday, Dec. 6 at Hersheypark Stadium.

Greg Macafee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Greg by email at gmacafee@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

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