Blocked field goal return helps No. 2 Central Valley roll past Laurel Highlands in quarterfinals

Friday, November 11, 2022 | 10:28 PM

A blocked field goal returned for a touchdown proved to swing the momentum to Central Valley as the second-seeded Warriors picked up a 36-7 victory over No. 7 Laurel Highlands in the quarterfinals of the WPIAL Class 4A playoffs Friday night at Sarge Alberts Stadium in Monaca.

The Mustangs lined up for a 37-yard field goal with time winding down in the first half, but the Warriors’ Rylan Jeter blocked the kick and teammate Deniro Simpson scooped up the football and returned it 66 yards for a touchdown as Central Valley went into the halftime with a 14-0 lead after Serafino DeSantis made the second of four PATs.

“This weather just played havoc with this early part of the game,” Central Valley coach Mark Lyons said. “We had great field position early on and didn’t take advantage of it, but our guys didn’t waver. I kept telling our guys, ‘There are plays to be made.’ I didn’t know if it’s going to come from our offense, defense or special teams, but we made a play from the special teams, and that kind of got our swagger back.”

Laurel Highlands coach Rich Kolesar echoed Lyons’ statement that the play was a game changer.

“That’s deflating (the blocked kick and score),” Kolesar said. “We really thought we had a chance to score three points there and make it a four-point game there at halftime. With the elements and everything, it was a tough snap, and sometimes that happens.”

The Warriors (10-1) advance to the WPIAL Class 4A semifinals next week against No. 3 Thomas Jefferson (8-3) at a site and time to be determined, while Laurel Highlands’ season ends at 8-3.

“I told my kids after the game, ‘Thank you and I love you,’” Kolesar said. “They elevated this program. That is what I wanted to do, but they elevated this program. I am proud of them and I love them.”

Friday’s result also ends the career of one of the best players to suit up for the Mustangs in Rodney Gallagher.

The senior West Virginia recruit rushed for 133 yards on 23 carries and one touchdown.

“He (Gallagher) is a great athlete and I thought we did a great job throughout the game in containing him,” Lyons said. “Obviously, he broke loose there, but our guys bend a little bit. You are going to have that when you have a superior athlete. These guys have played a lot of big football games for this program, and they know how to respond to tough situations because they have been in them.”

Laurel Highlands came in as an underdog to Central Valley, but it proved it belonged by holding the Warriors’ offense in check for most of the first half.

The Warriors took advantage of a short field and opened the scoring on Bret FitzSimmons’ 7-yard run with 13 seconds remaining in the first quarter for a 7-0 lead.

FitzSimmons rushed for 162 yards on 27 attempts and scored three touchdowns.

“The second we came out and the holes were just wide open,” FitzSimmons said. “They did a great job and it was a great second half. We knew it was going to rain, but we didn’t expect to run it like we did during the week. We were trying to work in our whole offense with running and passing, but with the conditions like they were, we went with running it.”

Harry Radcliffe’s 64-yard punt with 11 minutes remaining in the second quarter had Central Valley start at its own 30. The Mustangs forced a punt and Gallagher sprinted 48 yards to the Warriors’ 8 before Jayvin Thompson picked off a pass on third-and-goal at the 4 to preserve the seven-point advantage.

“We told the kids coming in, ‘A big game comes down to a couple of plays,’” Kolesar said. “In the first half, we had three that really didn’t go our way. That put us behind, and they are a great football team. They were in the lead at halftime and controlled the game in the second half.”

FitzSimmons scored on Central Valley’s first possession of the second half on a 52-yard run at 9:30 of the third for a 21-0 lead.

He added a 7-yard score and Thompson ran in a two-point conversion for a 29-0 advantage with 4:04 left in the third.

Thompson scored the Warriors’ final touchdown on a 6-yard reception from Antwon Johnson at 11:04 and a 36-0 lead.

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