Clairton hands Jeannette rare season-opening loss in Class A showdown

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Friday, September 11, 2020 | 11:01 PM


Jeannette coach Roy Hall said he expected to get Clairton’s best no matter what time of year the Eastern Conference rivals played.

Normally, the Bears and Jayhawks play in the regular-season finale.

That they kicked off against one another was quite a bang to open this peculiar season.

Top-ranked Clairton did give its best, rumbling to life in the second half to push aside No. 4 Jeannette, 34-28, on Friday night before a sparse crowd due to covid-19 restrictions at McKee Stadium.

The matchup lived up to the hype.

Senior running back Dontae Sanders ran for 209 yards and three touchdowns for the Bears, who held Jeannette at bay in the second half.

The victory ended a substantial run of success for the Jayhawks at their home field. Jeannette had not lost a home opener since 1993 and had not been beaten in a season opener since 1997.

The Jayhawks’ most recent loss at McKee had come against Clairton in 2016, a span of 18 games.

“We just line up and try to execute and dominate,” Clairton coach Wayne Wade said “We don’t think about things like that, teams winning at home or whatever. Jeannette is a good football team.”

The Bears have now defeated Jeannette eight times in 10 meetings dating to 2014.

“Give Clairton a lot of credit, but we hurt ourselves tonight,” Hall said. “We had way too many penalties and missed some plays. Yes, it’s been a long time since we lost a home opener, but those teams weren’t the Clairton Bears; they own single-A.”

The loss spoiled a head-turning performance from new Jeannette quarterback Brad Birch, who had a stellar debut. The ninth-grader completed 21 of 28 passes for 269 yards and three touchdowns.

Birch is believed to be the first freshman to start at the position for the storied Jayhawks.

“He was outstanding,” Hall said. “He showed what he is going to be able to do for us.”

Senior receiver James Sanders caught touchdowns of 20 and 57 yards and finished with nine catches for 152 yards. Sanders was the team’s quarterback last season and was the only returning passer in WPIAL Class A with over 1,300 yards.

Ranked No. 1 in the state in Class A and the defending WPIAL champion, Clairton returned 15 seniors and many of them had an impact on the victory.

Speed and size are a volatile combo for opponents and the Bears boast both.

Wade acknowledged earlier in the week that the game was “still for the conference title” and his team performed accordingly, especially after falling behind 21-20 at the half.

Jeannette struck first on its opening possession as Birch connected on a short route with James Sanders, who bounced off a defender, spun and turned up field to complete a 20-yard scoring play.

Clairton answered later in the first quarter when Isaiah Berry pulled in a strike from Jonte Sanders for a 24-yard touchdown to make it 7-6. Berry is the top returning rusher in WPIAL Class A.

Roberto Smith took a direct snap and raced 59 yards for a score early in the second quarter. He fumbled but scooped up the mishap and turned it into points for a 14-6 Jeannette lead.

Dontae Sanders scored on a 1-yard run and Don Napper pulled in the two-point pass to tie it.

Sanders and Birch hooked up again late in the second as the latter caught a short pass from the former and raced 57 yards for a 21-14 advantage.

Back came the Bears, as Jonte Sanders rolled out and threw deep to a streaking Brooklyn Cannon. In tight coverage, Cannon ripped the ball away in the air, came down and ran in for a 67-yard play.

That made three touchdowns in three plays.

The Bears trailed 21-20 at the half.

Just two plays into the second half, Dontae Sanders broke loose for a 51-yard scoring run and Berry hauled in a two-point pass to give the Bears a 28-21 lead.

“We made some defensive adjustments at halftime and it made a big difference in coverage,” Wade said.

Dontae Sanders appeared to injure his leg early in the second half, but he only left the game briefly and returned to do more damage. His 6-yard run pushed the Bears’ advantage to 34-21 with 5:50 left in the third.

“Dontae is 235 pounds but he can move,” Wade said. “In practice, he races our fastest guys. He thinks he’s fast.”

Jeannette didn’t sniff the end zone again until late in the fourth, led by Birch. After a goal-line stand by Jeannette, he threw a 38-yard completion to Noah Sanders before he found Toby Cline for a 20-yard score.

Eli Binakonsky made his fourth extra point of the night to get the Jayhawks within 34-28 with 2:13 to play.

The Jayhawks had one last chance with 57 seconds to play. Tavon Briston recovered a fumble and scampered about 15 yards before he was stopped and time expired.

“Our kids battled,” Hall said. “They were a lot bigger than us but we battled. Emilio Huerta, Noah Sanders and Brad Birch come to mind when I think about who had great games for us tonight. All our guys played well, we just have to make less mistakes.”

Jeannette honored Tre Cunningham, a 2018 grad and three-sport athlete who was killed in a motorcycle accident in July, by wearing “TC 6” decals on the back of their helmets. Players also carried Cunningham’s No. 6 jersey onto the field before the game.

Clairton plays at Leechburg next week while Jeannette visits Riverview next Saturday afternoon.

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Bill by email at bbeckner@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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