Deacon Durham’s 2 punt return touchdowns help spark Shady Side Academy victory

Saturday, September 23, 2023 | 7:33 PM

On the Shady Side Academy football roster, senior Deacon Durham is listed as a wide receiver, cornerback and free safety.

Perhaps the initials LR should be added to identify him as a lethal returner.

Durham returned two punts for touchdowns as Shady Side Academy took care of business and defeated South Allegheny, 57-14, in a WPIAL Class 3A nonconference game before a large, rain-soaked homecoming crowd Saturday at Shady Side Academy.

Durham is gaining a reputation as a special-teams demon Deacon.

One week after returning a kickoff for a touchdown in a loss to Elizabeth Forward, Durham ran back a second quarter punt 40 yards for a score, then returned one 52 yards in the third quarter.

“A shout out to my guys blocking for me, giving me those holes so I could take it to the crib,” Durham said. “Me, personally, I’m not surprised. I don’t want to sound cocky, but I know how good I am and how good my teammates are.”

The Bulldogs have proven special teams are a strength with Durham leading the return team and sophomore kicker Harran Zureikat going 7 for 7 on extra points and showing a strong leg by routinely kicking the ball through the end zone.

“Early in the season, that third of the game is often times overlooked when so much time is put on offense and defense; (special teams) really is huge,” Shady Side Academy coach Chuck DiNardo said. “We tell our kids all the time more yards are gained or lost on a punt than any other play in football, so we really emphasize that. We feel like we have the edge on special teams.”

Neither Shady Side Academy nor South Allegheny had the edge in a scoreless first quarter that was filled with penalties and mistakes.

However, big plays from both teams came fast and furious in the second quarter.

Bulldogs sophomore quarterback Devin Harris hit senior wide receiver Nate Mallory in stride for a 32-yard touchdown pass 90 seconds into the second quarter to give Shady Side Academy a lead it would never relinquish.

It took South Allegheny only 26 seconds to respond when junior Tyreeke Chatman took an inside handoff and raced 56 yards for a touchdown. The Gladiators went for the two-point conversion, but missed when the pass was incomplete.

Shady Side Academy extended its lead 21 seconds later on a 19-yard scoring run by senior running back Eddie DeBruce that was set up by a big run from Harris.

Shady Side Academy then scored two touchdowns in the final two minutes of the first half on the first punt return for a score by Durham and a Carter Simko 1-yard run following a Gladiators turnover.

On the first play from scrimmage in the second half, South Allegheny junior running back Cameron Epps ran 75 yards around the left corner to give the Gladiators hope.

That hope didn’t last long as another Harris long run set up a DeBruce 1-yard run 28 seconds after the South Allegheny score.

Durham’s second punt return for a touchdown and a 3-yard scoring run by senior Isaiah Beckham put the Bulldogs up 50-14 and invoked the mercy rule before the end of the third quarter.

Sophomore reserve quarterback Cam Mallory scored the game’s final touchdown for Shady Side Academy on a 29-yard run.

Harris completed 10 of 19 passes for 116 yards and a touchdown while rushing for 110 yards on only two carries.

“I think Devin was extremely efficient (Saturday) in a lot of different ways,” Dinardo said. “His eyes were really clean running through his progressions on that first touchdown to Nate. He was also efficient when they were in man coverage and he saw everybody’s back to him and tucking that ball and getting us some great yardage.”

Epps led the Gladiators with 135 grinding yards on 20 carries.

South Allegheny (1-4), which has lost four straight games, will open Interstate Conference play next week at home against defending WPIAL and PIAA champion Belle Vernon.

Shady Side Academy (3-2), which snapped a two-game skid, will play its Class 3A Allegheny 6 Conference opener next week at Freeport.

“We know what’s ahead of us and we know what we need to do,” Durham said. “We have Freeport this week so the intensity is going to be a lot higher, but we’re going to be ready.”

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