Dominant Central Catholic defense shuts out Mt. Lebanon, returns to WPIAL finals

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Friday, October 30, 2020 | 9:54 PM


Like old west prospectors searching for gold, defensive lineman Bralen Henderson and his Central Catholic teammates spent this fall talking about nuggets.

That’s his defense’s lingo for shutouts.

They’d found none in the regular season, so questions lingered whether they were good enough to find any.

That made Friday’s win golden.

“We wanted a nugget. We wanted a zero. … This was a statement game for us,” said Henderson, who had four sacks and his teammates added four more as No. 3 seed Central Catholic leaned on a dominant defense to defeat No. 2 Mt. Lebanon, 35-0, in a WPIAL Class 6A semifinal.

The win takes the defending champion Vikings back to the WPIAL finals for the seventh time in eight seasons.

Friday’s outcome was a reversal from Oct. 9 when Mt. Lebanon won 37-30. Central Catholic had a 17-point lead that night before Mt. Lebanon scored three second-half touchdowns to win.

For much of this rematch, Central Catholic’s defense had Mt. Lebanon stuck in reverse.

“Around here, things like that don’t get let go,” defensive coordinator Dave Fleming said. “Our football program prides itself on shutting the door and getting things done. We talked about that night being an anomaly and we had a chance to redeem ourselves.”

The Vikings could avenge their only other regular-season loss next week. Central Catholic (4-2) will face No. 1 seed North Allegheny (6-0) in the finals on Nov. 6 at North Hills’ Martorelli Stadium.

“Central and NA are there for a reason,” Mt. Lebanon coach Bob Palko said. “That’s what we’re trying to be. … We’re closing the gap but we’re not there yet.”

Mt. Lebanon was trying to reach the finals for the first time since 2000, but its hopes quickly snowballed out of reach. The Blue Devils finished the first half with minus-41 yards from scrimmage and no first downs.

They ran 18 plays in the first half and 11 resulted in negative yards.

“This was a big game for us,” Henderson said. “Everybody counted us out. Everybody doubted us.”

Central Catholic led 21-0 at half after touchdowns by Anderson Cynkar, Payton Wehner and Eddy Tillman. The mercy rule was enforced with 1 minute, 39 seconds left in the third quarter after the Vikings scored twice more after halftime. Tillman rushed for 151 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries.

Quarterback Adam Obrin contributed two scores, throwing a first-quarter touchdown pass to Cynkar and adding a 1-yard touchdown run in the third.

But at times Mt. Lebanon hurt itself.

The Blue Devils sent a first-quarter snap over their punter’s head, setting up Central Catholic for a 5-yard touchdown drive. Later, Mt. Lebanon let a kickoff bounce to the goal line, where Central Catholic’s Gannon Carothers fell on it for a touchdown.

“We took a (bad) time to play our worst game,” Palko said, “but sometimes teams do that to you.”

Blue Devils quarterback Joey Daniels was under constant pressure, often from Henderson, a 6-foot-4, 255-pound senior. Henderson traditionally plays defensive end but shifted Friday to tackle.

“We felt like we had a matchup in there that we could take advantage of,” Fleming said. “He exploited it tonight.”

Daniels passed for more than 300 yards against Central Catholic earlier this season, but Friday was forced to scramble instead of throw.

Central Catholic’s Matt Aulicino and Donovan Hinish added two sacks each.

Overall, this will be Central Catholic’s 12th appearance in the WPIAL finals. The Vikings won titles in 2019, ’16, ’15, ’13, ’07, ’04 and ’03.

“We’re 48 minutes from doing what we set out to do,” Fleming said.

Watch an archived broadcast of this game on Trib HSSN.

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at charlan@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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