East Allegheny holds off South Park to advance to 1st semifinal since 1992

Friday, November 10, 2023 | 11:42 PM

Tears swelled in East Allegheny coach Dom Pecora’s eyes Friday as he discussed the emotional 28-21 WPIAL Class 3A quarterfinal victory the Wildcats had just completed to advance to their first semifinal since 1992.

“For us to go to the semifinals, it doesn’t even seem real,” Pecora said.

After the Wildcats (9-2) led by as much as 13, they trailed by only a point with just over four minutes to play against South Park (7-5). Pecora summed up his team’s game-winning drive and overall performance in one word.

“Tough. You hear that word your whole life growing up in my family,” he said. “We are tough. That’s a tough football team. We were in control of that game. You never thought we’d be losing in the fourth quarter. Instead of putting your heads down and pouting, we were tough.”

South Park never led until junior running back Eric Doerue scored on a 4-yard run with 4 minutes, 54 seconds left to go in the game.

Behind the play of quarterback Michael Cahill, the Wildcats charged down the field, setting up an opportunity within the red zone. Cahill dropped back on second-and-8, saw his receiver run a double move and dialed up his best pass of the game. The ball rose up and dropped into the hands of Solomon Buggs for a 9-yard touchdown with just 1:27 to go.

“I knew that play would work because Buggs was saying all day, ‘I got ‘em, I got ‘em,’ ” Cahill said. “I was waiting for that opportunity to give him a shot. He came up big and it was a great feeling for everyone.”

The winning touchdown is a moment that will stick with Pecora forever.

“That last drive, I could live to be 110 years old, and I would never forget it,” Pecora said.

Cahill’s clutch gene was on full display on the final drive.

“We executed,” Pecora said. “Cahill was unbelievable at quarterback,”

The senior completed 16 of 18 passes for 254 yards and two touchdowns.

For a game that came down to the last three drives, East Allegheny had a sizable lead that was slowly evaporated by the gutsy effort from South Park.

Coming off a first-round bye, East Allegheny showed no signs of rust as the offense moved the ball strategically down the field on its opening drive, taking up 8:10.

Cahill was the catalyst for the offense as he went 7 for 7 and 70 yards to move the Wildcats into the red zone. From 5 yards, Cahill handed the ball off to Kam Marshall, who cut left for the touchdown.

It was up to the ground game of South Park to find the response, and in six plays, the Eagles capitalized to even the score at 7-7.

After a penalty on East Allegheny put South Park onto the Wildcats’ side of the field, it was a designed mesh play that was eventually handed to A.J. D’Agostino for 21 yards. Three snaps later, Doerue scored on a 2-yard run following his jumbo formation.

Riding a seven-game winning streak, East Allegheny proved why it produced 32 points per game in that span.

On the ensuing drive, Cahill avoided pressure from an Eagles blitz. Rolling to his left, he pulled up and spotted Brennan Rutledge alone in the secondary. As South Park was caught with its eyes in the backfield, Rutledge hauled in the pass and hit the jets for a 70-yard touchdown.

“It was roll right, and I had pressure on my right,” Cahill said. “The corner bit whenever I started rolling out, and I knew I could get it right over his head to Brennen and he knew what he had to do.”

Needing help from the defense to close out the first half, the Wildcats honed in on the Eagles ground attack. When it came time for quarterback Zach Ludwig to throw a pass in solo coverage to Kenyan Brown, East Allegheny shut it down.

With just over a minute left to put together a scoring drive, Cahill and East Allegheny went for it all on third-and-20 as he was looking for Rutledge again. But South Park’s Robert Lenzi pulled down the interception with 2 seconds left.

South Park would go for its own Hail Mary, but it was Cahill who made up for his miscue by picking off Ludwig’s pass to end the first half.

East Allegheny wasted no time in the second half as Cahill showed off his elusiveness again on the first snap of its drive. Running away from trailing defenders in the backfield, he made a last-gasp dump off to Rollins for a 39-yard gain.

Then, the Wildcats went for the trickery as Cahill tossed it to Cedric Mack, who pulled up to find Rollins wide open for a 20-yard touchdown reception.

As South Park faced a large deficit, it continued to lean on the ground game. Doerue scored on a 3-yard run to close the gap to six.

Doerue ran for 116 yards, which pushed him over the 3,000 mark in his high school career.

“Eric’s a tremendous athlete, but, more importantly, he’s a tremendous person,” South Park coach coach Brian Abbey said. “He’s a great student of the game. He really has great football knowledge and sees the field well.”

With South Park in striking distance, the Eagles needed a defensive stop against a surging Wildcats offense. On a swing pass from Cahill to Steve Yusko, Kenyan Brown forced the ball free, and it was recovered by the Eagles on their own 29-yard line.

As South Park held the Wildcats from extending the lead, the Eagles took advantage as Doerue scored his third touchdown of the game on a wildcat play from 4 yards.

“Up front, we were playing strong, and we were able to wear them down. Once we started going a little bit, momentum was in our favor,” Abbey said.

The comeback that the Eagles staged was gone in mere minutes as Cahill and the Wildcats put together their game-winning drive.

“We just have to keep riding that high,” Cahill said. “We are on an eight-game win streak, so we have to keep riding it until the playoffs are over.”

East Allegheny has a semifinal a date with Belle Vernon, the top-seeded defending WPIAL and PIAA champion.

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