Ground game key to success for Springdale, Fox Chapel, Freeport

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Thursday, November 2, 2017 | 8:45 PM


Tom Loughran won a pair of WPIAL and PIAA football championships in 32 seasons at South Park using a traditional I-formation on offense: “The quarterback threw, and the tailback ran,” he said.

But offenses are evolving, and those simple days are gone. In his third season at Fox Chapel, Loughran runs a spread offense that features concepts of option, counter and power plays, with quarterback Nick Gizzo and running back Micah Morris carrying the ball.

It worked to the tune of 1,000-plus rushing yards for both players this season, plus the first WPIAL playoff berth since 2014 for the Foxes (6-4), who open the Class 5A playoffs Friday at Penn-Trafford.

The three Alle-Kiski Valley teams that made the playoffs — Fox Chapel in 5A, Freeport in 3A and Springdale in A — lean heavily on a rushing attack that relies on instincts, movement and sometimes trickery. And whether it's Springdale's Wing-T approach or Freeport's read-option scheme, all three found a way to succeed with it, no matter who carries the ball.

“I don't worry about who's getting the ball, I really don't,” Springdale coach Seth Napierkowski said. “I've got my play sheet of plays that work, and it doesn't matter who's getting the ball. Left, right, middle, it doesn't matter. I'm confident giving it to any one of those guys.”

Fox Chapel

Fox Chapel's offense became something of an “anything you can do, I can do better” attack this season.

Gizzo rushed for 312 yards and three touchdowns in a 42-6 win over Moon. The following week, Morris piled up 195 yards and five touchdowns against Hampton in another victory. For the season, Gizzo had 1,239 yards and 18 touchdowns; Morris had 1,246 and 13.

“It's hard to stop both of us,” said Gizzo, who also passed for 763 yards and five scores. “I think defenses will watch film and (say), ‘OK, (Gizzo) had a big game,' so they focus on me and can't stop Micah. And the way Micah runs, he really tires defenses out, and that helps.”

Loughran described the relationship between Gizzo and Morris as “symbiotic.” Gizzo, at 6-foot-2 and 189 pounds, has speed to get around the edge. Morris, a 6-2, 230-pounder with a Brown scholarship offer, runs with power and has good elusiveness for his size.

The offensive line is anchored by Bryant recruit Jesse Cohen at left tackle and also has Seth Bowman, Riley Michael, Adam Woo and Scott Hastings.

“Our offensive line has played very well for the entire season,” Loughran said. “Obviously, opening holes is one aspect of having a good running game, and obviously having kids who are capable of running is the second.”

Freeport

Freeport quarterback Andrew Romanchak set several school passing records in 2014 as he used a deep and talented core of wide receivers. The following season, the Yellowjackets advanced to the WPIAL semifinals with big-armed Ryan Weigold at quarterback and the strong running of Ian Miller in the backfield.

The past two seasons, Freeport took a different approach, moving to a read-option look with Austin Romanchak — Andrew's younger brother — at quarterback and Conor Selinger beside him in the shotgun. The juniors have combined for more than 1,300 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns this season, helping Freeport (7-2) finish in second place in the Allegheny Conference.

“It helps when we have two people so we can have a double threat, plus our line just manhandling people in front,” said Romanchak, who also has 494 passing yards and six touchdowns. “That makes it easier on us.”

Some of Freeport's offense is designed, with senior wide receiver Jake Sarver adding another option on end-arounds, but Romanchak has the ability to pull the ball for himself if he sees something he likes in the defense. That was the case in the Yellowjackets' playoff-clinching victory over Keystone Oaks, as he kept the ball for a key late first down.

“They're doing a good job whenever they get me,” Freeport coach John Gaillot said. “But honestly it's not that hard. They always fake me out.”

Freeport does a lot of its damage in the second half, with Romanchak and Selinger running behind their physical offensive line — Matt Charlton, Austin Kemp, Garrett Ben, Jacob Leri and Cody Bargerstock, from left to right.

“When I sense the other team's getting a little winded, it gives a little motivation, just to see you're still going strong,” Selinger said.

Springdale

While offenses evolve, Springdale still maintains the foundation of its attack: a strong running game with Wing-T concepts. That didn't change this season, as the Dynamos (5-5) churned out more than 300 yards on the ground in their playoff-clinching win over Greensburg Central Catholic.

“After the first quarter, I think we have the defense troubled,” fullback Scott Landis said. “And throughout the game, I feel like they just couldn't handle it no more because they stopped filling the holes, and they kind of just let us do what we wanted.”

Wingback Josh Harmon led the team in rushing with 872 yards and 13 touchdowns, followed closely by Landis (766 and 8). Dylan Hargenrader and Parker Kline each have six rushing touchdowns this season on sweeps and end-arounds.

“You stop one, you get the other (three),” Harmon said. “That's all there is to it. Not one of us is better than the other. It's just all the same.”

Much of Springdale's plays are called in the huddle, and the Dynamos let their linemen — Ryan Pahlman at left tackle, Josh Gatto at left guard, Matt Schlessman at center, Andrew Berkoben and Blake Sgambati at right guard and Charlie Sprague at right tackle — and backs do the rest.

“It's an amazing feeling because you know the team is relying on you to score, and usually with three (backs) we can get the job done.”

Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer.

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