Jeannette defense ready for PIAA semifinal test against Reynolds’ rushing attack

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Thursday, November 19, 2020 | 12:41 PM


The first thing Jeannette football coach Roy Hall told his players at Monday’s practice was to forget about winning the WPIAL title.

That game is over.

Jeannette won the school’s 10th WPIAL championship Saturday, claiming the Class A title with an impressive and shocking 45-14 victory against Eastern Conference rival Clairton.

But now the Jayhawks (9-1) change their focus to a meeting with District 10 champion Reynolds in Friday’s PIAA semifinals.

The Jayhawks will be especially focused on stopping Reynolds’ power running game.

“Hopefully, it’s not too hard to get them to come down,” Hall said. “It’s things we addressed with them and told them to put it in a rearview mirror. It was a huge win, big win in many more ways than one. But we don’t want to go and lay an egg in the next game.”

Reynolds captured its fifth District 10 title in the school’s 60-year history when it blanked Eisenhower, 27-0. Last week, Reynolds opened the PIAA playoffs with a 19-14 win against District 9 champion Redbank Valley.

This is the second time Reynolds has reached the state semifinals. It dropped a 28-2 decision to South Park in a Class 2A game in 2005.

The winner advances to Hershey to play the winner of Saturday’s game between District 3 champion Steelton-Highspire and District 6 champion Bishop Guilfoyle. The championship game will be at 11 a.m. Nov. 27.

Reynolds had strong teams under legendary coach Frank Amato (156-67-9 from 1969-92). This is the best squad under current coach Josh Mull, who has been coaching for eight seasons.

“We play traditional Mercer County football; we’re run heavy,” Mull said. “We have a big line, and we look to control the ball and time of possession. That will be the key against Jeannette.”

Reynolds is better known across the state for its wrestling, which has won seven Class AA team titles, including the past four.

Mull said he probably has eight or nine wrestlers on the team, headlined by senior running back Cole Toy, who has rushed for 1,238 yards and 24 touchdowns. Toy placed seventh in the state in 2020.

“I’m going to rely on some of the wrestlers’ experiences of being in big matches before,” Mull said. “We have to stick to our principles and slow the game down. We’ll throw if we have to.”

Mull said his son, Aiden, is capable of taking pressure off Toy and loosens up a defense.

Hall said he also expects an inspired game from Reynolds.

“Teams that don’t get to the playoffs are excited about playing and will use these games to motivate them,” Hall said. “We can’t afford to not play with our best effort. When you win a big game, sometimes you come out flat. We can’t overlook them.”

Jeannette, despite its impressive win against top-seeded Clairton, is ranked No. 3 in the state in Class A behind No. 1 Steelton-Highspire and No. 2 Reynolds.

But the 2020 Jayhawks are different breed. They’ve been in tough situations before and have been forced to stop opponents’ running games.

They did against Rochester in the WPIAL semifinals, and they held Clairton to 54 rushing yards in the WPIAL final.

Jeannette also faced a big challenge at Springdale on Oct. 9. The Jayhawks fell behind 21-0 in the second quarter, but rallied for a 36-28 win.

Hall said he learned a lot about the team that game.

“One of the measuring sticks that I can say with this team from some teams in the past, not going to say all but some, but when we were playing Springdale and we were down by 21 points,” Hall said. “It could have been easy for them to start yelling, arguing and getting down on themselves and quit, but they didn’t.

“They felt strongly that they could come back and they went out and did. When I saw that game, that’s something special and it turned out to be. They fear no one and they respect everyone.”

Jeannette will likely be missing starting quarterback Brad Birch, who injured his left ankle in the WPIAL Class A championship game. Hall will turn to a pair of seniors, either Roberto Smith Jr. or James Sanders, who was the starter in 2019.

Sanders threw for 1,357 yards and 16 touchdowns a year ago and is one of the Jayhawks’ top receivers this season. Smith Jr. has rushed for 746 yards and 18 touchdowns as one of the team’s primary running backs.

Jeannette will be facing a defense that has forced 27 turnovers this season, including 14 interceptions.

On the other side of the ball, the Jayhawks’ defense and special teams also have been game-changers. The Jayhawks have 12 returns (interceptions, fumbles, blocked punts, punts and kickoffs) for scores this season. They have picked off 26 passes and recovered 12 fumbles.

Sophomore Jaydin Canady returned a fumble and a blocked punt for scores against Clairton, and Brett Birch had a punt return against Rochester. Sanders and Ryan Kimmel had returns in the playoff win over Avella.

Jeannette also intercepted three passes against Clairton and three against Rochester.

Paul Schofield is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Paul by email at pschofield@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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