Laurel’s defense, running game overwhelm Rochester

Saturday, August 31, 2019 | 12:11 AM

Championship football teams are often built around a solid running game or a stout defensive unit.

Laurel’s team has both.

Laurel rushed for 309 yards and pitched their second straight shutout as the third-ranked Spartans won 42-0 on the road over fourth-ranked Rochester in the Class 1A Big 7 Conference opener Friday night.

“I thought we showed a lot of growth,” Laurel coach Brian Cooper said. “I think last week, we panicked in a couple of situations and it ended up not coming together in the end of the game, and today it came together. I think they played very well because of that. It was a great team effort.”

Though Cooper thought his team did not panic, there certainly could have been cause for concern for Laurel in the first quarter. While the Spartans’ first three possessions all began in Rochester territory, they ended with a punt and two fumbles.

That’s when the Spartans defense stepped up. On fourth-and-three from the Laurel 35, Rochester’s Denny Robinson was stuffed at the line, and while fighting for the first down, lost the football. Dan Blank scooped it up and took off 64 yards for a touchdown.

After Laurel’s next drive stalled in the Rochester red zone, the defense forced another short field and allowed the Spartans’ two-minute drill to work down the field. With 20 seconds left in the half, Dom Wade lofted a ball to the corner of the end zone where 6-foot-4 Will Shaffer snagged it for a 4-yard score to make it 13-0 Laurel at halftime.

The Spartans came out of the locker room strong with Blank taking a run up the middle 62 yards for a touchdown on the first play of the second half. The senior running back finished with 151 yards on eight carries.

With Blank banged up later in the game, Wade switched from quarterback to fullback for much of the remainder of the contest. Shaffer, who mixed in at quarterback, finished 5 for 7 for 106 yards, including a 33-yard touchdown to Dylan Aquaro just two minutes after the Blank score.

“Dom’s a special kid. Dom can play anywhere on the field,” Cooper said. “You can use him in so many different ways. He’s such a weapon. He’s a hard-nosed kid. He runs the ball hard. What a great athlete and a great person. We couldn’t be happier.”

After a Luke McCoy interception created another short field, McCoy finished the drive with a 14-yard run to put the mercy rule into effect.

Laurel’s defense held Rochester to 119 yards of offense, with half of those yards coming on the final drive of the game with the second team in.

For Rochester (0-2, 0-1), while starting with back-to-back shutout losses is less than ideal, coach Gene Matsook remained positive with his squad’s performance.

“We told our kids this wasn’t the most important game of the season,” Matsook said. “Whether we won this game or lost this game, it doesn’t matter. How much we improve will determine our season.

“If they continue to listen and keep self-evaluating and working hard and listening to the coaching staff, they’re going to get better. Hopefully by week four or five, we start to hit the pavement, and the potholes are all done with.”

Cooper said his Laurel (2-0, 1-0) squad also showed improvement from a week ago, but knows that there is much more ahead for a Spartans squad that could continue to make waves across the WPIAL’s smallest classification.

“I think we showed a lot of growth tonight,” he said. “We’ll build on that. I think our focus has to be ourselves to just keep getting better week in and week out. If we can do that, I like our chances.”

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