No. 5 Moon thwarts final drive, runs past Gateway in WPIAL 5A quarterfinals

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Saturday, November 4, 2023 | 12:49 AM


Moon ran the football almost 70 times Friday night, and Gateway coach Don Holl marveled that not once were the Tigers flagged for holding.

It was a compliment, but one surely coated with some sarcasm.

Moon rolled out an old-school offense that at times used 10 blockers and a wildcat quarterback, a successful strategy that saw the fifth-seeded Tigers upset No. 4 Gateway, 35-31, in a WPIAL Class 5A quarterfinal in Monroeville.

Nine different Tigers carried the ball, led by senior Josh Bladel, who had 167 yards on 32 carries and scored three times. His touchdowns all came on 1-yard runs and capped long drives, including the game-winner with 3:10 left in the fourth quarter.

Gateway tried to answer and for a moment thought quarterback Brad Birch had done so when he scrambled 16 yards to the end zone with 39 seconds left. But a holding call against the Gators negated the touchdown, and Moon’s Nick Prozzoly intercepted Birch in the end zone on the next snap.

It was an emotional finish for a game that had built suspense with six lead changes after halftime.

“Your heart kind of sank when Brad ran in the end zone, but we got a reprieve,” Moon coach Ryan Linn said.

Prozzoly nearly had an interception earlier in the drive when a pass bounced off of him. Given a second chance, the junior held on in the end zone.

“It was back-and-forth football,” Linn said. “It’s whoever gets the ball last is probably going to win the game, but, finally, our defense made a stop tonight.”

Moon (6-5) advances to face conference foe No. 1 Peters Township in a semifinal next week. This continues a bounce-back season for the Tigers, who went 1-9 a year ago and missed the playoffs.

Gateway (5-6) was seeking its first playoff win since 2020.

“In January, we talked (as a team) about our ability,” said Linn, who’s in his seventh year as Moon’s coach. “In 2018, we went 2-8. In 2019, we won the conference. I said, ‘You guys have the ability to do that. The ability to flip it that quick is in this room.’ It took them a little while to get there, but we’re here.”

This will be Moon’s second appearance in the semifinals in three years. The Tigers were WPIAL runners-up in 2021.

“This means a lot to this team and this program,” Bladel said. “They’ve got a lot of good athletes coming up next year, after we’re gone. It’s just going to keep going up after this.”

With Bladel leading the effort, Moon rushed for 295 yards on 69 carries, sustaining touchdown drives of 80, 70, 65, 65 and 73 yards. Three of the five drives included 14 plays or more, including a 20-play, nine-minute drive on the game’s first possession.

Moon won the coin toss and went on offense.

“I used to say, ‘Let’s defer and we’ll come out in the second half with it,’” Linn said. “But our guys say, ‘Let’s take the ball.’”

Every snap on Moon’s first possession was from a wildcat formation with the running back taking a direct snap. The Tigers have used a wildcat often, but this time took their H-backs and added them to the end of the line, giving a 10-across look.

“They’ve got like eight linemen out there. I’m not sure the officials can see all eight of them,” Holl said. “But it’s just a remarkable job that they could run the ball that many times and not have anybody holding. It was amazing.”

Gateway was penalized three times for holding, all in the second half, and also was flagged for a costly personal foul penalty that helped Moon’s winning drive.

Moon held a 14-13 lead at halftime before the scoring picked up in the third quarter. The teams combined to score points on their next six possessions, each time causing a lead change.

Gateway held leads of 16-14, 24-21 and, lastly, 31-28, on a 62-yard touchdown pass from Birch to Kenny Lewis early in the fourth quarter. Lewis also had a 61-yard punt return touchdown in the first half.

Birch completed 12 of 24 passes for 254 yards and two touchdowns. Steven Jenkins caught Birch’s other touchdown pass, and running back Jaquon Reynolds had five catches for 101 yards.

Reynolds reached the end zone with a 1-yard touchdown run before halftime.

“They poured their heart into it,” Holl said, “and battled every second right down to the very end.”

Moon quarterback Andrew Cross contributed to two touchdowns. The sophomore crossed the goal line on a 1-yard dive with 7 seconds left until halftime, and later connected with Lucas Bender on a 28-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter.

With every touchdown, it seemed more likely the last team with the ball might win.

“Nobody wants to feel that way,” Bladel said. “Somewhere inside you think, ‘This could be the last one. Do what you can.’”

Chris Harlan is a TribLive reporter covering sports. He joined the Trib in 2009 after seven years as a reporter at the Beaver County Times. He can be reached at charlan@triblive.com.

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