Opalko’s late field goal lifts Central Catholic past Pine-Richland in WPIAL Class 6A final

Saturday, November 16, 2019 | 11:59 PM

This was a kick that might make NFL kickers nervous.

A 40-yarder on the notorious Heinz Field grass, yet Central Catholic’s Johnathan Opalko tucked the ball inside the left upright Saturday night to defeat Pine-Richland, 10-7, in a slow-moving WPIAL Class 6A championship that turned into a defensive grind.

Opalko made the game-winner with 3 minutes, 58 seconds left, breaking a 7-7 tie and earning top-seeded Central Catholic (11-1) its seventh WPIAL title overall and fourth since 2013.

It became clear early on that touchdowns wouldn’t come easy, so a strong-legged kicker was a valuable weapon.

“He’s special,” Central Catholic coach Terry Totten said. “He’s got a 54-yarder. He has a 46. He’s money.”

Second-seeded Pine-Richland (10-2) saw its WPIAL championship streak end at two. The Rams were hurt by five turnovers, the last a red zone interception by Central Catholic’s Chase Horne that led to Opalko’s game-winner.

The Vikings also recovered four fumbles.

“You can’t turn it over five times and win a championship football game,” Pine-Richland coach Eric Kasperowicz said. “We’ll go look at the tape. I’m sure it will be hard to watch because we had chances. I thought our kids played really, really, really good. We just didn’t make plays when we needed to.”

Central Catholic opens the state playoffs at 7 p.m. Friday against State College (11-1) at North Allegheny.

Neither team found much offense as they combined for 14 punts. Pine-Richland totaled 281 yards on 73 plays, and Central Catholic finished with 138 yards on 59 snaps.

Both had drives stall in goal-to-go situations. Central Catholic was stopped on fourth-and-goal at the 1 in the first quarter. Pine-Richland had first-and-goal at the 9 but Horne’s fourth-quarter interception ended that scoring chance.

Horne said he dropped a few in the regular season but held onto this interception tightly and returned it 55 yards.

“My team’s been getting on me every single day at practice and at school,” Horne said. “I was like, when the time comes where it matters the most, I’m going to be there for them.”

Horne gave Central Catholic possession at Pine-Richland’s 31-yard line for another possession that went almost nowhere. The Vikings gained eight yards on seven plays with a penalty included before turning to Opalko on fourth-and-14 at the 23.

Opalko made a 54-yarder earlier this season — 1 yard short of the WPIAL record — so 40 was within his range. Totten said he would have let Opalko kick anything from 50 yards or closer.

“At the end of the day, it’s just another kick,” said Opalko, a senior committed to Albany and an all-section soccer player. “I have trust in all of my teammates and they have trust in me. It’s just another kick.”

Central Catholic won 29-7 when the rivals met in Week 5, but this time was different. The Viking rushed for three touchdowns in the regular-season matchup, but they had only 83 rushing yards on 45 carries in the rematch.

Wide receiver Eli Jochem led Pine-Richland with 12 catches and a touchdown but was held to 78 yards.

“When you play teams two times year-in and year-out, we kind of know each other,” Central Catholic defensive coordinator Dave Fleming said. “It just comes down to who’s going to make the play at the end. Luckily for us Chase Horne makes an interception and our field goal kicker has been nails all year.”

The teams combined for a scoreless first half before each scored a touchdown in the third quarter.

Pine-Richland took a 7-0 lead on a 12-yard touchdown pass from Cole Spencer to Jochem. Central Catholic forced a tie with a 29-yard touchdown pass from Dom Pieto to Anderson Cynkar on the very next possession.

Central Catholic’s touchdown drive seemed stalled at its own 22-yard line but it got new life when Pine-Richland’s Luke Meckler fumbled a punt near midfield. A.J. Beatty, A’meer Allen, Gannon Carothers and Elliot Donald had fumble recoveries for Central Catholic.

Pine-Richland, Central Catholic and North Allegheny all had won three WPIAL titles since 2010, but that tie was broken Saturday.

“They had three, NA had three and now we have four,” Totten said. “Maybe we’re the team of the decade.”

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at charlan@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

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