Penn Hills rallies past Peters Township in WPIAL Class 5A semifinals

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Friday, November 16, 2018 | 11:36 PM


With all the classic ingredients of a championship-caliber team — a prolific passer, a 1,000-yard rusher, big-play receivers and an athletic defense — Penn Hills just wanted the opportunity to play for a title.

The high-powered Indians will get their chance after handling their business in the semifinals, turning potential into promise with a gritty and well-earned victory.

After five of its last six attempts to get out of the WPIAL semis went south, the Indians broke through on the same field they’ll play on next week in the Class 5A title game.

Dante Cephus caught two touchdown passes and Terry “Tank” Smith scored the go-ahead points with 3 minutes, 37 seconds left to lead the second-seeded Indians to a 22-14 victory over No. 3 Peters Township on Friday night on the snow-covered turf at Norwin Knights Stadium.

Penn Hills (13-0), which scored 22 unanswered points to overshadow a slew of penalties and dropped passes, had not reached the finals since 2006. It will face No. 5 West Allegheny (10-2) for the title next Friday night in North Huntingdon.

Peters Township (10-3), playing in its first semifinal game in 42 years, has never reached the WPIAL finals.

“It took us a while to get going offensively early,” Penn Hills coach Jon LeDonne said. “We’re not used to going three-and-out much. Peters had an excellent game plan. We talked to our guys about staying the course … we came in at halftime, made some adjustments and came out on top.”

Peters Township was primed to challenge Penn Hills after a rousing 38-35 win over Penn-Trafford last week. But the big plays were less than fruitful this week, and Peters did more punting than celebrating.

“We were unable to run the ball in the second half, and that hurt us,” Peters Township coach T.J. Plack said. “They loaded the box. Our passing game missed a couple shots. Penn Hills is a very good team. This has been a great group of kids, and they’ve helped put football back on the map among our athletic programs.”

Penn Hills gets a lot of attention for its offense, but its defense made some key stops to give quarterback Hollis Mathis and company more opportunities. Peters Township rushed for only 80 yards.

“Our defense just stopped giving up anything,” said Mathis, a Howard recruit who threw for 131 yards, two scores and two interceptions. “I think (Peters) had just one first down in the second half. All it took was a little bit of persistence. Our offense is built to work, we have the athletes, we just had to make some plays. I am glad we kept with it.”

Despite being down early, Penn Hills still had plenty left in the “Tank.”

Daquan Hardy came up with an interception for Penn Hills with 5:37 to play.

Anthony Grimes then had a short gain and fumbled ahead to Richard Martin in the end zone late in the fourth for Penn Hills. Grimes, though, was ruled down and the potential score waved off.

On third and goal, however, Smith scored untouched from the 5 and then ran in the conversion to make it 22-14.

Smith, also committed to Howard, ran for 73 yards.

“Tank did a good job bailing us out there,” LeDonne said. “When you have a big offensive line in front of you … you have to keep pounding and pounding and sooner or later you’re going to break through.”

Ryan Magiske had two interceptions, one in the first half, and added a 3-yard scoring run for Peters Township.

Peters Township took a 14-0 lead late in the second quarter on a 21-yard pass from Logan Pfeuffer to Jackson McCloskey. Pfeuffer, who finished 9 of 22 for 155 yards, connected with Seth Luksik for a 48-yard gain on a screen pass and Magiske ran for a 17-yard gain.

Penn Hills, struggling to find rhythm in its passing game, finally found the end zone just before halftime. Mathis, who was sacked on the drive, hit Cephas from 7 yards out, and Daquan Hardy ran in the conversion to make it 14-8 at the half.

Cephus pulled in a 24-yard strike from Mathis early in the fourth quarter, a nice recovery for the Indians after absorbing back-to-back sacks.

Cephus, however, hurled the ball into the air after the score in celebration and Penn Hills was penalized on the conversion try.

The two-point pass failed, and it was 14-14 with 10:01 to play.

Cephus, who had five catches for 85 yards, made up for the mistake, catching two key passes on the go-ahead drive, the second for 22 yards to the 4-yard line. The Kent State recruit sparked the Indians.

Aakeem Snell had an interception for Penn Hills.

“We’re excited to be going there (to the finals),” LeDonne said. “But we’re not satisfied yet. We’re hoping to keep that perfect season going and keep it rolling. Hopefully next week the community shows up, and we can pack this place.”

Mathis, who has more than 2,300 yards and 34 touchdown passes this season, is anxious to make the return trip to Norwin. It’s not Heinz Field, but the venue could be the place where the Indians celebrate their first title since 1995.

“We want that ring, regardless of where we play,” he said. “We could play at the Penn Hills midget football field, we’re going to go out and play our game. We’re going to go out there and give it our all.”

Bill Beckner is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Bill at bbeckner@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BillBeckner.

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