Rivals Freeport, Burrell set to battle to stay in hunt for postseason berth

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Wednesday, October 10, 2018 | 7:21 PM


John Gaillot saw several variations of the Allegheny Conference in his 11 seasons as Freeport’s football coach, and he always praised the league for its competitiveness.

The newly-formed Big East where Freeport finds itself for the first time exceeds even the toughest season that Gaillot remembers.

“This has been the most competitive conference that we’ve been in in 11 years,” Gaillot said. “(It’s) just one game at a time.”

Indeed, the way the conference races are shaping up, it should make for an entertaining three weeks to close the regular season.

Derry, Elizabeth Forward and North Catholic share the conference lead with one loss apiece after they split their meetings with each other over the last three weeks. The race for the final playoff spot holds plenty of intrigue, as well, with Yough (3-4, 3-2), Deer Lakes (3-3, 3-3), Freeport (3-3, 3-3) and Burrell (2-5, 2-4) all still alive mathematically.

“Every team can play, every team’s well-coached, every team has good players,” Burrell coach Shawn Liotta said. “What’s amazing is most of these teams have really good traditions. When you really go back and look at a lot of teams in the conference, a lot of teams have really good football traditions and have a lot of recent success. It’s a tough conference week-in and week-out, and I think you’re seeing that.”

Burrell and Freeport can help determine part of that playoff race as the longtime Alle-Kiski Valley rivals face off Friday at Freeport Area Athletic Stadium.

That both teams remain alive shows how quickly things can change in high school football.

Three weeks into the season, Freeport was winless, with narrow losses to Derry and Elizabeth Forward sandwiched around a blowout defeat against North Catholic. But three consecutive wins against Uniontown, Yough and Deer Lakes — the last of which required a late fourth-quarter comeback — gave the Yellowjackets a chance to clinch a playoff spot by winning their last two conference games.

“We always had that belief, and we lost two really tough games,” Gaillot said. “North Catholic was kind of a letdown game, kind of a hangover from the Derry game. … But that’s life. Things happen. You’ve got to overcome it, and they did.”

Burrell lost its first four games but comes into Friday with two wins in its last three contests.

“For us to be alive and still battling for a playoff spot, we really embrace that opportunity,” Liotta said. “We’re very excited about that, and there’s not much more we can ask for. It’s basically a playoff game.”

Freeport owns the recent history in this rivalry with six consecutive victories, including a 44-0 rout last season. Liotta, who was hired at Burrell in the offseason after spending the two previous years at Albert Gallatin, pinpointed that game as an example of the Bucs’ needed improvement.

Liotta said he’s seeing consistent progress from the Bucs, who last qualified for the WPIAL playoffs in 2012. They forced six turnovers in last week’s 35-7 win over Mt. Pleasant, turning a six-point halftime lead into a rout.

“That gave us a lot of hope going into Freeport and the rest of the season,” said junior Seth Fischbach, who intercepted two passes against Mt. Pleasant. “Now that we’re still in the playoff race with everyone else, that was a huge W.”

After the narrow defeats to Derry and Elizabeth Forward earlier this season, Freeport’s 14-10 win over Deer Lakes last week represented something of a breakthrough: a victory in a close game.

“We had confidence,” junior Ricky Hunter said. “Derry and Elizabeth Forward, those were close games. We could have won those. The North Catholic game, I think we were just out of our rhythm.

“Now, we’re more confident about this game coming up.”

Freeport’s defense, which shut out Yough two weeks ago and limited Deer Lakes to 10 points last week, faces another challenge this week against Burrell, which under Liotta has used a variety of formations, motion and trick plays to fool defenses.

“Things like that make it difficult,” Gaillot said. “We just have to coach them up, our kids, and get them ready for things. Every game it seems like he has something new, so we have to weather that storm and just continue to play aggressive.

“You can’t take a play off at all. Everybody, all 11 guys, has to be focused every play and fly to the ball and try to stop it before it happens.”

Burrell, coming off its best defensive performance of the season, will try to slow Freeport’s tandem of quarterback Austin Romanchak and running back Conor Selinger, who combined for nearly 225 yards rushing and both Yellowjackets touchdowns in the win over Deer Lakes.

“When I think of Freeport, I think of hard-nosed kids, tough kids,” Liotta said. “I told our kids their team is going to be coached up in all phases. They are going to get after us. They’re going to get off the ball. They’re going to be lined up correctly, disciplined, all those kinds of things, and we’ve certainly got our hands full.”

Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Doug at dgulasy@tribweb.com or via Twitter @dgulasy_Trib.

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