Swarming defense helps Freeport beat Keystone Oaks, clinch playoff spot

Friday, October 20, 2017 | 11:54 PM

Freeport knows the pitfalls of youth.

The Yellowjackets now are learning the benefits of experience.

A season after a four-game losing streak wiped away its playoff hopes, Freeport is heading back to the playoffs thanks to a 28-7 Allegheny Conference win over Keystone Oaks on Friday that showcased a Yellowjackets team that's a year older, wiser and tougher.

“I'm just so proud of the boys,” Freeport coach John Gaillot said. “They really worked hard all year, and this is a reward.”

Freeport is in the postseason as the second automatic qualifier from the Allegheny Conference. The Yellowjackets replaced most of their starters after a 2015 WPIAL semifinal run, and a promising 4-1 start last season slipped to an 0-4 finish.

There was no such collapse this time, as the Yellowjackets (6-2, 5-1) bounced back from a Week 7 loss to Seton LaSalle with their latest dominant defensive performance. They sacked Keystone Oaks freshman quarterback Logan Shrubb six times and came away with three interceptions, one of which Conor Selinger returned 80 yards for the opening score in the second quarter.

“Our defensive coordinator implements a good game plan, so we just have to follow that,” said senior Austin Kemp, who had two sacks. “When somebody makes a sack, it keeps feeding on each other.”

Already the top scoring defense in the Allegheny, Freeport turned up the heat against Shrubb and Keystone Oaks in Friday's pivotal conference matchup. Even when Shrubb wasn't getting sacked, the Yellowjackets were applying pressure. They also held star KO running back Michael Dauer to 39 yards.

“Our D-line is getting a good rush, and he's throwing the ball before he should be and making bad reads, and I'm just there,” said Selinger, who had his second pick-6 in three games. “(Shrubb) was a young quarterback, and we knew that. Our plan was to put pressure on him and make him throw the ball.”

Keystone Oaks (5-3, 4-2), the Allegheny champion last season, is learning some of the problems of youth Freeport experienced last season.

Shrubb, the replacement for star quarterback Alex Smith — now playing for Duquesne — passed for 115 yards but had two interceptions.

Selinger's interception touchdown came on a fourth-and-15 play inside the Freeport 30. Shrubb, under pressure, rolled all the way to the sideline before throwing a pass that Selinger intercepted. The Yellowjackets inside linebacker tightroped the rest of the way for the score.

“You're a young quarterback, and you try to tell him to throw the ball away, and he throws the ball and it doesn't get away,” Keystone Oaks coach Greg Perry said. “You've got to give (Selinger) credit. He got it and ran it back. That's not the first time we've seen that against us.

“We're a work in progress, trying to get (Shrubb) to understand. When you're 14 years old and playing a game on Friday night, it's usually not varsity football.”

Garret Schaffhauser added an acrobatic interception after Shrubb briefly left the game with an injury, and Caleb Leyland sealed the victory with another interception late in the fourth quarter.

The defense and special teams — which stopped Keystone Oaks on a fake punt in the first quarter — helped Freeport to a 7-0 lead after a half in which the offense mustered 24 yards.

But as has been the case for much of the season, the Yellowjackets came out strong in the second half to put the game away. The running game of quarterback Austin Romanchak and running back Selinger kept Keystone Oaks' offense off the field, and the Yellowjackets defense took care of the rest.

“We're definitely a second-half team,” Kemp said. “When we're inside the locker room, our coach just tells us to not give up. We just come out, and I think we're just in fantastic shape, so we just wear teams down.”

Romanchak, who rushed for 84 yards, kept the ball on a read option on Freeport's opening drive of the second half and went 56 yards for a touchdown. Selinger added a 1-yard score late in the third to widen the lead to three touchdowns.

Keystone Oaks scored after Dauer's 80-yard kickoff return set up Shrubb's 8-yard touchdown run early in the fourth, but Freeport's Ricky Hunter finished off the victory with a 1-yard score after Leyland's interception.

Keystone Oaks remains alive for one of Class 3A's two wild-card playoff berths heading into next week's rivalry game against Seton LaSalle.

“All you can ask (for) is a chance, and now it's on us,” Perry said.

Freeport, meanwhile, can savor the knowledge that it has the opportunity to add the postseason to its experience ledger.

“There's no other feeling like being in the playoffs,” Selinger said.

Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer.

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