Tabbed with the No. 1 seed for the first time in school history, Penn-Trafford knocked over the first domino in the WPIAL Class 5A football playoffs — after it was knocked around repeatedly by upstart Fox Chapel.
The eighth-seeded Foxes gave Penn-Trafford’s top-rated defense all it could handle and nearly pulled a stunner before the Warriors escaped with a 28-21 victory in their playoff opener Friday night at Warrior Stadium.
Before the playoffs, Penn-Trafford coach John Ruane said with conviction that any of the eight teams in 5A could win the championship. He reiterated that early in the week, saying Fox Chapel was highly underrated.
He wasn’t lying.
“They’re for real,” Ruane said. “They came to play and were fired up. We knew we had to be ready. We made some big plays on third down in the passing game. Cam made some big throws when it counted.”
The Warriors (10-1) advanced to the semifinals to face Upper St. Clair, but that outcome wasn’t decided until the final moments of their quarterfinal.
“They are one of the toughest teams we faced all year. They’re a lot better than an eight seed,” said Warriors quarterback Cam Laffoon, who threw for 170 yards and two touchdowns and ran for a score. “They had a few big plays on us, but we’ll learn from this.”
Penn-Trafford came in with the best defensive scoring average in 5A (9 points per game) but Fox Chapel (6-5) had 14 points before halftime and played with purpose.
Fox Chapel (6-5) was driving near midfield midway through the fourth quarter when the Foxes faced a fourth-and-3. Quarterback Nick Gizzo took off but was hit by Will Mayr, and the Warriors took over on downs.
Two plays later, John Gay IV rumbled 36 yards for a touchdown and the Warriors went ahead 28-21 with 7 minutes, 20 seconds remaining. Gay ran for 81 yards.
“There wasn’t much running game, but John hit a big play when we needed it most,” Ruane said.
Fox Chapel drove to the Warriors’ 41 in a frantic final minute. Mitch Nedley made a key play when he tripped up Gizzo on second down. The Foxed turned it over on downs, Cole Waxter nearly coming down with a fourth-down pass.
Waxter had three catches for 102 yards.
“The turning point in the game was our inability to stop them at the end of the first half,” Fox Chapel coach Tom Loughran said. “If we would have stopped them at the end of the half, we would have had the ball to start the fourth quarter with a chance to go up 21-7.”
Using momentum from a fearless first half, the Foxes took a 21-14 with a 65-yard drive to open the third quarter. Gizzo scored from the 1.
Penn-Trafford was 3 for 3 on fourth downs, and Fox Chapel was 1 of 4.
Fox Chapel surprised the Warriors on the second play from scrimmage when Chase Villani stepped in front of a Cam Laffoon pass and returned it 28 yards for a touchdown.
The pick-6 came just 54 seconds in.
Penn-Trafford quickly responded with a methodical, 12-play drive that covered 76 yards. Dimitri George caught a 24-yard pass, and a series of runs led to Laffoon’s 1-yard score to tie it 7-7.
George had six catches for 78 yards.
Fox Chapel was punishing and deliberate on a late second-quarter drive. The Foxes drove 88 yards in eight plays, with bruising back Micah Morris pushing people down the field. The 6-foot-2, 243-pounder finished with a 2-yard score, and the Foxes took a 14-7 lead.
With its running game held in check, Penn-Trafford resorted to more passing in the first half. But the Foxes continually batted away would-be catches.
Penn-Trafford kept throwing, though, drawing contact, and it led to a key penalty. The Warriors converted two fourth downs — one via a pass-interference call with 35 seconds left in the half — and tied it 14-14 when Laffoon hit George for a 14-yard scoring pass.
Gizzo threw for 133 yards but was held to 38 on the ground, on 20 carries. He ran for more than 1,200 yards this season. Morris ran for 77 yards.
The loss ended a five-game winning streak for Fox Chapel, which has made the WPIAL playoffs just five times in the past two decades.
“There are no moral victories,” Loughran said. “We want to come here and win the game. We prepared to do that and we came up short. We had a chance and didn’t get it done.”
Penn-Trafford beat the Foxes in the first round two years ago, and in the 1997 semifinals.
Neither team made the WPIAL playoffs last season.
The Warriors have advanced to the semifinals in their four most recent trips to the postseason.
They are 10-9 all-time in home playoff games but have won four straight opening-round games at Warrior Stadium.
Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @BillBeckner.