Touchdown with 2 seconds left sends defending champ Pine-Richland back to WPIAL finals

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Friday, November 10, 2023 | 11:58 PM


Pine-Richland was two seconds away from a season-ending loss when freshman Aaron “Oobi” Strader narrowly crossed the goal line on a touchdown run that has the defending champion headed back to the WPIAL finals.

“If there’s time on the clock, there’s a chance,” coach Jon LeDonne said.

But time was quickly running out.

With less than four minutes left, Pine-Richland still hadn’t scored a point in Friday’s WPIAL semifinal but that hadn’t deterred the Rams. Junior kicker Grant Argiro broke the shutout with a field goal in the fourth quarter and later kicked the winning extra point after Strader’s touchdown as No. 3 Pine-Richland stunned No. 2 Penn Hills, 16-9, at North Hills’ Martorelli Stadium.

The final score was misleading because Pine-Richland’s defense returned a fumble for a touchdown with no time left. But the Rams had trailed 9-0 and scored all of their points in the final 3 minutes, 36 seconds.

They led 10-9 after Strader’s 4-yard touchdown run and Argiro’s two kicks.

“This is probably one of the most dramatic, intense, emotional games that I’ve ever been a part of,” said LeDonne, who already has two state titles on his coaching resume.

Pine-Richland’s late rally overcame a dominant effort from a Penn Hills defense that had Indians great Aaron Donald on the sideline.

The win sends Pine-Richland (9-3) back to the WPIAL finals. The third-seeded Rams faces No. 1 Peters Township (12-0) at noon, Nov. 18, at Norwin.

Penn Hills (9-3) was trying to reach the finals for the first time since 2018, when LeDonne was the Indians’ coach.

“Our kids played their heart out,” Penn Hills coach Charles Morris said. “We didn’t come up on the winning side like we’d hoped. … A few plays swung their way and they were victorious.”

Friday’s result was a reversal from the regular season, when Penn Hills won, 26-20, in Week 2.

Adding drama to Strader’s winning touchdown was that he transferred from Penn Hills to Pine-Richland last spring.

“It was real emotional,” Strader said. “Coming from Penn Hills, transferring here, there was a lot of emotion going into the game. There was a lot of talk before the game. I came and handled it.”

Strader’s scramble to the end zone forced a 9-9 tie, setting up Argiro for the go-ahead kick with two seconds left. Penn Hills’ defense had met Strader at the goal line but the quarterback broke the plane.

His touchdown run capped an 11-play, 69-yard drive in the final 2:20.

“I just had to stay poised and go get the win for my team,” said Strader, who rushed for 19 yards and passed for 36 on the winning drive.

The 5-foot-9, 165-pound freshman sparked a Pine-Richland offense that hadn’t shown much life until then.

The Rams had less than 100 yards from scrimmage in the first three quarters, and their typically stout wildcat offense wasn’t working as usual. Running back Ethan Pillar was held to 47 yards on 20 carries.

Needing a touchdown on the final drive, LeDonne turned to Strader.

“We hope and pray we don’t get in a 2-minute situation at the end of the game like that,” LeDonne said. “We don’t work it too much. … ‘Oobi’ Strader just showed poise and determination. I just can’t say enough about what he did tonight.”

Strader completed only 5 of 15 passes for 58 yards and added 47 rushing yards on 13 carries. But on the final possession, he connected on throws of 11, 16 and nine yards and had a key 12-yard run.

“We didn’t do a good job of getting pressure on the quarterback on that last drive, which isn’t typical of us,” Morris said. “We had a couple of (penalty) calls. We just didn’t close the game like we’re used to doing.”

Pine-Richland finished with 189 yards of offense. Penn Hills’ offense wasn’t much better with 257 yards.

Senior running back Amir Key led Penn Hills with 112 yards on 17 carries, and Dugger added 73 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries.

The teams combined for four lost fumbles, three by Penn Hills.

“It was a defensive struggle,” LeDonne said. “Outside of a couple of broken plays, I couldn’t tell you if we would’ve been over 100 yards apiece.”

Pine-Richland’s final touchdown was a 25-yard fumble return by Evan Johnson with no time left. Penn Hills was hoping to score with multiple laterals but lost the ball.

Penn Hills had built a 9-0 lead with a 32-yard field goal by Landon Hankey in the second quarter and an 8-yard touchdown run by Dugger in the third. Hankey’s extra-point kick was blocked by Pine-Richland lineman Ryan Cory, a play that proved pivotal later.

Penn Hills led 9-0, but Argiro cut into the deficit with a 42-yard field with 3:36 remaining in the fourth.

After a three-and-out by Penn Hills’ offense, Pine-Richland got the ball back at its own 31 with 2:20 left. The Rams were a run-heavy team all season but trailing, 9-3, they needed to move quickly.

Strader led Pine-Richland 69 yards, helped by a couple of Penn Hills penalties. He was looking to pass on the Rams’ final play — a third-and-goal from the 4 — but instead scrambled for the touchdown.

“I saw the linebacker jump up,” Strader said, “and seeing that there was nobody else there to cover me, I just went for the end zone.”

Chris Harlan is a TribLive reporter covering sports. He joined the Trib in 2009 after seven years as a reporter at the Beaver County Times. He can be reached at charlan@triblive.com.

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