Updated: Nov 6, 2021
Story by Josh Shreckengost, Photos by Donna Bosco
Armstrong wide receiver Dozick Zablocki runs away from the Montour defense for the River Hawks' first touchdown of the night, a 35-yard score in the first quarter of the program's first-ever WPIAL playoff victory. Photo Credit: Donna Bosco
Armstrong lineman Jewlius Barnes (73) beats his man into the backfield in the third quarter of the River Hawks' 27-16 WPIAL 4A playoff victory over Montour on Friday night. Barnes had two sacks in the game and was a constant disruption in the Spartans' backfield. Photo credit: Donna Bosco
Armstrong quarterback Cadin Olsen scores on a six-yard TD run in the fourth quarter of the River Hawks' 27-16 win over Montour in the first round of the WPIAL 4A playoffs. Olsen also threw three touchdowns in the game and racked up 254 yards of total offense in the contest. Photo credit: Donna Bosco
KITTANNING, Pa. -- There are no more "what ifs" to consider, Armstrong is finally off the shneid.
The No. 6-seeded River Hawks notched the first-ever WPIAL football playoff win in program history with a 27-16 victory over No. 11 Montour on Friday night thanks to a stifling defensive performance in the second half and another virtuoso offensive showing by junior quarterback Cadin Olsen.
"I'm happy for the kids, it's always special. That's kind of been the bugaboo around the program, that during the Zane [Dudek] years that we didn't get it done and get a playoff win," Armstrong head coach Frank Fabian said. "It's big, it's a big lift for our kids. I'm happy for them, I'm happy for their families. To be able to go over there and celebrate with their families, I think that's a good thing."
The game started out poorly for the home team as a bad snap got past Olsen and into the end zone which resulted in a safety on Armstrong's first possession. After Montour fielded the free kick, Spartans quarterback Jake Wolfe ripped off a 58-yard run on 1st-and-10 which set up running back Caden Williams' three-yard touchdown rush. Following Matthew Marcinko's successful point after, the Montour led, 9-0 with 8:50 left in the first quarter.
"We spotted them nine points, which is never good," Fabian said.
The home crowd sat stunned, but Olsen looked unfazed as he crisply led his team down the field for a touchdown on the ensuing possession. The 68-yard scoring drive took just 2:12 and culminated with Olsen firing a dart to a wide open Dozick Zablocki behind the Montour defense for a 35-yard TD strike.
Following an Armstrong defensive stop on Montour's next possession, Olsen orchestrated another excellent scoring drive, this time a 65-yarder which took 5:02 off the clock. The 6-5 junior pump-faked hard which caused the entire Spartans' secondary to bite and Olsen laid up a perfect lob to sophomore wideout Isaiah Brown for a 27-yard touchdown pitch-and-catch. Following Hunter Reed's extra point, the River Hawks were up, 14-9 and looked to be taking control of the game.
The two teams traded possessions without a score and with 5:45 left in the first half, Montour mounted its most efficient drive of the night. Wolfe handed the ball repeatedly to junior running back Brock Janeda and also hit several clutch, short passes to keep the chains moving. On 3rd-and-8 with just 49 seconds left in the half, senior tailback Caleb Williams scored his second touchdown of the night after he ripped off a 30-yard scamper to pay dirt on a pitch play to the left side. With the late score, the Spartans took a 16-14 lead into the locker room at halftime.
Though Armstrong won the opening toss and elected to defer, the River Hawks' opening possession of the second half stalled at the Montour 47. After being forced to punt, Armstrong's defense began its takeover of the second half and forced a three-and-out on the Spartans' first possession of the half.
That's when Olsen once again went back to work.
The River Hawks started their second possession of the half with exactly seven minutes on the clock and Olsen again made the plays to put his team in a position to score. Jack Valasek made his best catch of the season on 3rd-and-8 from the Montour 36 when he hauled in a leaping 25-yard grab while being blanketed by some very tight Spartans coverage. After being aided by pass interference and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, Armstrong had 1st-and-goal at the Montour 4 when Olsen again faked out the Spartans' coverage and found Zablocki all alone for their second scoring hookup of the night. Reed missed the extra point, but Armstrong was back on top, 20-16 with 2:47 remaining in the third quarter.
"I kind of joked with [Olsen] today because I'm a big Joe Montana guy and Montana has a great quote where he says, 'Great players don't have to be great all the time, just when they need to be'," Fabian said. "This is the playoffs, this is where you build a legacy. He didn't really respond all that much, just kind of gave me a wink, but he had a great week of practice. I knew he was ready to play and he looked like it out there tonight. Once we got the protection solidified, he knew where he was going with the ball. Great game for him. He's a big-time player in a big-time game and he stepped up."
Once the River Hawks were ahead, the defense put the clamps on the Spartans for the rest of the night. Continuous pressure by linemen Dylan Gaggini and Jewlius Barnes disrupted what Montour tried to execute in both the run and pass games during the second half. Zablocki was also excellent throughout defensively which added to his four catch, 68-yard, two touchdown performance from the slot wide receiver position.
"I thought our defensive line and inside linebackers played phenomenally [in the second half]," Fabian said. "Dylan Gaggini had real estate in their backfield and Jewlius [Barnes], Owen Kamer and Dozick Zablocki all did a nice job."
Armstrong allowed only 32 yards of total offense to the Spartans in the second half and Montour's frustration was evident as they took seven huge penalties over the final 24 minutes of play. A six-yard touchdown run by Olsen with 2:02 left in regulation iced it for the River Hawks and capped off a 5:04 drive to seal the first-ever win in River Hawks' program history.
Olsen finished the game 16-of-21 for 196 yards passing and three touchdown tosses and also added 14 carries for 38 yards and a score. Caleb Retzer had a big pass breakup and a sack and forced fumble which was recovered by Zablocki on the Spartan's final possession. Jonathan Yancy had five catches for 38 yards while Valasek chipped in with three grabs for 35 yards. Alex Patton had 38 yards rushing on nine carries.
Armstrong will now hit the road to face McKeesport in the quarterfinals on Nov. 12. The River Hawks dropped a tightly-contested matchup to the Tigers at home early in the regular season, 24-14, and Fabian knows that the competition will once again be stiff next Friday.
"We got down in the red zone and we missed two field goals and then we gave up two long runs [against McKeesport]," Fabian said. "Their quarterback [Caleb Reist] did not play in the first game so we know that historically, when you play McKeesport, they get better as the year goes on. I am certain that they're a much better team at this point, but I also think that we're a much better team so it makes for a good matchup."