Gator Football: District 9 Champs



Lori Chase
Port Allegany Reporter Argus
Dec. 1, 2011

The scoreboard read Port Allegany 35, Clarion 34 as quarterback Matt Bodamer prepared to take a knee, one final clock-burning play before the Gators could officially lay claim to the school’s first District 9 football championship.

Over on the visitors’ sideline at Varischetti Field, wide receiver Charlie Buchanan made a similar move, albeit for a slightly different reason.

“Indescribable,” he said afterward, shaking his head while he tried to explain the moment. “I just kind of had to kneel down for a second and gather myself, and realize that all the hard work we put in paid off and we were finally D-9 champs. To go there last year, to get that far and come away empty-handed, it was nice to come back this year and be able to come out on top this time.”

Meanwhile, in the huddle, tackle Tyler Burr couldn’t resist a glance toward the celebration beginning to unfold.

“Actually, I was more worried about looking over to see Mr. Bodamer getting drenched with water,” he said with a smile before adding, “That was the best feeling in the world.”

For the senior co-captains, and for the rest of their teammates who stood on a snowy, windswept Brockway field a year ago to watch Curwensville accept the championship plaque, last Saturday’s win was sweet redemption.

“We were here last year, and the kids didn’t like the feeling of not winning that. Curwensville was a heck of a team,” head coach Mike Bodamer said. “I knew we had the kids coming back that could compete. Our offense just really clicked this year, and it saved us today.”

To be sure, the Gators (12-1) needed every point they could get to hold off a powerful Clarion team bent on claiming its second D-9 crown in three seasons. In a wild game with four ties and three lead changes, the margin of victory came down to a missed game-tying extra point after the Bobcats’ final touchdown.

“Luckily, that kid just kind of shanked it,” coach Bodamer said. “I don’t think we got any pressure on him; I think he just mis-kicked it. I have to give credit to Scotty (Brookens, Port Allegany’s kicker). He was 5-for-5, and that was the game.”

Right from the start, it was clear that this wasn’t going to be a low-scoring struggle. Damien Slike’s 52-yard return of the opening kickoff gave the Bobcats (8-5) outstanding field position, and star running back T.J. Armstrong hammered the defense for 26 yards on his first four carries. But on his fifth, the ball popped free, with Brock Taylor recovering at the Port 2 to stop what looked like an inevitable touchdown.

Three plays later, the Gators were the team lining up to kick the extra point. Dropping into his own end zone on third-and-10, Matt Bodamer found Trevor Neal open a step behind the defense, and the anchor of Port’s 400-meter relay team used his sprinter’s speed to outrun everyone for a 98-yard scoring strike.

“Just a quick slant to Trevor, and finally he could use his speed.” coach Bodamer said. “I thought for sure he was going to get caught, but he had enough speed to get through.”

Leading 7-0, the Gators looked like they were about to add more after forcing a three-and-out on Clarion’s next possession. But back-to-back turnovers on a botched snap and an interception by Camron Kirkland set up Bobcat scoring drives of 19 and 32 yards, with quarterback Brandon Heeter finding Kirkland open over the middle for the first touchdown and diving in on a 3-yard keeper for the second. All of a sudden, as the first quarter ended, Port was playing from behind.

“We gave the momentum right back to them when we had our snap fumble on our dummy play and Matt threw that interception. We gave them 14 points right back,” coach Bodamer said.

The Gators would respond on Matt Bodamer’s 1-yard pass to Rickie Bova, but the first of three Armstrong touchdown runs would put the ‘Cats back in the lead with 2:34 left in the half.

Plenty of time for Port’s quick-strike offense to operate. Sure enough, it took under a minute for Bodamer to find Tyce Miller, who made a leaping catch, ducked a tackle, and raced in for a 27-yard score to tie the game at 21-21 as the teams headed into their locker rooms.

“Tyce is pretty good at that,” coach Bodamer said. “He’s kind of a slippery kid. Once he gets his speed going, he’s tough to catch.”

It was the third of five touchdown tosses – each to a different receiver – for the junior quarterback, who finished the game 24-of-39 for 369 yards and now has 6,780 career yards, passing Smethport’s Mike Defilippi (6,638) for second place on the all-time D-9 leaderboard.

“He’s a tremendous quarterback,” veteran Clarion coach Larry Wiser said. “I said to his dad, ‘Listen, I’ve seen some good quarterbacks over the years, and this kid ranks up there.’ But I think more than anything else, they have more than one receiver. You usually trap, double-team one receiver, and they had four kids they threw the ball to. We seemed to be guessing wrong almost all the time when we were trying to do some traps with some of the guys they were sending out there.”

Two of those receivers hit the century mark against Clarion, with Miller (7 catches-132 yards) stretching his team-leading totals to 69 catches for 1,201 yards and 15 touchdowns, and Neal (4-124) notching his first 100-yard game of the season.

But the Gators’ halftime talk wasn’t about the offense.

“Probably can’t print it,” coach Bodamer chuckled when asked about it afterward. “Halfway through the game I felt like, ‘Just let them score and let’s get the offense back on the field.’”

Whether or not he actually meant that, a quick Armstrong touchdown on Clarion’s first possession of the second half had Port High playing catchup again.

“If you try to hit him high, he’s going to go right over you,” Gator linebacker Alex Gular said of Armstrong, who finished with 138 yards on 29 carries. “I told the rest of the team, ‘Keep hitting him low, he’ll keep going down.’ Me, I’m not very good at hitting high, so I hit people low to start with. But that kid can run like a mule, and if he gets in open space, he’s fast.”

But as they had all day, Port responded once again. Trent Neal opened a long drive with a 12-yard screen pass from Bodamer and finished it with a sensational diving catch on a pass tipped just past the line of scrimmage, the 2-yard touchdown and Brookens’ extra point knotting the score at 28-28. And after Victor Bandish recovered a Bobcat fumble to stall their next drive, Bodamer found Conway for a 28-yard catch-and-run to make the score 35-28 Gators as the third quarter ended.

Clarion wasn’t through just yet. Armstrong’s third touchdown of the day brought them within a point, but Tanner Klein’s kick was low and wide right, leaving Port clinging to the slimmest of leads with 6:29 left in the game.

The Bobcats would get the ball back once more, but heavy pressure on Heeter by Bandish and Nick Budd forced back-to-back incompletions, and Conway swatted away his desperate fourth-and-long attempt from his own 21-yard line. One strong Trent Neal run and an offsides penalty later, all that remained was running the final minute off the clock as the celebration began.

“We knew we’d have a good enough team to make the playoffs, and once you get there you just want to keep going until you get to this game and see what you can do,” coach Bodamer said. “The kids responded well. It wasn’t our best game, but we did enough to win. We’re not going to give it away.”

Wiser added, “My hat’s off to both teams. I thought they gave the crowd a good game today. For a defensive coordinator, though, I’m going to go back and have nightmares all night.”

The Gators will face a tall task in their first PIAA playoff game, when they make the long trip southwest on Friday to face unbeaten Sharpsville at Slippery Rock University’s Mihalik-Thompson Stadium (7 p.m., WHKS-FM 94.9). No strangers to postseason play, the Blue Devils (12-0) claimed their seventh District 10 title last weekend under 16th-year head coach Paul Piccirilli (142-47), who also guided the team to the 1997 Class A state championship.

Sharpsville runs a traditional Wing-T offense behind a line which averages almost 240 pounds per player. 5-foot-11, 200-pound fullback Spencer Bland was the Blue Devils’ leading rusher during the regular season with 860 yards and 12 touchdowns. Dersean Alberty-Brown (655 yards, 11 touchdowns) also sees significant time in the backfield, though the team’s depth took a hit when starting halfback Joey Flynn (knee) and Derrick Odem (shoulder) both sustained serious injuries during the D-10 playoffs.

Senior quarterback Jake Henwood (39-87, 850 yards, 15 touchdowns, two interceptions) doesn’t often look to pass. When he does, with dual-threat Flynn out of the lineup, Tyler Luchey (18 catches, 361 yards, 7 touchdowns) is his most likely target.

The stout 5-3 defense is anchored by tackles Dylan Hogue and Robby Moss, with Bland making plays at middle linebacker. The Blue Devils have allowed just 93 points all season, notching five shutouts along the way.

“Sharpsville’s good,” said Bodamer after scouting the D-10 title game. “They are legitimate. Big, gigantic line, real good running backs. It’ll be a test. We’ll have to spread them out as much as we can and try to use our athletes, but it’s going to be tough stopping their run game.”

But for a day or two, anyway, there was time enough to savor this win.

“I just feel good for the kids,” Bodamer said. “They’ve busted their rear ends all year. We haven’t had a problem; they’ve worked hard. We’ve had no head cases.

“And the fans have been great. This is the way fans should act. They’ve been supportive all year – nothing derogatory, it’s just been positive. So I’d like to extend a thank-you to the fans, because they’ve been true fans this year. We really appreciate that.”

At Brockway, Nov. 26:

Score by quarters:
Port Allegany   7 14 14  0 35
Clarion 14   7   7  6 34

First Quarter
Port A (7:49) – Trevor Neal 98 pass from Matt Bodamer (3 plays, 98 yards, 0:57), Scott Brookens kick, 7-0
Clarion (5:35) – Camron Kirkland 19 pass from Brandon Heeter (2 plays, 19 yards, 0:42), Tanner Klein kick, 7-7
Clarion (1:28) – Heeter 3 run (8 plays, 32 yards, 3:44), Klein kick, 14-7

Second Quarter
Port A (11:57) – Rickie Bova 1 pass from Bodamer (8 plays, 55 yards, 1:31), Brookens kick, 14-14
Clarion (2:41) – T.J. Armstrong 1 run (12 plays, 86 yards, 5:41), Klein kick, 21-14
Port A (1:42) – Tyce Miller 27 pass from Bodamer (7 plays, 73 yards, 0:59), Brookens kick, 21-21

Third Quarter
Clarion (9:13) – Armstrong 2 run (5 plays, 59 yards, 1:59), Klein kick, 28-21
Port A (6:23) – Trent Neal 2 pass from Bodamer (13 plays, 70 yards, 2:50), Brookens kick, 28-28
Port A (0:00) – Kyle Conway 28 pass from Bodamer (7 plays, 61 yards, 3:26), Brookens kick, 35-28

Fourth Quarter
Clarion (6:29) – Armstrong 11 run (6 plays, 38 yards, 2:30), kick failed, 35-34

Team Statistics: Port A Clarion
First downs 20 19
Rushes-Yards 26-58 52-252
Comp-Att-Int 24-39-1 6-21-0
Passing Yards 369 115
Total Yards 427 367
Fumbles-Lost 2-1 2-2
Punts-Avg. 2-30.0 3-40.3
Penalties-Yards 6-57 9-70
Total Plays 65 73
Time of poss. 20:10 27:50

Individual statistics:
Rushing: Port Allegany – Matt Bodamer 12-44; Trent Neal 7-38; Nick Conway 1-5; Garrett Drabert 2-0; team 4-(-29). Clarion – T.J. Armstrong 29-138, 3 TDs; Camron Kirkland 8-69; Marcus Smerker 8-26; Brandon Heeter 4-13; Damien Slike 3-6.

Passing: Port Allegany – Bodamer 24-39, 369 yards, 5 TDs, 1 INT. Clarion – Heeter 6-20, 115 yards, 1 TD; Armstrong 0-1.

Receiving: Port Allegany – Tyce Miller 7-132, TD; Trevor Neal 4-126, TD; Nick Conway 3-45, TD; Charlie Buchanan 3-30; Rickie Bova 3-25, TD; Trent Neal 2-14, TD; Drabert 1-3; Bodamer 1-(-6). Clarion – Kirkland 2-39, TD; Slike 1-45; Smerker 1-18; Armstrong 1-8; Antonio Troese 1-6.

(Helmets courtesy of