Pine-Richland grateful for ‘ugly’ playoff win |
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Chris Harlan
Pine-Richland's Connor Slomka stiff-arms State College's Stan Martin during the first quarter of their PIAA Class AAAA quarterfinal Saturday, Nov. 29, 2014, at Mansion Park in Altoona. Pine-Richland won 49-29.

ALTOONA — When an official penalized him for having a buckle on his chin strap undone, Ben DiNucci readied for a long day.

Five yards for an equipment violation?

“I’ve never heard that call before,” Pine-Richland’s quarterback said. “One of my guys came up to me and said that’s a penalty on you. I was like, ‘What?’ ”

Clinging to a four-point second-half lead, Pine-Richland overcame a start-and-stop, penalty-filled afternoon to beat State College, 49-29, in a PIAA Class AAAA quarterfinal at Mansion Park Stadium. The teams combined for an almost evenly split 27 penalties and more than 200 penalty yards.

The slow pace worked against Pine-Richland’s no-huddle offense. But three fourth-quarter touchdowns let the Rams finally build a comfortable lead.

“It is kind of hard to get into a rhythm when you’re trying to move the ball and every other play there’s a yellow flag down,” DiNucci said. “It’s just something you have to adjust to and roll with it as they come.”

Pine-Richland (14-0) had three turnovers, a failed fourth-down conversion and some key missed tackles. But afterward, the Rams insisted even ugly wins are worth celebrating at this point in the season.

“Extremely ugly,” Pine-Richland coach Eric Kasperowicz said. “As a coach, you’re frustrated with how things are going at times. But ultimately it doesn’t matter. A win’s a win. We got out of here with a victory and move on to the next round.”

The victory takes Pine-Richland to the PIAA semifinals for the first time since 2003, when the Rams were in Class AAA. They will face District 3 champion Wilson next weekend.

“A win’s a win, no matter how hard or easy it is to come by,” DiNucci said. “Today wasn’t our sharpest offensively or defensively. But a win is definitely a win.”

DiNucci completed 16 of 27 passes for 239 yards and three touchdowns, rushed for another and threw two interceptions.

D’Ondre Gastion (3 yards), Antonio Battaglia (49 yards) and Luke Everett (28 yards) caught touchdowns.

Running back Connor Slomka had 151 yards on 20 carries and two touchdowns. Mike Merhaut returned a kickoff 47 yards for another score when State College (6-7) attempted an onside kick.

“Offensively, we didn’t finish some drives,” Kasperowicz said. “Defensively, there were a couple holes there.”

State College’s John Weakland passed for 261 yards, and Jordan Misher rushed for 172.

“We thought we’d beat them,” State College coach Matt Lintal said. “I don’t know if anyone else in the state thought so.”

When State College scored on its opening drive of the second half, the Little Lions were within four points. After junior Misher caught a 59-yard touchdown from Weakland, the Rams led 21-17.

But Pine-Richland answered immediately with an 11-play, 65-yard touchdown drive. When DiNucci ran in from 4 yards, the Rams’ lead was 28-17.

“It got a little dicey,” Kasperowicz said. “We knew we just had to finish … and get off the field on defense.”

Pine-Richland was facing second-and-goal at the 1 when DiNucci was called for the chin-strap penalty. The Rams later scored on fourth-and-goal with a 2-yard run by Slomka to lead 7-0.

“That’s a pretty big time to call it,” Kasperowicz said.

Chris Harlan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @CHarlan_Trib.

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