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South Side Rolls Into WPIAL Class A Final

by Rick Smith, Nauticom Sports Network

Photos by Pete Gyrich, Interview Quotes by Al Goehring

South Side Beaver (12-0) continued its march to the WPIAL championship game with a 44-18 semi-final playoff victory over Fort Cherry before an overflow crowd at Hampton High School's Fridley Field last Friday evening. The Rams blew open a tight contest with a dominating second half performance on both offense and defense.

Fort Cherry (10-2) jumped on top first on the strength of its passing game. Perry Ivery was the recipient of a 37 yard pass off a reverse handoff from Adam Moss that advanced the ball to the South Side 43 yard line. Three plays later, Rangers' quarterback Matt Baldigowski hit Ivery as he streaked down the sideline for a 37 yard touchdown strike to give Fort Cherry a 6-0 lead.

The Rams cut the lead in half midway through the second quarter with a 26 yard field goal by Jared Lewis. The 13 play drive spanned 52 yards and consumed 5:52 from the game clock.

Neither team had much luck moving the ball on the ground in the first half of action as the defenses dominated. South Side gained just 57 yards rushing in the first 24 minutes. Fort Cherry could only muster 51 yards with its highly publicized backfield duo of tailback Mike Vernillo and fullback Brandon Chiera.

It didn't take long, however, for things to open up in the second half. South Side scored touchdowns on each of its first five possessions in the second half.

"We weren't controlling the line of scrimmage," said South Side quarterback Sean McCune, "That stopped us from doing what we wanted to do."

On the initial drive of the third quarter, McCune capped off a 68 yard drive with a 21 yard touchdown run to give the Rams a 10-6 lead that they would never relinquish. McCune also completed two passes for 45 yards during the possession.

"We were able to make some adjustments at halftime that let us run the ball and opened things up for us," said South Side head coach Glenn McDougal.

On the ensuing drive, Fort Cherry was stopped short of a first down on a fourth down and less than two yards to go at the South Side 48 yard line. Quickly taking advantage, the Rams moved the ball methodically down the field to extend its lead to 16-6 with 31 seconds remaining in the third quarter. On the tenth play of the drive, McCune connected with Dan Nale on a 4 yard touchdown pass.

"(McCune's) leadership on the field was really evident here tonight," said McDougal, "He kind of took over the game. He made some big plays in the third quarter."

McCune completed 7 of 12 passes for 126 yards and rushed for 70 yards on 15 carries on the night.

Vernillo kept the Fort Cherry hopes alive with a 40 yard touchdown run to close the gap to 16-12 with 10:10 left in the game. But South Side's Dan Nale answered less than two minutes later with a 20 yard touchdown run of his own to extend the Rams' lead to 23-12. Nale caught 4 passes for 74 yards and ran the ball 3 times for 41 yards during the contest.

Following the offense's lead, it was time for the South Side defense to get into the act. Dan Smith returned an interception 25 yards to the Fort Cherry 25 yard line, setting up a an 8 yard touchdown run by Rams' fullback Cory Boyd. The 5'7" 212 junior finished the night with 86 yards rushing.

"We're not the biggest group of guys, but we have a lot of guys who like to hit," said McCune, "We have a lot of guys who like to run to the ball."

On Fort Cherry's next possession, the Rams' Justin Tiller picked off a Baldigowski pass and returned it 12 yards to the Rangers' 49 yard line. Seven plays later, Boyd punched it in from one yard out. It was Boyd's 25th touchdown of the season. Boyd finished the night with 90 yards rushing on 17 carries.

South Side's special teams contributed the final score for the Rams as Kevin Crivellaro returned a blocked punt 18 yards to make the score 44-12 with 1:01 left in the game. Brandon Pantis blocked the punt for South Side.

Vernillo had one last thrill for the fans at Fridley Field to end his storied high school career. The West Virginia University recruit raced 61 yards for the game's final tally. The 5'11" 195 pound senior finished the game with 146 yards rushing on 19 carries. Vernillo finishes as the leading rusher in WPIAL history with 7,646 yards on the ground. He ran for 2,055 yards this season alone.

With the 44-18 victory, South Side advances to the WPIAL Class A championship game on Saturday at Three Rivers Stadium. Kickoff is at 10am. Monaca (10-2), which lost to South Side by a 22-6 score during the first week of the season, will be the opponent.

"The Monaca Indians are a good team with a great coaching staff," said McCune, "We're going to have to bring our 'A' game and get ready to play a hard football game."

"Monaca is always tough," said McDougal, "They're scary and I'm sure they think we're scary."