Ligonier Valley, Shade passing attacks to be on display in Saturday’s Appalachian Bowl
In two previous seasons since the Appalachian Bowl high school football game was resurrected from a 22-year hiatus, Ligonier Valley has represented the Heritage Conference with a 97-0 advantage in a pair of one-sided victories.
The District 6-2A Rams, ranked second in the PIAA by Trib Total Media, are at the forefront again this year, having won yet another Heritage regular-season title, and will represent the conference in the third installment of the Appalachian Bowl reboot at 7 p.m. Saturday at Windber Stadium.
With all the hoopla surrounding Ligonier Valley’s potent offense and vaunted defense, the chance of blanking its opponent for a third consecutive time in the annual game that features schools from Districts 5 and 6 appears slim at best.
Ligonier Valley (9-0), which this year has outscored teams by a phenomenal margin of 407-86, just hopes to keep its unbeaten season intact against Western Pennsylvania Athletic Conference champion Shade (9-0).
“Our guys have got to make plays,” Ligonier Valley coach Roger Beitel said. “Shade matches up their athletes and plays man-to-man. It’s a matter of our athletes beating their athletes on both sides of the ball.”
District 5-A Shade, ranked No. 5 by the Trib, poses perhaps the most challenging test in some time for Ligonier Valley, the two-time District 6-2A champion, whose past two seasons have ended with losses in the PIAA playoffs.
The Rams were beaten in the 2016 Class 2A semifinals by Southern Columbia, 31-27, and in the 2017 quarterfinals by Dunmore, 23-20, both times ending undefeated campaigns.
“It’s going to be an interesting match-up. They have athletes,” Shade coach Don Fyfe said.
All eyes will be on the quarterbacks, both prolific passers.
Shade senior Brady Fyfe, the coach’s son, has thrown for 2,723 yards and 38 touchdowns. Fyfe, a four-year varsity starter, has amassed career totals of 10,518 yards passing and 116 touchdowns.
Ligonier Valley senior John Caldwell has totaled 1,906 yards and 28 TDs.
“It has the potential to be the highest scoring Appalachian Bowl, maybe ever,” Beitel said. “Our defense is pretty good, but it’s the nature of passing. You can defend first and second downs really well, and then, ‘Boom!’ move the sticks. We’re going to have to get pressure on (Fyfe).”
The same, once again, could be said for Shade. Ligonier Valley senior wide receiver Aaron Tutino set the state record for career touchdown receptions. He enters Saturday’s game having caught 56 career TD passes, including 16 this year among 45 receptions from Caldwell.
While Fyfe has the more potent offensive numbers versus Caldwell’s, he’s enjoyed a wider array of receiving options. Five players have caught at least 25 passes this year, led by senior Dawson Snyder’s 51.
“I’ll be honest,” Beitel said, “I don’t think he will have seen pressure like we’re going to bring, or have faced a defensive line like we have. That’s for our guys up front to get pressure and our guys in the back end to cover.”
Beitel said he’s not been concerned about the Rams’ ability to handle the Appalachian Bowl’s hyped environment.
“We just played a big game two weeks ago against Northern Cambria for all the marbles,” Beitel said, referring to Ligonier Valley’s 49-6 Heritage title-clinching victory over the previously once-beaten Colts. “Our kids rose up to that occasion. Whenever you have so many kids with the experience these guys have had the last three years, this game isn’t going to be something too big for them.
“I’m more concerned about a quarterback who can sling it all over the place and make plays with his feet and his arm than I am about how our kids are going to respond to the atmosphere of the game.”