By John Hartsock
The lead in the Laurel Highlands Athletic Conference standings will be up for grabs Friday night, when Penn Cambria and Richland — both 7-0 overall and in the conference — collide in a 7 pm kickoff at Richland High School’s Herlinger Field.
Penn Cambria coach Nick Felus and his players have embraced a one game at a time approach all season, but both Felus and Richland coach Brandon Bailey recognize the significance of Friday’s matchup.
“We really go week to week, one game at a time, but everybody understands that as you get into the later part of the season, some games have a little bit more significance,” Felus said. “We’re excited for this opportunity.
“It’s been a real long time since our program has been in this position, and we’re going to work extremely hard this week in preparing and we hope that things can go well for us on Friday night,” Felus added.
Bailey’s Richland programs are very familiar with high-stakes games. The Rams have enjoyed a long history of success, with four consecutive District 6 Class 2A championships to their credit.
Richland has a chance to add another feather to its cap Friday, but Bailey knows that Penn Cambria will present a huge challenge.
“Both teams have really put themselves in a position to have a big-game environment on Friday,” Bailey said. “Penn Cambria has beaten some excellent teams and we’ve had some big wins ourselves. So this game is exciting for both communities.”
Penn Cambria senior Andrew Wyland, who is a four-year starter at both right guard on offense and defensive tackle for the Panthers, expects an exciting game Friday.
“This year, we’ve become a good team and all of our players have bought in to the program,” Wyland said. “We’re able to make the plays that we need to make on the field.
“I think the Richland game is going to be a very tough game for us, but I think that we can have the upper hand if we all do what we need to do, stay accountable to our roles on the field, and play the game the way we all know how to play it,” Wyland added.
While Penn Cambria rolled to a 49-6 rout of Somerset last Friday in which the Panthers were able to get many of their reserve players field time after the first quarter, Richland stayed unbeaten by outlasting Bedford, 25-23.
“It was really a back-and-forth game,” Bailey said of the Rams’ victory last week. “It was a really good high school football game that came down to the last minute.”
Senior quarterback Sam Penna threw a pair of touchdown passes to speedy junior running back Evan McCracken, including the game-winner in the fourth quarter for Richland. The Rams stopped Bedford at the Richland 26 on Bedford’s final drive of the night, before taking an intentional safety to run out the clock.
Penna has completed 75 of 104 passes for 1,043 yards and 11 touchdowns this season, while McCracken has rushed for 509 yards on 82 carries and 10 scores, and also has 16 pass receptions for 220 yards and three touchdowns.
Sophomore wideout Austin Yarnick has a team-leading 19 receptions for 323 yards and three touchdowns for Richland, which has scored an average of 37 points per game.
“Their running back Evan McCracken is explosive, they have some playmakers on the perimeter, and they’re good up front,” Felus said of the Rams, who have succeeded this season despite the fact that two of their top senior players, Grayden Lewis and Brock Batche, both sustained season-ending injuries very early in the year.
“Their offensive line comes off the ball and they’re sound with their technique,” Felus said of the Rams. “Defensively, they do a good job of taking some of (an opposing team’s) best plays away.”
That won’t be an easy task against Penn Cambria and its four-year starting quarterback Garrett Harrold, who is not only very skilled himself, but who also has a bevy of talented teammates working with him on the offensive side of the ball.
Harrold has completed 85 of 119 passes for 1,278 yards and 18 touchdowns, and has been intercepted only twice all season. He has also rushed for 578 yards on 74 carries and eight touchdowns.
Senior running back Zach Grove has a team-leading 737 rushing yards on 82 carries and has run for 11 touchdowns, while catching 15 passes for 193 yards and four scores.
Senior Vinny Chirdon leads the Panthers in receptions with 26 for 336 yards and eight touchdowns, while senior Luke Shuagis has 19 receptions for 308 yards and four touchdowns. Harrold’s younger brother, Gavin, has caught 16 passes for 220 yards and a touchdown.
Penn Cambria’s multi-dimensional attack has enabled the Panthers to average nearly 40 points per game this season.
“Garrett Harrold has been playing for four years and he’s such a great football player,” Bailey said. “Coach Felus has done a really good job of resurrecting their program and he and his assistant coaches make use of all of the athletes that they have.
“What makes Penn Cambria so tough with their run-pass option is that their offense kind of takes what the (opposing) defense presents to them,” Bailey added. “We will have to be at the top of our game to come out with a win against them.”
Felus feels the same way about Richland.
“They’re a very well-balanced, well-coached team and they’ve been a premier program for a very long time,” Felus said. “They do things really well in all three phases of the game.
“We’re excited for a great battle,” Felus added. “It’s going to be an electric atmosphere at their field on Friday night. This kind of game is great for high school football in the area.”
Penn Cambria at Richland
Where: Richland High School’s Herlinger Field.
When: Friday night, 7 pm
Records: Both teams are 7-0 overall and in the Laurel Highlands Athletic Conference.
Coaches: Nick Felus is 25-44 in seven seasons, including 18-21 in four seasons at Penn Cambria. Brandon Bailey is 142-90 in 21 seasons at Richland.
Last meeting: Richland won, 56-13 in 2020. The two schools did not play last season, when Penn Cambria forfeited the game due to COVID-19 related issues.