By: Harold Raker | Towanda Daily Review | November 4, 2017
CATAWISSA — The first playoff game of the season turned out to be a breakout game for senior Anthony Scicchitano.
Sure, his Southern Columbia Tigers won another mercy-rule game, 63-26 over North Penn-Mansfield in Friday night's District 4 Class AA quarterfinal.
But, with star split end/cornerback Julian Fleming sidelined, Scicchitano knew that he and his teammates needed to make some plays and the 6-foot-1, 185-pound Scicchitano made two of them at key moments in the game at Jim Roth Field at Tiger Stadium.
First, his leaping catch on a drag across the back of the end zone from quarterback Stone Hollenbach answered an early North Penn score and got the Tigers back up 14-6 with four minutes, 10 seconds left in the first quarter.
"It's not something I'm not used to doing. We ran that play in practice. Stone put it right where it needed to be and I just went up and made a nice play," Scicchitano said.
Scicchitano said, "Stone and I have been preparing all week for this with Julian being out, we have to spread the ball around a lot more. We've been ready for it, even though I don't have that many receptions, I was ready to step into the offense.''
In the second quarter of a wild first half, it was Scicchitano who doused the flames again after the Panthers had cut it to 28-20 on a 48-yard TD pass from quarterback Brent Burleigh to slotback Dylan Wesneski.
On the fourth play after the Wesneski TD, Hollenbach threw just his second interception of the season, with Austin Frost picking off a pass in the end zone.
After linebacker Cal Haladay blitzed and sacked Burleigh for a 10-yard loss, Scicchitano snatched a Burleigh pass off a teammate's deflection and raced five yards to the end zone. Elijah Hoffman's PAT made it 35-20 with 7:05 left in the half, and the upset-minded No. 8 seeded Panthers never got close again.
"It bounced off (sophomore lineman) Lear Quinton's helmet, so credit him for being in the right place at the right time," Scicchitano said. "I have to give him a big hug when I get up (to the locker room). I got a little lucky."
He said he wanted the interception because he had one last year, but none this season.
Stepping up big in Fleming's absence was sophomore split end Preston Zachman, with six catches for 82 yards and a TD.
And with fellow star Fleming watching, the result of a hamstring injury, all-state sophomore halfback Gaige Garcia had a huge night rushing for 187 yards on just 16 carries and three scores.
"We always have to step it up and Julian's a big part of the offense and defense, so coming into a playoff game you always have to step up and put in your best effort," Garcia said.
"It wasn't a bad night, we need to touch some things up here and there with some run plays, but overall it wasn't a bad night," he said.
Garcia and his first-team played more than they have in most games, thanks to the comebacks for the gutsy Panthers.
Garcia agreed that wasn't a bad thing going into playoffs. "It got a little too close there, but playing more gives us a little more experience going onto the playoffs."
Southern coach Jim Roth said, "I like the balance that we had with Julian not in the game, I think it gives those guys more confidence."
Roth said the pass defense had its confidence shaken last week against Selinsgrove and with North Penn, "We knew they threw the ball well all year, they're a spread team, they have some athletes, so they're going to make some plays.
"We felt that overall they shouldn't have had as much success as they did. It's an area we just have to continue to address."
North Penn coach Tom Dickinson said he was proud of his team's performance and said the team accomplished what it had hoped, to give Southern a game.
"It was 28-20 at one point. I wanted our kids to compete, which they did, and give them a game and play hard and I thought we did," Dickinson added.
"I wanted to use it as an experience and this is a program you want to emulate and try to be like. We learned that lesson and I told them to play hard and have fun and I think our kids did, especially that first half. We were having a lot of fun," he added.
"We gave them a battle and I hope they go the rest of the way, we hope to see them in the end of the year in the state championship."
The Panthers dug themselves a hole early when they fumbled the snap on a punt attempt, setting the Tigers up at the North Penn five-yard line. Two plays later senior halfback Tristan Heim scored from the one to get the Tigers up 7-0 just 1:50 into the contest.
But Burleigh quickly led the Panthers on a 12-play, 72-yard scoring drive capped by a nine-yard TD pass to Wesneski.
The rest of the first half resembled a playground game with the Tigers breathing more comfortably at the break with a 42-20 advantage.
Southern got the ball first to start the second half and drove 78 yards in 14 plays, with Heim scoring on a nine-yard run to get it to 49-20.
The final wheels fell off for the Panthers when they fumbled the ball back to the Tigers after a short completion and Garcia went 26 yards for the score.
North Penn senior running back Brendan Hill picked up 12 yards on eight carries to reach 1,004 for his career.