Oct. 27—This hasn't been a normal week of preparation for coach Brandon Bailey and his Richland High School staff.
The injury-plagued Rams will be short-handed in the first football championship game in the expanded Laurel Highlands Athletic Conference.
LHAC West representative Richland (9-0) will travel to Roaring Spring on Friday night to face East winner Central (9-0) in a battle of undefeated teams.
It will be the first time the LHAC has played a championship game since 1993, when Forest Hills defeated Cambria Heights 26-6 at Portage in the only on-field title game in conference history prior to Friday.
"Grayson Mahla and Dominick Shank are both ruled out for this game," Bailey said of two freshmen quarterbacks who put forth veteran-type efforts before each was injured.
"Evan McCracken is questionable to doubtful," the Rams coach said of the four-year starting running back/defensive back who is one of the area's top playmakers.
"It will be interesting. It's the next man up mentality. We have a bunch of guys who we think are going to be able to pull this off."
Central coach Dave Baker has advised his players not to listen to chatter about who won't be on the field for Richland. The veteran Scarlet Dragons coach stressed to his squad that whoever wears the Rams uniform will be ready to compete.
"We don't know what they're going to do about the quarterbacks," Baker said.
"We do know their offensive and defensive linemen are big, strong kids that are good. That's the strength of their team.
"The other thing is them breaking loose with McCracken. Even though they don't have their starting quarterbacks, they're still a very formidable team."
Mahla hasn't played since a 46-6 win over Somerset in Week 6. He has thrown for 1,189 yards, 10 touchdowns and two interceptions. Shank stepped in the past three games, throwing for 410 yards, five TDs and four interceptions before suffering a leg injury late in Oct. 20's 28-10 win over visiting Chestnut Ridge.
Freshman Jamere Christian replaced Shank on the final play of a drive that ended with a touchdown run by Easton Robertson.
Senior Ethan Janidlo, a 6-foot, 215-pound standout two-way lineman and Seton Hill baseball commit, played quarterback early in his career and had been listed as an emergency QB. Before the Chestnut Ridge game, Janidlo was banged up and out of the lineup when Shank suffered his injury.
"Ethan Janidlo is an all-conference caliber offensive and defensive lineman," Bailey said. "He has experience playing the quarterback position. He's a smart, athletic individual who we feel could give us some snaps there.
"Jamere Christian is a dynamic player who has taken snaps on the jayvee level. Noah Ritko, our kicker, has taken some snaps on the jayvee level."
McCracken, who has 941 rushing yards and 138 points this season, has been productive out of the wildcat formation. The Army West Point recruit missed most of the final quarter due to an injury suffered against Chestnut Ridge.
Bailey said Richland will be ready to compete for a title despite the injury report.
"We're both 9-0. Both teams are confident they can win the game," Bailey said.
"Obviously, with some of our injuries and the situation, we need to have a great effort on defense and keep that thing close.
"I'm confident in the guys we have back there playing that quarterback position," he added. "We've got to win the line of scrimmage and get those guys the football."
Central is the top-ranked team in District 6 Class 3A, and Richland sits atop the Class 2A rankings.
Scarlet Dragons junior quarterback Eli Muthler has thrown for 2,206 yards, 25 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Four-year starter Hunter Smith has 612 rushing yards and 14 TDs, and he has 65 tackles and 21/2 sacks on defense. Jack Dunn has 42 receptions for 794 yards and 10 scores, and Jacob Benton has 40 catches for 681 yards and seven TDs.
"We have players who have stepped up," Baker said. "We have Muthler, who has done very well at quarterback. Hunter is a four-year starter at linebacker and fullback. We have three or four receivers who are 6-foot tall and can run and catch the ball. We are blessed with some weapons."
The remainder of this weekend's games involving area teams, with all kickoffs at 7 p.m., follow:
Penn Cambria (8-1) at Bald Eagle Area (8-1)
Last week: Penn Cambria 41, McCort-Carroll 14; Bald Eagle Area 42, Bellwood-Antis 0.
About the Panthers: Penn Cambria has eight consecutive wins and is ranked second in District 6 Class 3A behind Central.
The Panthers have the coverage area's two top-ranked receivers in Carter McDermott (32 catches, 644 yards) and Gavin Harrold (37-626). Quarterback Brady Jones is third in the area with 1,331 passing yards.
About the Eagles: Bald Eagle Area is second behind Richland in District 6 Class 2A. The Bald Eagles have won two straight games since their lone loss to Clearfield in Week 7. Junior Carson Nagle has thrown for 2,220 yards, 26 TDs and three interceptions.
Chestnut Ridge (7-2) at Clearfield (7-2)
Last week: Richland 28, Chestnut Ridge 10; Central 27, Clearfield 21.
About the Lions: Chestnut Ridge continues a grueling, four-game stretch against teams with a combined 28-8 record.
The Lions lost road games against Penn Cambria and Richland, with a home win over Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic sandwiched in the middle. Jeb Emerick has 1,027 rushing yards.
About the Bison: Clearfield went 4-0 in East 2 play, but has three LHAC losses overall, falling at Forest Hills in Week 2 and dropping games at Richland (35-28) and at Central the past two weeks. The Bison are 4-0 at home.
Senior quarterback Will Domico has thrown for 1,482 yards, 15 TDs and six interceptions.
Forest Hills (6-3) at Tyrone (6-3)
Last week: Forest Hills 53, Somerset 13; Tyrone 35, Penns Valley 7.
About the Rangers: Forest Hills is on a four-game winning streak and holds the sixth spot in District 6 Class 2A. Quarterback Nate Cornell ranks second in the area with 1,398 passing yards, including 15 touchdowns and five interceptions. Chase Williamson has 33 catches for 574 yards.
About the Golden Eagles: Ranked third in District 6 Class 3A, Tyrone brings a five-game winning streak into the game.
Ashton Walk has thrown for 1,762 yards, 17 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Brady Ronan has 813 rushing yards and 13 TDs on the ground.
Central Cambria (4-5) at Penns Valley (5-4)
Last week: Central Cambria 34, Westmont Hilltop 0; Tyrone 35, Penns Valley 7.
About the Red Devils: Central Cambria snapped a four-game losing streak with a one-sided victory at Westmont Hilltop. The Red Devils have 490 points and are ranked ninth in District 6 Class 2A, two spots below Penns Valley.
About the Rams: Penns Valley won four of its first five games, but has lost three of its past four contests, with the lone win in that stretch coming against Somerset 35-21 in Week 8. The Rams (640) are ranked seventh in District 6 2A, only 40 points ahead of eighth-ranked Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic (600).
McCort-Carroll (3-6) at Philipsburg-Osceola (3-6)
Last week: Penn Cambria 41, McCort-Carroll 14; Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic 22, Philipsburg-Osceola 7.
About the Crushers: McCort-Carroll holds the eighth spot in the District 6 Class 1A rankings after its three-game winning streak ended against Penn Cambria. Sophomore Garrett Farabaugh has a team-high 511 rushing yards.
About the Mounties: Philipsburg-Osceola had a modest two-game winning streak snapped at Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic. Jakodi Jones (549 yards, seven TDs) and Sam McDonald (542, five TDs) have combined for 1,091 rushing yards and 12 rushing TDs.
Somerset (3-6) at Bellefonte (1-8)
Last week: Forest Hills 53, Somerset 13; Bellefonte 14, Huntingdon 13.
About the Golden Eagles: Somerset has lost four consecutive games since its three-game winning streak ended. Three juniors lead the Golden Eagles' rushing attack. Camden Lowery (752), Lane Lambert (425) and Rowan Holmes (416) have combined for 1,593 yards. The Golden Eagles average 184.8 rushing yards a game.
About the Red Raiders: Bellefonte cracked the win column with a one-point victory over Huntingdon. Junior quarterback Liam Halterman has passed for 725 yards and six TDs, and rushed for 432 yards and two TDs. Senior Sherman Lowry has 487 rushing yards and three TDs.
Westmont Hilltop (2-7) at Huntingdon (1-8)
Last week: Central Cambria 34, Westmont Hilltop 0; Bellefonte 14, Huntingdon 13.
About the Hilltoppers: Westmont Hilltop will attempt to snap a four-game losing skid in which the Hilltoppers have scored a combined 27 points.
Senior David Ray has a team-high 69 tackles, 8.6 stops a game.
About the Bearcats: Huntingdon has dropped six straight games, with its lone win coming in Week 3 against Bellwood-Antis (41-16). Opponents have outscored the Bearcats 293-136.
Greater Johnstown (0-9) at Bellwood-Antis (1-8)
Last week: Bedford 17, Greater Johnstown 0; Bald Eagle Area 42, Bellwood-Antis 0.
About the Trojans: A week after producing its highest single-game point total of the season, Greater Johnstown suffered its sixth shutout loss this year. The Trojans hope to end a string of 39 consecutive losses.
Freshman quarterback Julius Reed has 944 passing yards, with six TDs.
About the Blue Devils: Bellwood-Antis has lost three straight games since recording its first victory in Week 6 at Philipsburg-Osceola. Freshman Alex McCartney has 1,018 rushing yards and 10 TDs. Junior Holden Schreier has passed for 797 yards and six TDs.
Northern Cambria (8-1) at Cambria Heights (7-2)
Last week: Northern Cambria 48, West Shamokin 0; Cambria Heights 41, Conemaugh Valley 16.
About the Colts: Northern Cambria has won eight consecutive games and holds the top spot in District 6 Class 1A. Northern Cambria defeated Cambria Heights twice in 2022 on the way to a District 6 crown. The Colts' Jack Sheredy leads the area in both rushing (1,243 yards) and tackles (113).
About the Highlanders: Cambria Heights also is streaking into the rivalry Coal Bowl with five straight wins and holds the fourth spot in District 6 Class 1A. The Highlanders lead the all-time Coal Bowl series 24-23-1, with the lone 0-0 tie in 1985. Steven Nelen has a team-best 675 rushing yards.
United Valley (8-1) at Conemaugh Township (0-9)
Last week: River Valley 13, United 6; Marion Center 46, Conemaugh Township 41.
About the Lions: United Valley can clinch the Heritage Conference title with a victory.
The Lions also will try to bounce back after suffering their first loss of the season, which ended an 11-game winning streak dating to 2022. Caden McCully has 1,023 rushing yards for United Valley, which ranks third in District 6 Class 2A.
About the Indians: Winless Conemaugh Township will try to end the season on a positive note. Indians quarterback Jon Updyke has passed for 940 yards and seven touchdowns.
Receiver Kyler Mauzy has 26 receptions for 417 yards.
Conemaugh Valley (1-8) at Homer-Center (2-7)
Last week: Cambria Heights 41, Conemaugh Valley 16; Purchase Line 42, Homer-Center 22.
About the Blue Jays: Conemaugh Valley senior Devin Chontas has 929 rushing yards on 174 carries. The Blue Jays have been outscored 102-30 in two losses to River Valley (61-14) and Cambria Heights (41-16) since picking up their only victory in Week 7 at Conemaugh Township (22-21).
About the Wildcats: Homer-Center has dropped four straight contests. Sophomore Riley Cobaugh had 11 tackles in a loss to Purchase Line.
River Valley (7-2) at Portage (3-6)
Last week: River Valley 13, United Valley 6; Penns Manor 22, Portage 0.
About the Panthers: Gavin Burkhart and Sam Yanits each had touchdown runs, and River Valley prevented United Valley from clinching the Heritage Conference crown.
About the Mustangs: Portage hopes to finish strong after losing six of the past seven games. Junior Issac Willinsky has 874 rushing yards and 10 TDs. Sophomore quarterback Easton Slanoc has passed for 662 yards and five TDs.
Moshannon Valley (5-4) at Berlin Brothersvalley (8-1)
Last week: West Branch 34, Moshannon Valley 12; Berlin Brothersvalley 35, North Star 6.
About the Black Knights: Moshannon Valley is 2-3 in its past five games since opening the season with three wins in four games. Senior quarterback Jalen Kurten has thrown for 1,081 yards and nine TDs. The Black Knights have rushed for 2,013 yards, 223.7 a game.
About the Mountaineers: Berlin Brothersvalley stretched its winning streak to four games — the Mountaineers' second four-game win streak this season. Mountaineers safety Pace Prosser picked off his area-high seventh pass at North Star.
Windber (6-3) at Juniata Valley (7-2)
Last week: Northern Bedford 35, Windber 6; Juniata Valley 41, Southern Huntingdon 0.
About the Ramblers: Injury-plagued Windber has lost two straight to front-runners Northern Bedford County and Berlin Brothersvalley. In 2022, Windber beat Juniata Valley 56-7 .
About the Green Hornets: Juniata Valley's two losses both came on the road at West Branch in Week 5 and at Mount Union in Week 7. The Green Hornets sit in the third spot in the District 6 Class 1A rankings.
West Branch (5-4) at North Star (6-3)
Last week: West Branch 34, Moshannon Valley 12; Berlin Brothersvalley 35, North Star 6.
About the Warriors: Since starting 1-4, West Branch has moved over the .500 mark with four consecutive victories. The Warriors have scored at least 34 points in each of those games.
About the Cougars: North Star looks to bounce back.
The Cougars are coming off two straight losses to conference powers that unfolded in different fashion. Two weeks ago, Northern Bedford County edged the Cougars by a point.
On Oct. 20, Berlin Brothersvalley rolled over North Star, which is tied with Windber for the second spot in District 5-1A.
Meyersdale (5-4) at Southern Huntingdon (0-9)
Last week: Meyersdale 26, Everett 7; Juniata Valley 41, Southern Huntingdon 0.
About the Red Raiders: Meyersdale has rebounded with back-to-back wins since slipping to a game under .500 in Week 7. The Red Raiders outscored Brownsville and Everett by a combined 71-7 in those games.
About the Rockets: Winless Southern Huntingdon has been shut out two straight weeks while being outscored 124-0.
Ligonier Valley (2-7) at Derry Area (4-5)
Last week: Imani Christian Academy 31, Ligonier Valley 0; Derry 29, Burrell 22.
About the Rams: Ligonier Valley has lost five straight games, falling by shutout in four of those contests. Opponents have outscored the Rams 167-13 in that span.
About the Trojans: Derry snapped a three-game losing streak against Burrell. Senior Ahmad Ward has 1,030 yards and 14 TDs on 195 carries.
Bedford (3-6) at Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic (5-4)
Last week: Bedford 17, Greater Johnstown 0; Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic 22, Philipsburg-Osceola 7.
About the Bisons: Bedford will close its season hoping to build on a shutout victory over Greater Johnstown to snap a two-game losing streak. Junior Quincy Swaim has accounted for 1,213 all-purpose yards, an average of 134.8 yards a game. Swaim ranks second in the area with 97 tackles.
Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic ranks eighth in District 6 Class 2A. Junior quarterback Chase Kissell has thrown for 1,655 yards and 14 TDs. Senior Kaden Wyandt has 731 rushing yards and 16 TDs. Juniors Braden Reilly (29-559, 4 TDs) and Hamilton Gates (30-489, 6 TDs) have combined for 59 receptions, 1,048 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns.
Mike Mastovich is a sports reporter and columnist for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 814-532-5083. Follow him on Twitter @Masty81.