UPPER DUBLIN >> Upper Dublin had three defining moments in the final 12:46 of its 35-28 District 1 Class 5A championship win over West Chester Rustin Friday night at Cardinal Stadium on the campus of Upper Dublin High School.
The first came with 46 seconds left in the third quarter.
After Rustin tied the game at 28, the No. 2 seed Cardinals got the ball back at their own 20-yard line. They went on a nine-play, 80-yard drive over 4:11 to score the game-winning touchdown.
“I told all my teammates just bring out what you still got inside you,” Cardinals quarterback Mike Slivka said. “All that heart and all that hard work we put in in the offseason was for that moment right there. We pulled it out.”
Slivka started the drive with a 5-yard run and — after a false start — ran 12 yards for a first down. He followed that with a 32-yard pass to Lucas Roselli to set the Cardinals up at Rustin’s 36-yard line. A couple Mason Novak runs and a Slivka completion to Jason Scott put the Cardinals at the 14. Novak ran for seven yards and then five. He capped off the drive with the go-ahead touchdown from two yards out.
“We knew we had something cooking with the running game,” Novak, who only had 19 yards on seven carries before the game-winning drive, said. “We just kept on pounding the rock and it worked.”
The second defining moment came with less than four minutes left in the game.
The No. 5 seeded Golden Knights methodically moved the ball down the field and faced 1st-and-goal at the six. Owen Walsh was stuffed at the line of scrimmage on first down before Michael Covert ran for two yards on back-to-back plays to set up a 4th-and-goal from the two. Quarterback Will Pileggi motioned to the right and it was a play football fans became very familiar with in February — the Philly Special. Covert rolled right looking to throw and eventually decided to run with it. He was met by a host of Cardinal defenders at the one and couldn’t break the plane.
“They tried to run that Philly Special thing,” Slivka said. “We had that all. Everyone just kept flowing to the ball. We call each other cheetahs and that’s for a reason. Everybody came to the ball. I’m not sure who made the play, probably one of my great linebackers.”
“It’s a play we had practiced and he got tackled at the one-inch line,” Rustin coach Mike St. Clair said. “If it’s one inch more it’s the right call. It was right there.”
Upper Dublin wasn’t out of the woods yet. The Cardinals faced a 1st and 10 from inside their own one with 2:16 left and Rustin still had three timeouts.
Slivka tried running up the middle on first down and Novak on second, but neither were able to make any progress, setting up 3rd-and-10 and the third defining moment of the game. Slivka lined up in the shotgun and completed a pass to Dylan Zlotnikoff for 10 yards and a first down.
“We had a quarterback draw drew up,” Slivka said. “They had everyone in the box and they were locked up. So I called an easy slant route and the slant was open and Dylan made a great catch and we got the first down.”
“We talked about a couple things when I was in the huddle there and that wasn’t one of them,” head coach Bret Stover said. “He’s got the thing to see what he likes and actually what they gave us was straight man. They had too many in the box for what we had called to work. I give him a lot of credit for doing it.”
The new set of downs enabled the Cardinals to kneel their way to victory and claim the second District 1 title in program history and first since 2015.
It was a back-and-forth affair for most of the game.
The Cardinals took a 7-0 lead on a Slivka one-yard sneak in the final minute of the first quarter, but Pileggi matched him with a sneak of his own to tie the game on the ensuing possession.
Upper Dublin put up back-to-back scores — an 11-yard Roselli run and 39-yard pass from Slivka to Zlotnikoff — to take a 21-7 lead with 1:14 left in the half.
Rustin responded immediately. Pileggi connected with Sean Hopkins for a 76-yard touchdown on the first play of the ensuing drive to send the teams into halftime with Upper Dublin ahead, 21-14.
Upper Dublin’s Scott forced and recovered a fumble at Rustin’s 14-yard line midway through the third quarter to set up a three-yard Slivka touchdown run, giving the Cardinals a 28-14 lead.
Collin Hurley returned the ensuing kickoff 86 yards to give the Golden Knights a short field and Covert took advantage with a seven-yard touchdown run.
On the first play of Upper Dublin’s next drive, Slivka through a backwards pass that hit the ground and Rustin jumped on the ball to take possession.
Four plays later, Pileggi powered in a one-yard score to tie the game at 28.
“Lot of respect for Mike and his kids,” Stover said. “They played awesome. We were up by 14 twice and they came right back and put it right in the end zone. They didn’t give up, they didn’t quit. They basically made us earn it and we did.”
“It was back-and-forth all night,” St. Clair said. “They made a stop on the one-inch line and that ended the game. We were going for two right there if we made it, too. We were going for the win at that point.”
Slivka finished the game with 231 yards and a touchdown through the air and 38 yards and two scores on the ground.
Rustin’s Nick Madonna — who missed the last two weeks with a shoulder injury — rushed 12 times for 105 yards.
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