KNOX - On paper, all signs pointed to the experienced defending District 9 Class A champion Redbank Valley football team beginning their journey to a second league and district title in grand fashion but this is the digital age.
A game Keystone squad and its opportunistic defense and special teams units returned two interceptions and one kickoff for touchdowns as the Panthers stunned the visiting Bulldogs 22-20 in the season opener for both teams.
Keystone's Kyle Nellis and Steven Shetler each returned an interception for touchdowns on back-to-back possessions while Zander McHenry returned a kickoff 80 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter after a Bulldog touchdown gave Redbank Valley a 20-14 lead.
"This is a huge statement for us," Keystone head coach Ryan Smith said about the win. "This program is for real now and this program is going to compete each weekend."
Smith didn't feel his team was getting the same reverence as the Bulldogs in the preseason and coming into the game but that's OK with Smith.
"These kids now believe they can compete," Smith said. "We weren't talked about too much in the preseason. Coming into this game, everybody was talking Redbank, Redbank Redbank and I like the quiet atmosphere. We want to stay underneath the radar because this is a long season and anything can happen in 10 games."
On the surface, Keystone's offense didn't look too impressive as the Panthers gained just 83 yards of total offense. However, Smith feels it was Keystone's offensive line set the tone for the game.
"Even though we didn't put the ball in the end zone, the front line moved the ball and we thought we tired them out a little bit," Smith said. "That helped us defensively because we were able to get penetration and put pressure on the quarterback."
The Bulldogs got off to an auspicious start as on the first play from scrimmage, the Redbank Valley center snap sailed over starting quarterback Gunner Mangiantini's head. The Bulldogs recovered the loose ball 11 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Three plays after the botched snap Redbank Valley was forced to punt.
On the ensuing possession, Keystone suffered a holding penalty on the first play of the drive and it looked like the Panthers' drive would be short-lived but a pass interference penalty called on the Bulldogs on the Panthers' third down play kept the drive alive. Wingard got Keystone two consecutive first downs on quarterback sneaks. On a third-and-11 play at the Redbank Valley 35, the Bulldogs' Aiden Ortz sacked Wingard for a 10-yard loss but Redbank Valley was flagged for a late hit and the Panthers' drive continued.
Two plays later, Wingard threw a pass out into the left flat that was picked off by Chris Marshall and Marshall returned the interception 55 yards to the Keystone 20.
Bryson Bain came in to quarterback for the Bulldogs but he struggled early as his first two pass attempts fell incomplete. After a false start penalty, Redbank Valley faced a fourth-and-13 at the Keystone 23. Bain took the shotgun snap and fired a bullet to Tate Minich who snared the pass at the goal line for the 23-yard score.
Ortz hauled in Bain's two-point conversion pass to push the Bulldog lead to 8-0 with 4:13 left in the first period.
Keystone (1-0 overall, 1-0 District 9 Small School South) went three-and-out on its following possession and Izaiah Yargar was called on to punt. Ortz crashed through the line and partially blocked Yargar's kick and the Bulldogs took possession at the Keystone 31.
A holding penalty put Redbank Valley back 10 yards but Bain found Marshall for 14-yard gain. On fourth-and-3 at the Keystone 24, Kyle Nellis dropped Ortz for a 1-yard loss and the Panthers took over on downs.
Keystone couldn't muster much offense on its next two possessions as the Panthers had consecutive three-and-out drives.
With 5:28 left in the first half, Redbank Valley took possession at its own 36. Three plays later, Bain tried to connect with Minich over the middle but Kyle Nellis intercepted the pass at the Bulldog 25 and returned it to the end zone for a touchdown.
Wingard's two-point conversion pass to Kyle Nellis fell incomplete but the Panthers trimmed the Bulldogs' lead to 8-6 with 5:28 left in the half.
On third-and-10 of the following Redbank Valley possession, Shetler picked off a Bain pass at the Bulldog 35 and returned it to the end zone for a touchdown.
Wingard connected with Kyle Nellis for the two-point conversion pass to give the Panthers a 14-8 lead with 4:31 remaining in the half.
Cam Wagner came in at quarterback for Redbank Valley on the next two possessions before the half but he went a combined 0-and-5 on two drives as the Panthers took their six-point lead into the break.
Both teams saw their respective offenses suffer with Redbank Valley gaining a total of 19 yards while Keystone had 15 total yards of offense.
The Panthers got over the midfield stripe on their first possession of the second half with Kyle Nellis gaining 16 yards on three runs.
Nellis had 39 yards rushing on 13 carries.
Keystone saw its drive grind to a halt, however, as a holding penalty stymied Keystone's push.
Yarger boomed a 49-yard punt that Marshall fielded at the Redbank Valley 5. Marshall attempted to run to the right away from the Panthers' pursuit but Keystone's Landon Hurrelbrink tackled Marshall at the Bulldog 5.
"My old high school coach Clyde Conti used to say fourth down is the most important down in football because that is when the (most yardage) is changed at one time and having Izaiah be able to pin-point punts with hang time is a great thing to have," Smith said. "He had some really huge punts for us."
Three plays later, Bain had his third down pass picked off by Aiden Sell. On the play, the Bulldogs were flagged for a holding penalty in the end zone which by rule is an automatic safety on Redbank Valley. Smith decided to accept the penalty which pushed the Keystone lead to 16-8 with 6:54 remaining in the third.
On the subsequent Keystone possession, Wingard suffered an apparent leg injury and he was replaced by backup quarterback Royce Weaver. Weaver almost had disaster strike on a second down play from the Redbank Valley 37 when he bumped into Shetler on a hand off and the ball came loose. Shetler fell on the ball keeping possession for the Panthers. On the next play, Shetler had trouble pulling in a pitch from Weaver on a toss sweep and the Bulldogs' Brenden Shreckengost pounced on the fumble giving Redbank Valley possession at its own 42.
Mangiantini came back in at quarterback for the Bulldogs and on Redbank Valley's first play from scrimmage after the turnover, the center snap sailed over Mangiantini's head and he recovered the ball at the Bulldog 23. On the next play, Mangiantini fired a strike to Mason Clouse who pulled the ball in at the Keystone 40 in front of Logan Sell and Clouse made a turn and outraced the Panther secondary to the end zone for the 63-yard touchdown.
Mangiantini's two-point conversion pass attempt to Marquese Gardlock fell incomplete as the Panthers held a 16-14 lead with re seconds left in the third quarter.
Keystone got a first down on its next possession but was forced to punt three plays after converting the first down.
Mangiantini opened the subsequent Bulldog drive with a 9-yard scramble. On the following play, Mangiantini fired a pass deep down the middle of the field. Keystone defensive back Tyler Albright got a hand on the pass and knocked it up in the air and Gardlock pulled in the deflection and ran down to the Panther 26.
Bain came back in under center and threw a fade to the right that Marshall hauled in before going out of bounds in the end zone for the 26-yard touchdown.
Bain's two-point conversion pass was incomplete but the Bulldogs held a 20-16 lead with 7:13 remaining in regulation.
Redbank Valley's lead would be short-lived because on the ensuing kickoff, McHenry grabbed the kickoff at the Panther 20, broke right and went untouched to the end zone for the 80-yard return touchdown.
"It looked like we had a guy get out of his lane and run right by the ball carrier," Redbank Valley head coach Blane Gold said.
On the return, the Panthers only had 10 players on the field but it didn't matter as McHenry galloped to the end zone.
"He found a crease, broke through the line and took off down the field," Smith said about McHenry's return.
Wingard's two-point conversion pass fell incomplete but the Panthers had a 22-20 lead with 6:55 remaining in the game.
Redbank Valley (0-1, 0-1) never seriously threatened down the stretch and a bad snap over Mangiantini's head on a fourth down play with 1:08 sealed the win for Keystone.
The Bulldogs were without starting running back/defensive lineman Ray Shreckengost and offensive/defensive lineman Kade Minnick.
The Panthers travel to face Port Allegany Friday (Sept. 3) while the Bulldogs will host Otto-Eldred.
"This loss was on me," Gold said. "Anytime we don't come out ready to play, that falls on me."
KEYSTONE 22 , REDBANK VALLEY 20
Redbank Valley 8- 0- 6 -6 20
Keystone 0- 14- 2 -6 22
RV-Tate Minich 23 pass from Bryson Bain (Aiden Ortz pass from Bain), 4:13
K -Kyle Nellis 25 interception return (pass failed), 5:28
K - Steven Shetler 35 interception return (Kyle Nellis pass from Bret Wingard), 4:13
K - Safety -Redbank Valley committed holding penalty in end zone, 6:54
RV - Mason Clouse 63 pass from Gunner Mangiantini (pass failed), :43
RV - Chris Marshall 26 pass from Bain (pass failed), 7:13
K - Zander McHenry 80 kickoff return (pass failed), 6:55
TEAM TOTALS (Redbank Valley; Keystone)
First Downs: 7;6
Rushes-Yards: 19 - (-27); 42-70
Passing Yards: 185; 13
Comp-Att-Int: 10-24-2; 2-7-1
Total Yards: 158; 83
Penalties-Yards: 8-70; 7-45
Fumbles-Lost: 3-0; 2-1
Rushing Redbank Valley, Aiden Ortz 5-14, Gunner Mangiantini 6-18, Drew Byers 4-(-9), Bryson Bain 1-(-11), Team 3-(-43). Keystone, Kyle Nellis 13-39, Steven Shetler 11-12, Caleb Nellis 7-26, Bret Wingard 6-(-2), Team 5-(-5).
Passing Redbank Valley, Gunner Mangiantini 4-8-0 117, Bryson Bain 6-11-2 68, Cam Wagner 0-5-0 0. Keystone, Bret Wingard 2-7-1 13.
Receiving Redbank Valley, Chris Marshall 4-42, Tate Minich 3-31, Mason Clouse 2-74, Marquese Gardlock 1-38. Keystone, Zander McHenry 1-5, Drew Slaugenhaupt 1-8.