CARMICHAELS – Jaeden Zuzak’s importance to the California High School football team had never been as simple as it was Saturday night in a showdown for the Tri-County South Conference championship against undefeated Carmichaels.

Count along with us.

25 carries.

252 rushing yards.

Five touchdown runs.

And for good measure, throw in one touchdown pass, a two-point conversion and a key fumble recovery.

The bottom line? California had too much Zuzak and came away with a 49-20 victory that wrapped up the conference title for the Trojans.

The hard-running Zuzak scored on runs of 13, 2, 2, 77 and 12 yards. He also threw a 24-yard touchdown pass to Matt Trunzo in the second quarter that gave California a 21-14 lead at halftime.

“He’s a tough runner,” Carmichaels coach Ron Gallagher said. “We tackled him too high. We focused all week on tackling him low. He’s a big, strong boy. We had to do a better job of tackling.”

California (5-0, 5-0) is a big, strong team and showed it in the only matchup of the week in the WPIAL between undefeated teams. The Trojans like to run the ball with Zuzak and quarterback Damani Stafford, who finished with 75 yards on 14 carries and a two-yard score in the second quarter that gave the Trojans the lead for good at 15-8.

California, behind an offensive line of Jacob Henry and Seth Rerricha on the left side, Tanner Pierce and Donovon Davis on the right side and Gaege Gosney at center, rushed for 360 yards.

“We played well,” California coach Ed Woods said. “We expected this to be a tough game. We told the kids Carmichaels is a very disciplined team. They don’t make mistakes. Our kids were focused on playing to their potential. You could see it when they got in the bus.”

Even with the stellar performances by Zuzak, the leading rusher and scorer in the WPIAL, and Stafford, it was Anthony Haschets who came up with two of the biggest plays in the game, intercepting a pair of Carmichaels passes deep in California territory while the outcome was still undecided.

Carmichaels (5-1, 5-1), trailing 21-14 late in the first half, put together a two-minute drive and moved from its own 28 to the California 11. Haschets, however, intercepted a Trenton Carter pass in the right flat with 14 seconds left before halftime.

Still down 21-14, Carmichaels’ second possession of the third quarter went from its own 18 to the California 22, thanks to a 46-yard run by Bailey Jones. Haschets ended the threat when he intercepted a Carter pass in the left flat and returned it to the Mikes’ 28, setting up a two-yard Zuzak TD.

“(Haschets) is one of the hardest workers I’ve been around,” Woods said. “He always arrives early and stays late. He’s probably the most improved player from our first year here to the second. I’m happy he’s finally getting some recognition.”

After Zuzak’s TD gave California a 28-14 lead, Carmichaels fumbled the ensuing kickoff and California recovered at the Mikes’ 31. Zuzak scored his second two-yard TD four plays later.

“At times, we did what we wanted to do on offense, but the No. 1 story of this game is turnovers,” Gallagher said.

Carmichaels committed four turnovers and had a high snap on a punt that resulted in a 17-yard loss.

The Mikes pulled to within 35-20 after an 11-yard TD run by Carter with 9:35 remaining. The Trojans fumbled the ensuing kickoff and the Mikes recovered at the California 38. The Mikes drove inside the Trojans’ 20 but fumbled and Zuzak recovered. Two plays later, Zuzak bolted up the middle for a 77-yard game-clinching TD.

Carmichaels had 19 first downs, rushed for 245 yards and Carter completed 13 of 23 passes for 153 yards. Jones ran for 110 yards on 15 carries and had a pair of six-yard TDs in the first half.

“You can have 19 first downs, but if you turn the ball over (five) times, you can’t win.” Gallagher said.

It was the final regular-season game for California. The Trojans will receive a forfeit from Monessen next weekend because of the Geryhounds’ shortage of players. Woods said California will not try to schedule a game to fill the open date. The Trojans will enter the postseason with only five games played.

“I’m proud of what the kids accomplished, not just because of a conference championship but with this being a COVID year makes it special,” Woods said. “The kids stayed healthy, the parents supported them, we played only one home game.”

Sports Editor

Since 1986, Chris Dugan has been covering local sports for the Observer-Reporter, and named sports editor in 2006. Before joining the O-R, he was sports editor at the Democrat-Messenger, and a former member of the Baseball Writers Association of America.

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