By CHRIS EASTERLING
Independent sports editor
PERRY TWP. The first time Manchester and Fairless met this season, the Panthers held a 14-point halftime lead. But the Falcons’ offense would erase that deficit, and eventually pull out a thrilling triple-overtime win to snap a 27-game losing streak in the series.
On Saturday night at a sold-out Central Catholic Stadium, Manchester once again opened up a two-score halftime lead over its PAC-7 rival in a Division V regional semifinal. And this time, the Panther defense wasn’t going to allow the prolific Fairless offense to once again snatch victory from it.
Thanks to three first-half interceptions, two by Bobby Bowen, and a grind-it-out running game, Manchester ended Fairless’ dream season with a 35-7 win over the Falcons.
“The last time we played them, we were ahead 14 at the half and they came back and tied it up,” said Manchester head coach Jim France. “We knew we had to play 48 minutes. We impressed that upon our kids at halftime and all week long that this game, it was going to be 48 minutes long.”
VIDEO: Fairless-Manchester Highlights
And much of those 48 minutes were spent with the Panthers — now 10-2 heading into a regional final against Columbiana Crestview next week — dominating possession, using their power running game to wear down Fairless. Manchester ran the ball 49 times for 209 yards on the night, with Mason Hayes carrying 24 times for 92 yards.
Hayes scored the Panthers’ first three touchdowns, including a 3-yarder to cap the game’s first drive and a 4-yarder with 3:24 left in the second quarter. The last of the three gave Manchester a 21-0 lead with 5:57 left in the third.
“I give our defense a lot of credit for the first half,” said Fairless coach Don Wilson, whose team ends its historic season at 8-4. “When we look at the first half, we gave them bad field position, and a couple times, we had some great stops. I just felt in the second half, they were just going to come out and wear us down.”
That Manchester did, scoring on its first three second-half possessions to turn a 14-0 halftime edge into a 35-7 lead with just over four minutes left. The shortest of those three drives was an eight-play, 32-yard march; the other two a 10-play, 53-yarder and a nine-play, 48-yarder.
Fairless’ only score came on a 2-yard Hunter Wells-to-Austin Weyandt touchdown pass with 3:32 left in the third that gave the Falcons momentary life down 21-7.
The problem was Fairless’ offense had too much inconsistency on the evening. The Falcons finished with 218 total yards on 50 plays, including a 16-of-37, 163-yard passing night by Wells.
The Falcons were done in by the three costly turnovers in the first half.
“We just didn’t have the punch tonight to answer for it,” Wilson said. “We needed to get into a shootout with them. It seemed like their skill guys could run with our skill guys, and that made it problematic for us.”
Bowen’s second pick ended Fairless’ best drive save for its lone scoring march. The Falcons, trailing 14-0, had a chance to cut the deficit in half right before halftime while also getting the second-half kickoff.
Instead, on a first-down play from the Manchester 21, Bowen broke back on an under-thrown ball to pick it off with 1:29 left in the half.
“We dropped a linebacker and went zone,” Bowen explained of the Panthers’ defensive scheme. “We left a guy free almost the whole time. That’s what really helped us be able to see the field better, me and everyone else.”