LACKAWANNA – The Lackawanna Steelers know firsthand how dangerous a No. 8 seed can be in the playoffs.
The Steelers were in that spot last year and put it all together as the plucky underdog when they took out top-seeded Medina in last year's Section VI Tournament.
Given that several key members of that team helped the current edition earn a No. 1 seed for this season's Class B playoffs, no chance the Steelers would give eighth-seeded Pioneer the slightest opening Saturday afternoon.
In a clash between two of the top defensive teams in Class B, the speed and will of the Steelers proved to be way too much for the Panthers as they defeated the tournament's No. 8 seed via shutout, 32-0, at Veterans Stadium.
A crowd of an estimated 1,000 watched as Lackawanna pitched its third straight shutout as the stingiest defensive team in bracket even outscored its foe on an unseasonably balmy day in the former Ron Jaworski Stadium.
In fact that 15-yard fumble return touchdown by Jakwon Ingram with under a minute left in the second quarter swung the momentum permanently in the Steelers' favor. It gave them an 18-0 lead and all put a Pioneer team in an inescapable hole.
"That was a momentum shifter," Lackawanna coach Adam Tardif said.
"That was kind of the nail right there," Panthers coach Jim Duprey said.
On the third-and-10 play from Pioneer's 20, Danny Elvers and Ingram got off the ball quickly and read option pitch. Ingram took the running back away, while Elvers flew in unblocked and delivered the blow that forced quarterback Nick Rinker to cough it up. Ingram recovered the fumble and was off to the end zone.
"Just a big game-changer right there," said Ingram, who finished with seven tackles and a sack to go with his TD return. "The defense is playing stingy. They couldn't do anything on us."
The Steelers held Pioneer to 80 total yards.
Lackawanna had nearly as many yards on its first possession, a methodical 14-play, 79-yard drive that ended with Noble Smith's 4-yard touchdown run on fourth down. The big play of the drive was a swing pass to senior Khalil Horton, who raced 40 yards to set up first and goal from the 10.
Smith scored three times for the Steelers, with his other TDs coming on runs of 1 and 4 yards. He rushed seven times for 60 yards and completed 9-of-12 passes for 68.
Horton shined on both sides of the ball. In addition to making seven tackles, he carried the ball 12 times for 151 yards. His 70-yard touchdown run on the second play of the third quarter kept the good vibrations on his side.
"I saw the end crashed, once the end crashed I just made an in and out move," said Horton, who's in his third year as a starter. "Once I bounced outside the rest was history."
Lackawanna scored on its first four possessions, although they only had two (albeit long, time consuming drives) in the first half.
When Pioneer tried to get something going on offense after Horton's TD, the defense stuffed the Panthers (5-3) in their tracks with big defensive tackle Damarr Currie and linebacker Chandell Wiggins holding a fourth-and-1 run near midfield for no gain.
It's been that kind of season for a Lackawanna defense that's fast, well-prepared and hungry. Manny Land added eight tackles for the winners.
"We use everybody to their advantage," said the 205-pound Horton. "Everybody has something their good at and we just use that to our advantage."
"We played tough inside, we shut down that run game," Tardif said. "They stepped up and they played well."
The tests will continue to get difficult for the Steelers (7-1), beginning with next Saturday afternoon's home semifinal contest against Maryvale (7-1) – which was in line for potentially earning a top seed until losing by a touchdown in its Week Seven regular-season finale to rival Cheektowaga.