NEW BETHLEHEM — It’s not that the Redbank Valley Bulldogs are playing on Thanksgiving. They get to practice on Thanksgiving.

And that, Bulldogs head coach Blane Gold feels, will make the turkey taste even better when the workout is over. Monday, Gold figured a 9 a.m.-ish type of practice start on Thursday.

Friday night, they face District 5 champion Northern Bedford in the PIAA quarterfinals at Clarion University’s Memorial Stadium at 7 p.m.

“I’ve been playing football since I was in seventh grade and I think every dream of a football player or coach is to have to schedule a practice on Thanksgiving day,” Gold said. “Because if you do, that means you made it pretty darn far. So that’s been a dream of mine.”

It’s a rematch of last year’s PIAA first-round matchup held at Windber High School where the Bulldogs beat the Panthers, 28-15.

This year, the state bracket rotated to a setup that while the Bulldogs were beating Union/A-C Valley, 28-21, Northern Bedford traveled to Greenville High School to beat District Reynolds, 35-22.

So the winner this time lands in the PIAA semifinals against WPIAL champion — Our Lady of Sacred Heart vs. Bishop Canevin, Friday at Heinz Field at 2 p.m. — next Friday or Saturday at a site to be determined.

Glancing at last year’s box score, the lone touchdown scored by a returning player came from the Bulldogs’ Chris Marshall on a 33-yard TD pass from Cam Wagner. The Bulldogs outgained the Panthers, 243-147, after jumping out to a 21-0 lead by halftime.

Barely an offensive stat was recorded by a returning player for the Panthers, who started this year 1-3 before winning eight straight. All three losses were to Class 2A teams, all of them playoff programs in Cambria Heights (29-0), Bellwood-Antis (27-0) and Windber (56-7).

Since then, the Panthers topped D9’s Curwensville (41-20), Everett (24-0), this week’s D6 Class 1A finalist Juniata Valley (7-6), Claysburg-Kimmel (36-0), Tussey Mountain (34-7) and Mount Union (37-15) before another rout of Tussey (47-0) in the D5 final before last week’s win over Reynolds.

“They beat Curwensville by the same score Smethport did and Smethport is very good and we know Reynolds is a good team that lost a lot and they’re a good team and had they had a good game against them,” Gold said. “They lost a lot of production from last year, but they have a sophomore quarterback and running back and a freshman receiver who are leaders in stats, but we’re a team that started a lot of sophomores as well. We respect all of that, so we know they’ll be new faces with a lot of our faces returning.”

Against Reynolds, the Panthers trailed 14-7 at halftime before scoring four straight unanswered touchdowns, three of them in the third quarter as quarterback Eion Snyder hit freshman receiver Aaron Bowers, a 6-foot-3, 185-pounder, with TD passes of 28 and 26 yards.

Senior Kainen Brown ran for TDs of 7 and 3 yards while Snyder’s 14-yard TD pass to senior Brooks Snider put the Panthers up 35-14 in the fourth quarter.

Sophomore Adam Johnson ran for 118 yards on 15 carries while Eion Snyder completed 9 of 18 passes for 173 yards. Bowers caught four of those completions for 134 yards alone.

For the season, the Panthers are a bit more run-heavy at 138 yards per game as Johnson (127-692, 7 TDs), senior Griffin Keller (62-320, 5 TDs) and Brown (43-243, 6 TDs) get most of the carries.

Snyder has thrown for 1,059 yards, completing 82 of 145 passes with 14 TDs and eight interceptions. Bowers (28-468, 7 TDs) and Snider (18-243, 4 TDs) are the primary targets.

“They’re pretty balanced and going to have a lot of their formations with a tight end on the field and they’ll use different players there to find the one-on-one matchups to win,” Gold said.

Gold praised the work of his defensive unit, such as sophomores like Mason Clouse and Ashton Kahle, who filled in for senior Marquese Gardlock. Gardlock missed the past two games, but he’s back in the lineup to help on both sides of the ball, especially in any key matchups with the receiver Bowers.

“We haven’t seen a tall, lanky guy like that who can get the ball so we’re happy to get Marquese back for that matchup and it’ll be exciting to watch,” Gold said.

And so will the game in general on Black Friday, as they call it commercially. Gold wants to make sure his team continues to enjoy the ride. He reached out to his former coach at Franklin High School who is now at Kirtland, Ohio. Phillip LaVerde’s team is playing for its 10th small-school state titles in 11 years and it’s currently on a 54-game winning streak.

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“I asked him what he did different at this point in the season because you’re not going to improve all that much in tackling or anything,” Gold said. “They don’t have a turf field, the same us and he told me they went outside for an hour and lift for an hour every single day. They want more effort in the weight room than practice.”

The key being, staying sharp mentally and staying healthy physically. Gold said his team is healthy at the moment.

“We’ve never really had to try to learn how to manage those things, so it’s a learning process that we hope is going to continue to benefit us down the road and years to come,” he said.

BULLDOGS

AT A GLANCE

OFFENSE

305 yards per game: 137 pass, 168 rush.

Passing: Bryson Bain (130-for-213, 1,915 yards, 28 TDs, 5 Ints.).

Rushing: Ray Shreckengost (161-878, 16 TDs), Drew Byers (42-275, 3 TDs), Gunner Mangiantini (23-137, 3 TDs), Joe Mansfield (6-87, 3 TDs), Chase Bish (12-81, 1 TD), Brenden Shreckengost (22-55).

Receiving: Tate Minich (37-486, 7 TDs), Marquese Gardlock (25-445, 4 TDs), Chris Marshall (34-529, 10 TDs), Aiden Ortz (19-253, 3 TDs), Ashton Kahle (9-154).

SPECIAL TEAMS

Punting: Tate Minich (31-33.7 per punt)

Punt returns: Ashton Kahle (11-314, 4 TDs), Mason Clouse (4-47).

Kick returns: Aiden Ortz (4-89), Mason Clouse (3-52).

Kicking: Derrick Downs (6-for-11 PAT, 1-1 FG 33 yards), Tyson Adams (11-for-13 PAT).

DEFENSE

Tackles (per game): Zeldon Fisher (6.5), Brenden Shreckengost (5.3), Joe Mansfield (5.0), Brandon Ross (4.3), Aiden Ortz (3.8), Kolby Barrett (3.8).

Sacks: Joe Mansfield 9.5, Brandon Ross 5.5, Ray Shreckengost 3.0, Kolby Barrett 2.5.

Interceptions: Ashton Kahle 4, Aiden Ortz 3, Chris Marshall 2, Marquese Gardlock 2.

TEAM SCORING: 71 TDs — 29 rush, 31 pass, 3 fumble return, 1 interception return, 6 punt return, 1 kick return.

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