Related: Delone Catholic falls to Bellwood-Antis in double overtime
Related: Delone's Brett Smith: 'It's tough to have it end like this'

A junior varsity game sparked Matt Giuffreda and the Delone Catholic High football team.

The junior fullback struggled with fumbling at the start of the season -- "About every six or seven times he carried the ball," Squires coach Steve Wiles said, "he was putting it on the ground." -- and he was demoted to junior varsity to work on maintaining possession.

The conditions were horrible for Giuffreda's JV game against Bermudian Springs on Oct. 8.

"The field was wet, slippery," he said. "Perfect fumbling conditions."

He didn't fumble, executing what he had learned in practice: keep the ball high and tight to his chest. Test passed, Giuffreda became the Squires' leading rusher. He entered Friday's PIAA Class A quarterfinal against Bellwood-Antis with 814 yards and seven of the team's 37 rushing touchdowns.

Giuffreda, however, lost a fumble on an imperfect handoff from quarterback Brett Smith to end Delone Catholic's 33-26 double-overtime loss to the Blue Devils in Altoona. The team recognizes the impact he made on this season.

"Without him doing what he's done at the end of the year, I don't think we'd be here right now," Wiles said. "Our offense, with him coming on, has become difficult to defend. Teams are thinking about Matt inside, and it's allowed Brett to get to the corner.

"I tried to tell (Giuffreda) to keep his head up. He had a heck of a football game. It's one play. I'm sure he's going to be bothered by it. I'm sure he feels like he let the team down. But you can't look at it that way. It's tough to do as a player."

Giuffreda's strong season comes after playing lineman in seventh and eighth grades. He touched the ball for the first time midway through ninth grade, when he was the third-string running back and injuries forced him to play. His first carry came against Eastern York, a game in which he said he finished with more than 100 yards.

His trouble with fumbling began then, understandable considering his move to a new position. He then missed parts of his sophomore season because of poor grades and a concussion.

"I'm sure it's very rewarding and gratifying for him to be in this situation, to maybe have some lows and feel down (and) to be able to have this big turnaround and now play a huge role," Wiles said. "I'm happy for him."

Giuffreda started the season buried on the depth chart. He and Hayden Bell were splitting time at fullback, and Lance Reneker, Nick Braun and Zach Smith did the same at halfback. The Squires decided to allow Bell to concentrate on playing defense and Braun quit, placing more emphasis on Giuffreda.

"I thought I could be a little factor in our rushing game," he said. "I thought Renny and Nick would put all the yards on their back. I really didn't expect this this season."

Giuffreda rushed just eight times for 37 yards last season because the Squires had Colby McMaster at fullback. That led the Squires to bring Giuffreda into their starting lineup slowly, giving him time to fix his problems -- even in a junior varsity game.

"He had a heck of a game at fullback there," Wiles said. "From then on, he gained a lot of confidence, and he clicked from there. I think that's where he turned around his season."

dpaulling@eveningsun.com; 717-637-3736, extension 139. Twitter: @DanielPaulling.