H.S. FOOTBALL: Comets beat Rams in fantastic finish
LIGONIER — The word improbable doesn’t even begin to cover it.
Ninety-one yards in 33 seconds.
One second to run a final play.
Two unheralded sophomores upstaging the Division I recruit’s monster performance.
Friday night’s battle of undefeated teams, Penns Manor and Ligonier Valley, was all this and more, a beautiful display of high school football, of gifted players and underdogs, as the Comets pulled off an unbelievable 31-29 victory at Weller Field.
Clayton Stupic, a sophomore who just moments before had been thrown into a near-impossible situation, took a snap from his brother, John, as time expired and threaded the needle with a pass to classmate Nathan Dumm, who weaved through the defense for a 37-yard touchdown to keep Penns Manor in the ranks of the unbeaten.
“I never imagined having this kind of moment,” Clayton Stupic said.
Penns Manor’s 5-foot-7 junior varsity starting quarterback found himself leading the Comets after starter Lucas Kowalski went down with a knee injury earlier in the fourth quarter. He took over from Penns Manor’s 9-yard line after Ligonier Valley had finally pulled ahead, 29-25, in a comeback of its own, with a touchdown pass from Scott Fennell to Alec Bloom with 35 seconds left.
“I was thinking, there’s no way I’m going to do this,” Clayton Stupic said, “but I just pulled through.”
Stupic completed 4 of 5 passes for 86 yards on the final drive.
Like so many other great games, this one also had some controversy. The Comets were out of timeouts on the final drive, and Louie Tate didn’t get out of bounds after finishing a hook-and-ladder play to the Ligonier Valley 37-yard line. Since Penns Manor got a first down, the clock was momentarily stopped — at 1 second — to reset the chains, and the Comets managed to get the snap off in time for the final play, or at least it was ruled as such.
“With 1 second and the ball in bounds, they were able to somehow get up to the line, snap the ball and run a play,” Ligonier Valley coach Roger Beitel said.
“That’s really good management by Penns Manor’s offense. To have everybody set and to get a play off in 1 second, that’s amazing. That’s something you don’t even see in the NFL, so kudos to them for being able to pull that off.”
“It was not out of bounds, but it was a first down, so you have to wait until the chains move and then, set, play,” Penns Manor coach Bill Packer said. “We had the guys up there ready to go and we yelled out a play, and to the credit of our center, he snapped the ball on the whistle … to his little brother. He made a heck of a throw.”
John Stupic, a senior, did have a nice rapport with the backup quarterback, which helped in the situation.
“I just knew I had 1 second,” Clayton Stupic said. “As soon as they blew the whistle, the clock was going to start. I told my brother to snap it as soon as they blow the whistle, and I saw Nate open. I just hit him and he did the rest.”
Dumm corralled the pass around the 15-yard line and managed to weave through the defense to the end zone.
“Clayton Stupic threw a perfect pass,” Dumm said. “I turned around, it was right there, and I can’t remember the rest. … Whenever I jumped up, I think someone shrugged off of me, then I turned around and I started running. I saw a lane. I think I juked away from two or three guys and I just tried to get away. I saw Bloom standing there, so I went to the other side.”
Penns Manor had led almost the whole game, taking a 12-0 edge into halftime on Louie Tate’s touchdown run and Dumm’s first touchdown catch — of the season and the game — from Kowalski in the first quarter.
After a difficult, rainy first half, Fennell and Bloom clicked in the second half. A 6-foot-7 University of Connecticut recruit who is listed as a tight end but played out wide all game, Bloom made 10 catches for 186 yards, including nine for 156 and two touchdowns in the second half.
“We get up by two scores and we really didn’t feel that good, though, because they were running that one play (a jump ball to Bloom), and we couldn’t stop it,” Packer said. “That kid, I know why he’s Division I now, because he can go up and get the ball. It came down to that one play — scoring 29 points on it.”
Fennell finished 18 of 35 passing for 250 yards. He was intercepted twice in the first half, but he was a force in the second.
“I’ll tell you what, they’d give it all back for a ‘W’ tonight,” Beitel said. “(Penns Manor has) a tremendous offensive line. We were against the Saint Vincent College offensive line all night. There was no running room for us. We had to go to the air. We made plays and Scott and Alec battled. We got some other guys involved. But a tremendous high school football game. Very unfortunate for our kids the way they battled back, to lose it at the end.”
Collin Smith and Dereck Croyle ran for touchdowns to cap a couple pass-heavy drives and start the Rams’ comeback.
Kowalski ran for two touchdowns in the second half, though, forcing Fennell and Bloom to beat the Comets. The Penns Manor starter left the game, though, after his second TD and watched the dramatic finish from the sideline on crutches.
“We’re not sure yet, but it’s his knee,” Packer said. “It could be a ligament. It could be a while.”
One other team remains undefeated in the Heritage Conference: Homer-Center. Ligonier Valley visits the Wildcats next week, and Penns Manor does so in two weeks.
“Regroup and get ready for Homer-Center,” Beitel said.
“We spot them 12 points in the first half with our stupid mistakes again and we get out there and we get back in the football game. We actually take the lead with seconds to go in the game, and they made the play in the end, so give them credit and we move forward.”