H.S. FOOTBALL: Vikings let one get away
ALLISON PARK — Frustrated doesn’t even begin to describe how John Skiba felt after Friday’s season opener.
With a golden opportunity to raise the curtain on their football season with a momentous win, the Apollo-Ridge Vikings let the chance slip right through their fingers.
In a clash of the projected top two teams in the WPIAL Eastern Conference, North Catholic converted a two-point conversion in the second overtime and outlasted the Vikings, 22-21, in double overtime at J.C. Stone Field, leaving Apollo-Ridge immediately behind the eight-ball and looking up in the standings.
“It’s just hard,” said Skiba, the Vikings’ third-year coach. “It’s so frustrating, so frustrating. We had this one.
“It’s frustrating because I think we’re just as good, if not better (than North Catholic). I know we’re in better shape. I know we hung in there a lot better than they did. I don’t know. It’s frustrating. It’s a tough way to start a season off.”
“It’s a heartbreaker,” said senior Lonny Wells Jr. “We made some mistakes. We’ve got to fix that up.”
After rallying from a 14-6 deficit to force overtime, Apollo-Ridge got a huge defensive lift from Wells in the first extra session and seemed primed for the win.
As North Catholic faced fourth-and-goal from the Vikings’ 4-yard line, Wells perfectly read the Trojans’ next play — a throwback pass to running back Eric Timbers —stood his ground and made a highlight-reel tackle inside the 1-yard line to keep the Trojans out of the end zone.
“That’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing right there,” Wells said of his tackle. “I thought I had a chance. I saw (the quarterback) rolling out, and I saw the back flaring out the backside so I started turning to run with him and just made the tackle, made a play on him.”
“I thought he was going to get in,” North Catholic coach Bob Ravenstahl said. “He’s a pretty strong kid. I was surprised when they said he didn’t get in.”
Things went downhill from there for Apollo-Ridge.
On their possession in the first overtime, the Vikings fumbled when senior quarterback Jesse Zelonka took a hard shot on a run up the middle, setting up the second overtime.
In high school football, each team receives the ball at the opponent’s 10-yard line with four downs to score. If neither or both teams score, the teams continue to exchange possessions.
“That was the turning point in the game right there,” Ravenstahl said of Zelonka’s fumble. “I think that gave us some momentum we needed to push it over the top.”
Having already made a defensive stop, the Vikings simply needed to score — either a touchdown or a field goal — to seal a huge win against the preseason favorite in the conference.
Skiba said he considered sending Wells, his kicker, to attempt a game-ending field goal in the first overtime but decided to stick with his offense because of a miscue on an extra-point attempt earlier in the game.
Apollo-Ridge had the first possession of the second overtime, and Zelonka atoned for his fumble moments earlier with a 13-yard touchdown run that put the Vikings ahead, 21-14, after the extra point.
But when the Vikings needed one more defensive stand the most, they couldn’t come through.
On its next possession, North Catholic pulled quarterback Adam Sharlow in place of powerful running back Jerome Turner, who received the direct snap and powered his way to a 9-yard gain on first down to set up the Trojans at the 1-yard line.
On the next play, Turner again received the direct snap, lowered his shoulders and bowled into the end zone to bring the defending Eastern Conference champion Trojans within 21-20.
And that’s when Ravenstahl went for all the marbles.
He sent his offense back out onto the field for the two-point conversion, gave the ball back to Turner, and the 5-foot-9, 195-pound junior didn’t disappoint, plunging into the end zone to propel the Trojans to a heart-pounding victory.
“I got a pretty good kicker, too, but you just get hesitant and we just thought we could the ball in,” Ravenstahl said. “We’ve got a very good offensive line. That first gain was about eight or nine yards, and that pretty much convinced me we could blow them off the ball, so that’s why we went for two.”
Although Zelonka’s fumble was the Vikings’ lone turnover, there was no shortage of mistakes for the visitors.
Apollo-Ridge was called for 12 penalties, many of them either extending North Catholic possessions of stunting the Vikings’ momentum.
One of those costly penalties came in the final two minutes of the game.
Facing third-and-14 at the North Catholic 47, Zelonka connected with Ben Gemballa for a short pass, and Gemballa turned it into a 22-yard gain with a nice run after the catch.
But the Vikings were called for a block-in-the-back penalty during Gemballa’s run, negating the first down and leaving Apollo-Ridge with a third-and-2 from the Trojans’ 35.
A false-start penalty on the ensuing play pushed the Vikings back further, and they never got a chance to send out Wells for a potential game-winning field goal.
“Like I told these guys, we didn’t practice well this week,” Skiba said. “It was mistake after mistake, and we come out here, and it was mistake after mistake. The amount of mistakes that we made was just monumental. We couldn’t overcome them. You can’t fumble the ball in overtime. The block in the back when we were driving, maybe at the end of the game we can get down there and kick a field goal. We just shot ourselves in the foot left and right.”
“I think somebody was watching over us tonight,” Ravenstahl said. “Somebody was looking down on us.”
That appeared to be the case on North Catholic’s first touchdown.
On a play that looked doomed from the start, Sharlow, the Trojans’ junior quarterback, avoided a heavy rush and got rid of the ball in the nick of time, dumping it off across the middle to Turner.
Turner weaved through the defense, and just as he was nearing the goal line, he was hit from behind and fumbled the ball into the end zone. Offensive lineman Joshua Churchin alertly fell on it in as the Trojans took a 7-6 lead after a successful extra-point conversion.
Apollo-Ridge couldn’t have started the game much better. The Trojans marched 51 yards in four plays on their opening drive to take a 6-0 lead. On the ensuing extra point, holder Tre Tipton couldn’t handle the low, wobbly snap, leading Skiba to doubt his special teams unit later with the game on the line.
North Catholic engineered a 10-play, 79-yard scoring drive on its first possession of the second half to take a 14-6 lead. Sharlow hit James Bucek for a 21-yard touchdown reception.
But the Vikings weren’t going away.
Zelonka found Tipton for an 11-yard touchdown reception in the final minute of the third quarter, and the Vikings tied it at 14 on Zelonka’s run on the two-point conversion.
Zelonka completed 10 of 15 pass attempts for 126 passing yards, and he accounted for 43 of the Vikings’ 73 rushing yards.
Alex Smith was the Vikings’ leading receiver with four catches for 73 yards.
Turner led North Catholic with a game-high 98 rushing yards.