RUSSELTON — Even now, John Skiba isn’t convinced Sto-Rox is leaps and bounds better than his Apollo-Ridge Vikings.
Not even after Sto-Rox beat Apollo-Ridge by three touchdowns to end the Vikings’ season.
Not even after Sto-Rox’s record-setting quarterback passed for more than 300 yards and accounted for nearly 400 of his team’s 455 yards.
“They’re very skilled. The thing that’s going to irritate me is I don’t know how much better they are than us. And that will irritate me for the whole offseason,” Skiba said.
Apollo-Ridge put up a valiant fight, but top-seeded Sto-Rox and Lenny Williams were too much for the Vikings to handle in a 42-20 loss in the WPIAL Class A quarterfinals Friday night at Deer Lakes High School.
Williams, the WPIAL’s all-time leader in passing yards and passing touchdowns, completed his first eight pass attempts and finished 16 of 29 passing for 314 yards and three long touchdowns to lead the charge. He threw touchdown passes of 48, 62 and 28 yards in the first half as Sto-Rox opened a 34-14 halftime lead.
But as good as Sto-Rox and Williams are, Skiba insists the gap between the teams isn’t as wide as the score would indicate.
“I mean, he does good things, but we’re still (in position),” Skiba said. “Make a tackle on him. It isn’t like he’s blowing by us. He throws a half-decent ball, but he threw balls up to us, too. We got our hands on enough footballs tonight.
After a deep sigh, Skiba added: “It’s frustrating.”
Leading up to the game, Sto-Rox heard the chatter from the other side.
In published reports last week, Apollo-Ridge players offered comments such as, “Once they see what our secondary can do, they might want to consider changing their minds (about passing).”
And, “They have a lot of skill guys, but we think we have more powerful linemen.”
Rather than getting into a war or words, Sto-Rox wanted to let its play on the field speak for itself.
“He was focused coming in,” Sto-Rox coach Dan Bradley said of Williams. “The whole team was focused coming in with some of the quotes they had in the newspapers, about our coaches and players, and Twitters, and it motivated our guys. So they came out and played a good, hard game, and they took offense to some of those comments and used it in a positive manner.”
Sto-Rox scored on its first four possessions of the game to take a 28-7 lead just three minutes into the second quarter.
But Apollo-Ridge didn’t panic.
Senior quarterback Jesse Zelonka engineered a 61-yard scoring drive on Apollo-Ridge’s ensuing possession and hit junior standout receiver Tre Tipton for a 17-yard touchdown pass to bring the Vikings within 28-14 midway through the second quarter.
Although he accounted for most of the yardage on the drive with his arm, Zelonka made a key play with his legs to keep the drive going. Facing third-and-3 near midfield, Zelonka escaped what appeared to be a sure sack in the backfield and turned it into an 8-yard run for a first down.
Perhaps motivated by Apollo-Ridge’s comments, Sto-Rox’s defensive front had Zelonka on the run all night.
“He busted it all night,” Skiba said. “He hung in there and played. He threw some great balls, hung in there, took some shots, ran the ball well. It’s a tough one.”
Five plays after Zelonka’s third-down run, Tipton reached over a Sto-Rox defender to haul in a jump ball at the front of the end zone for the first of his two touchdowns.
But Tipton couldn’t have cared less about his big night or a promising future that appears to be headed to Division I.
“This is just got to be a building stone,” Tipton said, wiping away tears. “Cut the tears and all that. We’ve just got to build from here. It’s sad to see the seniors go, but we’ve just got to keep pushing forward. I love every single one of those seniors. We did so much together. Ever since Day One, when we started to rebuild from last year, we said that we’re going to go as far as we possibly could. We’re going to do whatever we can, we’re going to work as hard as we can. And we went as far as we possibly could.
“We’ve just got to keep pushing, keep pushing because it’s not even about the college, it’s not even about getting all that D-I stuff. It’s not about none of that. Right now, it’s about building up the high school that I love, that I stayed for. Of all the high schools I could have went to, I stayed because I believe in Apollo-Ridge, and I will until the day I die. There’s nothing else I can say about that.”
The tide continued to turn in Apollo-Ridge’s favor when freshman cornerback Duane Brown intercepted Williams — it was only his third interception of the season — to thwart another Sto-Rox possession inside Apollo-Ridge territory.
But the Vikings went three-and-out, and after an 11-yard punt, Sto-Rox got the ball back at Apollo-Ridge’s 46-yard line with 2:16 to play in the first half.
Then, facing fourth down with about 15 seconds remaining in the half, Sto-Rox receiver Mallory Claybourne got behind the defense and pulled in a 28-yard touchdown pass as the Vikings took a 34-14 lead with 10.8 seconds to play in the opening half.
Claybourne also got behind the defense in the first quarter for a 48-yard touchdown.
“In the first half, we missed a ton of opportunities,” Skiba said. “We did some very uncharacteristic things with our coverages where we let guys get behind us when we should be playing the deep part of the cover seam. We let guys get behind us. We stopped our feet and we gave them big plays.
“If we eliminate the big plays in the first half, we’re probably leading that. … We did things to ourselves. We self-imploded there a little bit in the first half. Being in this kind of game, when they have that much skill is tough.”
Apollo-Ridge managed to keep Sto-Rox under wraps after halftime, allowing just eight second-half points, but struggled to get its offense untracked and couldn’t make up the 20-point deficit.
On their first three possession of the second half, the Vikings had two turnovers — including Zelonka’s first interception of the season — and a turnover on downs.
After a botched Sto-Rox punt in the final minute of the third quarter, Apollo-Ridge was set up at the Sto-Rox 24, and Tipton caught an 11-yard touchdown with 21 seconds left in the quarter to make it 34-20.
Zelonka finished 12 of 22 for 148 yards and three touchdowns to lead Apollo-Ridge’s offense, which mustered just 37 rushing yards. Alex Smith caught the other touchdown from Zelonka, a 29-yarder in the first quarter.
Williams, who has passed for 8,164 yards and 102 touchdowns in his career, added 84 rushing yards and a pair of rushing touchdowns to account for five of Sto-Rox’s six touchdowns. His last score, a 14-yard fourth-down run in the final quarter, made it 42-20 and put the game out of reach.
“We did a great job in the second half, playing defense and shutting people down,” Skiba said. “We get a bunch of three-and-outs on them, or not three-and-outs, but we got stops and turned possessions over. We did some things, but we didn’t capitalize when we needed to capitalize.
“We ran cover schemes that shut it down for a while. We went to a different cover look, and he didn’t really gut us like they were gutting us in the first half. I mean yeah, he’s skilled. I don’t know. I think we could have played better. If we (would have) played better early, that’s the story of the life here at Apollo right now.”
“One thing we learned is you’ve got to stay focused 110 percent,” Tipton said. “People who only give 100 (percent) stay average. We’ve got to be beyond average. We’ve got to be great, so we’ve got to get that 110.”