Out of this World: Indians rally to beat Mars
Nobody saw this coming.
And if you say you did, you’re a liar. Or you’re a member of the Indiana High School football team.
Riley Stapleton made an acrobatic catch in the end zone for the game-winning score, and the Indians opened the season with a stunning 29-26 upset of Mars on Friday night in a WPIAL Class AAA Greater Allegheny Conference game at Andy Kuzneski Field.
Indiana trailed 19-0 in the second quarter but rallied in front of a packed home crowd to shock the heavily favored Planets.
“We got down and no one stopped fighting,” said Stapleton. “The crowd up there believed in us. The coaches believed in us, and we believed in ourselves. And it happened.”
It was, quite simply, a great night for anyone associated with the program.
“This feels amazing,” said quarterback Jacob Zilinskas, who passed for 231 yards and three scores in his debut as the starter. “All week, we just heard ‘Mars this, Mars that,’ and we heard people telling us we couldn’t win this game. So to come out here and do it feels amazing.”
That Indiana has only 38 players on its roster, many of whom had never played under the lights on a Friday night before, didn’t matter much. And that the Fighting Planets entered the game as the odds-on favorite to win the conference mattered even less.
What did matter is that a young Indiana team took advantage of the opportunities it was given and scored a victory that will be remembered for a long, long time.
“It’s crazy,” said linebacker Ryan Watters, whose fumble return for a touchdown in the third quarter turned the momentum in Indiana’s favor. “This is the best win I’ve ever been a part of.”
To be fair, the Mars team that took the field at 7 p.m. was not the same one that limped off it about 2ﾽ hours later. The Fighting Planets lost their star running back, Josh Schultheis, with a leg injury in the first quarter; and their most disruptive defensive player, 380-pound lineman Marshall Robinson, left the game with a foot injury early in the second half.
Without those two, Mars struggled to find an offensive rhythm, and on defense it could not slow down Zilinskas and the Stapleton brothers — Dylan and Riley — who combined for 12 catches, 206 receiving yards and three touchdowns.
“(They were) a major impact,” Mars coach Scott Heinauer said of the injuries. “You’re talking about our best runner and our best defensive player.”
But according to Indiana coach Mark Zilinskas, it’s not like the Mars players who finished the game were from the JV squad.
“You remove Josh Schultheis, and that’s a big part of their team,” he said. “But I’m not going to discount all those other kids because they’re all good football players and that’s a great football program. You lose a kid like him, and it hurts, there’s no question. But Mars, without Schultheis, is a great football team, and we beat a great football team tonight.”
It all was quite a turn of events from the way the game started. Schultheis bulldozed his way for a 3-yard touchdown run for a 7-0 Mars lead before many of the Indiana fans had found their seats. Ori Rinaman scored on a 5-yard run about six minutes later for a 13-0 lead. The Fighting Planets tacked on another touchdown after Zilinskas threw an interception to take a 19-0 lead.
To that point, Indiana had done little right on either side of the ball, and it looked like the Indians were in for a long night.
But as quickly as the Indians looked out of the game, they got back in it.
Zilinskas connected with Dylan Stapleton for a 37-yard touchdown pass to cap a 4-play, 76-yard drive to make it 19-7 just before halftime. Then, midway through the third quarter, defensive lineman Connor Tshudy drilled Mars quarterback Jake Rosswog, forcing a fumble that Watters scooped up and ran in to bring the crowd to its feet and make it a 19-14 game.
“I was there,” Watters said, “and the ball came right to me. I just ran.”
The Indians took their first lead of the night when Jacob Zilinskas tossed a 4-yard touchdown pass to Dylan Stapleton with 9:56 left to play. Even though Mars tacked on another touchdown to briefly take the lead, it was clear the momentum was on Indiana’s side.
And when Indiana got the ball at its own 25, a methodical drive commenced that had the crowd on edge. Zilinskas converted a fourth down with his legs, and then a third down with his arm on a pass to Riley Stapleton. And then facing a third-and-8 at the Mars 24, he scrambled to his right and heaved a pass toward the back corner of the end zone that at first looked like it was headed out of bounds.
But Riley Stapleton, all 6 feet, 5 inches of him, leaped skyward, snared the ball and somehow got a toenail inbounds for the winning score.
“The fact that my foot stayed in bounds is an act of God,” he said. “I can’t believe it. I thought sure I was going to be out of bounds. I guess it was just good luck.”
Mark Zilinskas just shook his head in disbelief when asked about the catch.
“I was down there on the sideline, and when he went up he was clearly, clearly out of bounds,” he said. “But I don’t know how he stretched that one leg in and tapped his toe. I mean, it was literally one to two inches inside the boundary. The way he controlled his body to catch that ball was just amazing.”
Mars had one last gasp, but like they had earlier in the half, the Planets scored a touchdown, only to have a yellow flag wipe it away. This time, a holding penalty erased a 72-yard scoring pass from Rosswog to Brooks.
“We had some opportunities, but penalties killed us and mistakes killed us,” Heinauer said. “We had big plays, but they got called back.”
Riley Stapleton intercepted Rosswog on the next play, and the celebration began on the field and in the bleachers.
Tshudy, a 5-5, 200-pound bulldog of a fullback, pounded the Planets on five straight plays as the clock rolled down, and then the Indians celebrated with enthusiasm usually seen at championship games.
It was an outcome nobody could have predicted. Well, nobody outside the Indiana locker room.
“We knew they were a good team,” Jacob Zilinskas said. “But when things went wrong, we kept our heads held high and we didn’t give up.”
But it was more than that, wasn’t it?
“This was,” Riley Stapleton said, “the best night of my life.”
PHOTO: Indiana's Riley Stapleton, top, and Dylan Stapleton celebrated after Dylan scored a touchdown. (Jamie Empfield/Gazette)