HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL: Ligonier rallies past Blairsville to stay perfect
BLAIRSVILLE — Last season’s playoff victory — the first for the Ligonier Valley football program in 27 years — was special for Scott Fennell and his teammates, no doubt. But it pales in comparison to the win the Ligonier Valley Rams pulled out Friday night to extend their undefeated start to the season.
On a night when their offense couldn’t get untracked, the Rams got two key defensive stops inside their own 15-yard line, including one in the game’s final three minutes, and stormed back from an 11-point halftime deficit to knock off Blairsville, 21-17, in a Heritage Conference showdown at Memorial Stadium.
Friday’s win wasn’t nearly as historic as the 41-6 win over Bald Eagle in the District 6 Class AA playoffs in November, but it felt even better. At least Fennell thinks so.
“We got that big first playoff win last year, but this is the greatest sporting win I’ve ever had, the highest high I’ve ever had in my athletic career,” Fennell said. “Just the way we did it, too. We had the heart and soul of our defense in Dereck Croyle go down with a knee injury, and we just had a freshman step up and play middle linebacker. I wouldn’t rather have done it with anyone else. I know it’s only our third win, but it’s the best win I’ve been a part of.”
Alec Bloom, the Rams’ 6-foot-7 tight end who has committed to play at the University of Connecticut next fall, rose above two defenders in the end zone and pulled in the go-ahead 8-yard touchdown reception from Fennell with 8:36 to play to give Ligonier Valley its only lead of the game.
After Bloom’s touchdown — which was his lone catch of the night — the teams exchanged punts, and Blairsville received the ball facing a short field.
The Bobcats began their final drive with prime field position after Cameron Livingston’s long punt return set them up at Ligonier Valley’s 41 with less than six minutes to play.
The Bobcats needed just five plays to reach the Ligonier Valley 16, putting them well within reach of capable freshman kicker Andrew Stipcak.
But because they trailed 21-17, the Bobcats needed to reach the end zone, and that’s when the Rams’ defense tightened up.
Blairsville quarterback Scott Thompson threw an incompletion on third-and-5 at the Ligonier Valley 11, and the Rams then snuffed out Thompson’s screen pass to Robinson on fourth down for no gain with 1:29 to play, leaving Ligonier Valley a couple kneel-downs from a momentous win.
“We were down there inside the 20 with a chance to win the game and just didn’t get it done,” said Blairsville’s first-year coach Rick Artley, who suffered his first loss after the Bobcats started the year 2-0. “They made more plays than we did, and that’s the name of the game.”
Despite being outgained 372-166 in total yardage and looking overmatched at times, the Ligonier Valley defense made the plays when it counted in the second half.
“In the beginning it was like they were running plays against dummies, cones, almost like 7-on-7, and that’s not our character,” Ligonier Valley coach Roger Beitel said. “We’ve got to run around and we’ve got to play fast, and it took us a while to get into that. We were very fortunate to beat a good football team on their field this evening.”
The Rams were also fortunate they didn’t face a larger deficit than 17-6 at halftime.
Blairsville, which had little trouble moving the ball in the first half, fell a yard short of taking a 24-6 halftime lead.
Facing third-and-goal at the Ligonier Valley 5-yard line with less than 15 seconds to play in the first half, Artley opted to take a shot at the end zone with no timeouts left.
Junior quarterback Scott Thompson completed a pass to Robinson in the flat, but Dan Croyle brought down Robinson at the 1-yard line, and the Bobcats couldn’t get off another play before the halftime whistle.
Supremely confident in his kicker, Artley mulled sending out Stipcak for a field goal attempt. But he had a change of heart, and it didn’t pay off.
“Hindsight is easy,” Artley said. “It’s obvious we should have kicked it.”
Artley said one of the deciding factors was the towering Bloom, who got his fingers on one of Stipcak’s previous extra-point attempts, though it wasn’t enough to alter the kick.
Additionally, the Bobcats’ top receiver, Colton McMillan, went down with an ankle injury in the first half, and Artley wanted to create as much separation as possible before halftime.
“At the end of the first half, I was set to kick the field goal,” Artley said. “My thing was, we knew Colton was gone. And without Colton McMillan, we just knew the game, it was going to change. There is no way around it. He’s probably the best receiver in the league.
“So we decided it was a shot to punch it in … and we got it to the half-yard line. In hindsight obviously, I’m kicking myself because we could have kicked there and then, maybe at the end (of the game) we kick a field goal to win it. My mindset, at first it was to kick. I was set to do it. The only other thing I was worried about, too, was with Bloom, they almost blocked the last extra point we had. I was just afraid we might not get that.”
Beitel believes the football gods were watching over his Rams, who thought they caught a break in the final minute of the first half when Livingston fumbled the ball after a reception.
But the side judge ruled Livingston’s forward progress had been stopped, negating the fumble and leaving the Bobcats in scoring range.
“The football gods sometimes smile when one thing happens that you think you’ve been wronged,” Beitel said. “Then sometimes, maybe something comes back and gives you an opportunity and you get a play, you get a bounce. I think that the football gods were heavily in our favor in the second half tonight. … There were some plays that in the first half we just didn’t quite make, they did. They’re a very good football team. They have a lot more experience than we do, but it’s something that we can hang our hat on as we move forward. Great, great win for our kids today.”
Blairsville scored on its opening drive, on a 2-yard quarterback sneak by Thompson, and the Bobcats got a 25-yard field goal from Stipcak to take a 10-0 lead with 4:33 left to play in the first half.
On the ensuing kickoff, Dan Croyle found a seam and sped away for an 84-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to bring the visitors within 10-6 and provide a spark the Rams’ offense couldn’t.
Blairsville quickly answered.
Two plays later, Thompson connected with running back Deion Robinson for a 60-yard touchdown on a catch-and-run as the Bobcats took a 17-6 lead.
Thompson completed 14 of 23 pass attempts for 241 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Robinson finished with 86 receiving yards and 71 rushing yards, both game highs.
Ligonier Valley scored less than three minutes into the second half on a 1-yard plunge by Fennell, who also ran for the two-point conversion to bring the Rams within 17-14.
It would stay that way until Bloom’s touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
“We knew we could stop them because we were doing it,” Fennell said. “The seam route that they threw (on the 60-yard touchdown), don’t get me wrong, Thompson threw an incredible ball on that, but we had a breakdown in coverage where we had a kid who’s usually coming off the edge covering their best athlete. … We knew that was just a mental breakdown on my part. I should be calling out defenses back there at safety. … But we knew we were stopping the run pretty well. We knew if we just kept hitting them, they’d wear down. Just going in down by 11 points instead of going down by 18 at halftime, that’d have been a completely different ball game if they go in and score, a field goal or a touchdown.”