Not even winning the Scott Zellem Homecoming MVP Award could make Riley Stapleton feel any better Friday night.
His team had a chance to steal a win, but in a back-and-forth battle with rival Highlands, Stapleton and the Indiana Indians fell just short.
And it hurt.
“To come this far, to work as hard as we do, to come up short at the end like that is just a shame,” Stapleton said. “I’m just speechless.”
Despite Stapleton’s nine catches for 97 yards and a touchdown, the Indians just missed out on a signature victory, and the Rams escaped Andy Kuzneski Field with a 21-14 hard-fought win in a key WPIAL Class AAA Greater Allegheny Conference game.
Stapleton, a 6-foot-4, 195-pound junior, was named the most valuable player for his efforts. He was given a plaque in honor of Zellem, a former Indiana High player and naval officer who was killed in a plane crash in 2004. The award is given annually to the top player in Indiana’s homecoming game.
Indiana had several opportunities to either tie the game or take the lead, but too many miscues ended up ruining their hopes. It also didn’t help that Highlands tailback Elijah Jackson was a one-man wrecking crew, with 152 rushing yards and all three of the Rams’ touchdowns.
The Indiana offense wasn’t all that efficient, and its defense couldn’t make a critical stop in the fourth quarter. Special teams had several miscues, and it all added up to a perfect storm of frustration for the Indians.
Yet Indiana coach Mark Zilinskas said he wasn’t ashamed of anything that transpired. In fact, he was proud.
“We really came together as a team tonight,” he said. “Guys stepped up and did their job and we jelled together. We just missed a couple plays and had a couple missed opportunities that hurt us. But you can’t ask for more effort and emotion and intensity from a group of kids like these ones today. I’m so proud of the way they played tonight. Yeah, it’s not what we wanted for a result, but we took a huge step as a football team.”
It all came down to the final play, though.
After Jackson’s third touchdown seemed to break Indiana’s back with 48 seconds to play, the Indians rallied one last time, and they drove from their own 40 to the Highlands 13 before using their final timeout with three seconds on the clock.
Zilinskas called for a pass play where quarterback Sean Thompson watched the Highlands safety for a coverage cue, and then he lofted a pass into the end zone for 6-5 Darrious Carter. Several Rams defenders lunged at the ball, and it slipped through Carter’s hands and fell to the turf as the Highlands sideline erupted in celebration.
“(Thompson) got a little bit of pressure and had to scramble,” Zilinskas said, “and from that point it’s pretty much backyard football.”
Stapleton helped get the Indians within striking distance by catching three passes from Thompson on the final drive. In the series before that, Stapleton hauled in a 14-yard touchdown pass on a fade pattern, and then added a two-point conversion on a replay of the same throw.
Indiana had to go for the two-point conversion because it played most of the game without its kicker, Ian Scott. The senior, who also plays running back and linebacker, was assessed a personal foul and ejected from the game in the first half and he will not be available to play next Friday, when Indiana visits Greensburg Salem.
“He’s an emotional guy and he made a mistake,” Zilinskas said.
Stapleton said losing Scott had a serious impact on the Indians.
“He’s a team motivator and a team captain,” Stapleton said. “There’s no one like him on the team. He brings us together as a team. It’s going to be tough to lose him, but we’ve got some guys who will step up.”
Jackson got Highlands on the board first with a 32-yard run at the 9:07 mark of the first quarter. Indiana’s offense had some momentum, but it failed on three fourth-down conversions in the first half that stalled things. It wasn’t until the third quarter, when Keldon Spicher scored on his only carry of the game, from 13 yards, to make it a 7-6 game.
Jackson’s second touchdown came with 7:51 left to play, and Stapleton knotted the score with his touchdown and conversion on fade passes that had the crowd in a homecoming tizzy,
But faced with a do-or-die situation, the Indiana defense faltered, and Jackson put the finishing touches on a nine-play, 57-yard drive with a 9-yard touchdown run that set the final score.
From there, it was up to Indiana to make a last-gasp attempt, and for a moment it seemed like it would end up being the Indians’ night after all. But as quickly as Indiana had a glimmer of hope, it was gone and the ball fell to the turf as the clock struck zero.
“It was a huge game — it was homecoming,” Stapleton said. “We wanted this one bad. We knew we had a shot to beat these guys, and we knew we were the better team tonight. But we just didn’t show it.”