FREDERICKTOWN — Whether it was in the air, on the ground or even 70 yards away, there was no stopping Jesse Zelonka from finding the end zone Friday night.
The Apollo-Ridge senior quarterback accounted for 346 total yards and five touchdowns in leading the Vikings to their first playoff win since 2007 in a 42-28 triumph over previously unbeaten Beth-Center in a WPIAL Class A first-round game.
The playoff win is yet another step the program has taken under third-year coach John Skiba, who led the Vikings (8-2) to a playoff appearance last year that ended
quickly with a first-round loss to Monessen. The Vikings finished 2-7 in Skiba’s first year and 1-8 the year before that.
“It’s amazing what these kids have done,” said Skiba, whose team advanced to take on top-seeded Sto-Rox in next week’s quarterfinal round at a site and time to be determined. “I knew we would have a little more composure this year, and we did.”
No one on the field Friday night showed more composure than Zelonka. The quarterback passed for 183 yards and three touchdowns and ran for another 163 yards and two touchdowns. He captained a quick-strike offense that finished every scoring drive in three plays or less, mostly because Zelonka could find the end zone from anywhere on the field.
he Vikings ran just 29 plays from scrimmage, compared to 75 for Beth-Center.
His rushing touchdowns came from 70 and 54 yards, and his passing touchdowns came from 83, 52 and 48 yards. Zelonka actually completed only three passes all game, but with the help of some nifty running by receiver Tre Tipton on two of those passes, all three went for touchdowns. He has thrown 22 touchdown passes and no interceptions this season.
Zelonka couldn’t remember ever having a performance quite that efficient.
“Honestly, I didn’t expect it to be this (game),” he said, “because I’m going to give them props. They’re a good team.”
A good team that couldn’t have been happy with its placement in the bracket. The Bulldogs (9-1) came into the contest as the undefeated champions of the Tri-County South, which is considered to be the weakest conference in Class A and explains why they earned just the eighth seed.
Early in the game, Beth-Center looked ready to prove the seeding committee wrong. The Bulldogs outgained the Vikings 167-60 in the first quarter en route to taking a 14-7 lead behind a strong running game led by sophomore Anthony Welsh, who entered the contest with 1,202 yards on the season.
Zelonka, who entered as Apollo-Ridge’s leading rusher at 581 yards, showed off his running skills, too, and kept the Vikings right with the Bulldogs early on. After the Bulldogs scored on the opening drive of the game, Zelonka took the Vikings’ second snap from scrimmage and kept it himself on an option play, racing 54 yards untouched down the right sideline to the end zone. That tied the contest at 7 after the extra point.
The quarterback tied the game again on the second play of the second quarter when he found daylight on a scramble and wound up going 70 yards for a touchdown and a 14-14 score after the extra point.
“Those were massive runs to get us back in the game and get our composure back a little bit,” said Apollo-Ridge coach John Skiba. “Then when we start throwing the ball and running the ball together, then we’re kind of hard to beat.”
The passing game made its first contribution to the scoring on the first play of the Vikings’ next drive. Junior wide receiver Alex Smith ran a go-route and was able to gain a step of separation from his defender. That was enough room for Zelonka to deliver a perfect strike to Smith for a 52-yard touchdown that gave Apollo-Ridge its first lead at 21-14 with 6:52 to go in the second quarter.
“The last couple of games we didn’t come out firing at all, and this game we knew that we had to, so we came out and gave it our all,” Zelonka said. “To be a quarterback for a team that comes out and plays like that, it’s incredible.”
The Vikings did not relinquish the lead the rest of the way and were even able to stretch the lead to as much as 42-14 entering the fourth quarter. Still, the Bulldogs didn’t quit, as they scored a touchdown early in the fourth, recovered an onside kick, and then reached the end zone again to cut the lead to 42-28 with 8:15 left in the game.
After the Bulldogs forced a three-and-out they threatened to make it a one-score game, driving to the 17-yard line with about six minutes to play before a holding penalty backed them up, and the Apollo-Ridge defense stepped up to finish the drive with two sacks of quarterback Gino Faieta to essentially seal the game.
“We just didn’t let (the Beth-Center rally) faze us, and we just kept on it,” said senior linebacker Dom DiBernardo, who was in on both of the game-clinching sacks. “We were just able to stay with what we were supposed to do, and we just got the job done.”
Despite giving up some scores in the first and fourth quarters, the Apollo-Ridge defense was outstanding during the middle portion of the game when the Bulldogs were held scoreless, allowing the Vikings to score 35 straight points.
Welsh still ran for 135 yards on 25 carries, but that wasn’t too bad for the Vikings considering he entered the contest averaging more than 10 yards per attempt.
“I think we were just caught up in the moment early. We weren’t lined up on some things, and they were good at what they were doing early,” Skiba said. “The biggest thing we didn’t do is we didn’t fold, and that’s the biggest thing I’m proud of. It was back and forth a little bit early, and then we got our feet underneath us defensively, and that’s what the key was. When we got our feet underneath us defensively, they were in trouble because then it’s tough to play with us.”
The Vikings also received a key special teams contribution in the second quarter when freshman Duane Brown returned a punt 54 yards to the Beth-Center 5. That set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Ben Gemballa two plays later to give Apollo-Ridge a 28-14 lead heading into halftime.
Tipton struck for his two receiving touchdowns early in the third quarter. Zelonka found him open around the Beth-Center 20, and Tipton made a couple moves to complete the 48-yard play.
Just a few minutes later, Tipton caught a deep pass over the middle and raced past the defense for an 83-yard touchdown to give Apollo-Ridge a 42-14 lead with 8:15 to go in the third.
“Big plays hurt us, and they’re a big-play team,” said Beth-Center coach Edward Woods. “Those coaches did a great job. They coached them up, and they came down here ready to play. … They proved tonight they’re going to go deep in the playoffs. I really believe that. They’ve got a tough game next week, but anything can happen in the playoffs.”
Sto-Rox and Apollo-Ridge actually have a little bit of recent playoff history, albeit in a different sport. The Apollo boys’ basketball team upset Sto-Rox in the first round of the WPIAL Class AA playoffs back in February.
“Nobody thought we could do that, so we already have that mindset,” Skiba said. “It’ll be tough game, but I think we’ll match up. We have no intimidation.”