ALEXANDRIA — Greg Page’s youthful Homer-Center High School football team learned a hard lesson in the District 6 Class 1A quarterfinals on Saturday night.
It’s not how you start. It’s how you finish.
The Wildcats had the ball in Juniata Valley territory almost the entirety of the first two quarters but weren’t able to produce any points. The reigning district champion Green Hornets were more than happy to show them how it was done, scoring two touchdowns in a 14-second span of the last three minutes of the first half to break open a tight game.
Juniata Valley rode the momentum to a 41-6 victory at A.R. Simkins Field.
Homer-Center finished the season 7-5.
“It’s hard. I just don’t have the words to explain it,” Wildcat senior lineman Alex Pribesh said. “I’ve loved this game since I don’t know when. It’s sad (to see it end).”
The game turned completely at the end of the first half. Valley had been playing with its back against the wall for most of the contest until that point but held a 7-0 lead on the strength of senior fullback Ryan Betres’ 39-yard run in the first quarter.
The Green Hornets, though, got life when Caden Rupert hit Gabe Brower down the sideline for 47 yards and Jacob Hensor for 14 more. Three plays later, Grant Musser came in at quarterback and sneaked into the end zone.
The sixth-seeded Wildcats still seemed in good shape. However, on the ensuing kickoff, Homer-Center return man Cobe Daugherty was separated from the ball. Juniata Valley’s Adam Boone scooped it up at the Wildcat 23 and ran it back to the 15.
On the next play, Rupert hit Hensor on a slant for the touchdown. What had been a one-score game suddenly was 20-0.
The Green Hornets never let up after that, scoring three more touchdowns in the second half and eventually bringing the running clock into effect when Rupert bootlegged for a score at the 5:18 mark of the fourth quarter.
“You can’t give up two more scores in the last four or five minutes of the second quarter, and that was the difference,” Page said. “You go into the locker room down three scores, it’s hard, it’s hard.”
What made it even harder was that Homer-Center was so close to being ahead at that point. The Wildcats ran 22 plays from the Juniata Valley 40 or closer.
On the opening possession of the game, Homer-Center had first-and-goal at the Hornet 10. Then the Wildcats went in reverse on two sacks and the first of four first-half pre-snap penalties. Ben Schmidt’s desperation fourth-down pass was intercepted at the 2.
Owen Cochran got the ball right back for the Wildcats with a pick of his own. Another sack resulted in a 13-yard loss to the 30-yard line, though, and Schmidt’s fourth-and-20 pass was incomplete.
“We just weren’t able to get it in,” Daugherty said. “That would have given us a lot of great momentum. It could have changed the game, but it didn’t happen.”
Playing shorthanded because of illness to several players, including junior running back D’Shaun Robinson, Homer-Center managed to score with 5:35 left in the third quarter when Drew Kochman snagged a Schmidt pass that was deflected for a 4-yard touchdown. Kochman’s 70-yard catch to the Hornet 5 set up the scoring play.
Valley, though, answered right back. Betres’ 34-yard run got the Hornets started, and Musser once again came in to cap the drive, this time on a 2-yard run from the shotgun.
“The most important thing was keeping our heads straight, knowing that we can bend but not break,” said Betres of how the Hornets were able to withstand Homer-Center’s early onslaught.
Juniata Valley, the third seed, improved to 9-2. The Hornets will host Purchase Line in the semifinals next Saturday.
Brower keyed Valley with 120 yards rushing and another 68 receiving, while Betres finished with 107 yards on the ground. Musser later threw an option pass for a 4-yard touchdown to Brower.
Rupert also threw for 154 yards, completing 10 of 15 passes. The Hornets outgained the Wildcats 436-247 and came up with four Homer-Center turnovers.
“They were the better team,” Page said.
“They are one of the standard-bearers for District 6. To be able to play at their level and a little above it is a great statement for us,” Juniata Valley coach Bill Musser said. “I think (the two touchdowns right before the half) did a lot for our team.”
Kochman wound up with five receptions for 105 yards for Homer-Center, with Schmidt throwing for 143 yards but being limited to 13-for-30 passing. Sophomore Justin Walbeck led the Wildcat rushing attack with 74 yards on 18 carries.
Homer-Center only graduates eight seniors, so Page will have a veteran team returning to try to better this season’s showing.
“Overall, I term it a success. It’s a seven-win season. We had a skid of three games when we had some guys hurt and we didn’t hold onto a couple of leads — that hurts,” Page said. “I’m proud of our kids. We basically only lose four seniors that played a lot of football. If we can replace them and we can grow up a little bit, we can be good again next year.”