November has a funny way of bringing out the best in a high school football team.
United wasn’t in the mood to laugh throughout much of Friday night while nearly learning the wrong way just how true that can be.
All the Lions needed was one play in a game that featured few big ones to let the emotion pour out.
“I really just want to cry my eyes out with how amazing this feeling is,” United sophomore running back Hunter Cameron said. “We all deserve this, and hopefully we just keep going. It’s just amazing.”
Junior quarterback Kyle Silk scored from 10 yards out on the opening play of overtime to finally back United’s overworked defense. And the fifth-seeded Lions survived a breakout effort by No. 12-seeded Heritage Conference rival Purchase Line to edge the Red Dragons, 14-6, in a District 6 Class 1A first-round playoff game the same night Cameron broke the program’s single-season rushing record.
The game was moved to Andy Kuzneski Field at Indiana High School due to poor field conditions at United. But it wasn’t a change of scenery that nearly tripped up the Lions, rather a shutdown effort by the suddenly stingy Red Dragons, who saved their best for late in the year.
United held Purchase Line scoreless after the first series of the game, but the area’s second-ranked rushing attack needed more time than usual to avoid its lowest scoring output of the season and an upset defeat.
“We knew coming into this that this was a trap game,” United coach Kevin Marabito said. “Credit goes to them. It was a game you need coming into the playoffs. It doesn’t matter what your record is going into the playoffs. Every team wants to win and move on. And it just came to down to I think we wanted it a lot more and we got it done at the end.”
The Lions (7-4) advance to play fourth-seeded Portage (7-3), which received a first-round bye, in the quarterfinals next Saturday after serving as the home team — sort of — for the final time.
Regardless of the venue, though, United believes its worst of the month in now in the past. And Cameron and Silk, who entered the week as the area’s first and second leading rushers, respectively, are still going strong.
The duo finished with the ball in their hands on 47 of United’s 51 offensive plays while combining for 209 of the Lions’ 216 yards from scrimmage.
Cameron rushed for 113 yards on 24 carries, pushing his program record to 1,606 yards on the ground this season.
“This is the best feeling you’ll ever get, man,” Cameron said. “We realized, in the playoffs, this is the hardest of the hard. We just need to keep going and get ready for Portage next week.”
“It feels great, going into Portage next Saturday,” Silk said. “This is what we needed, though. We needed the taste of almost-defeat in our mouth. It’s only going to make us better.”
United’s victory was its fifth straight, a stretch that began with a 38-36 double-overtime victory over West Shamokin on Oct. 5.
The second game in that run was much more to United’s liking: a 47-16 romp over Purchase Line one week later.
Only this time, these weren’t the same Red Dragons.
Purchase Line (3-8) sneaked into the playoffs by closing the regular season with back-to-back victories by a combined score of 106-28.
A third consecutive win was well within grasp throughout, particularly after the Red Dragons took a 6-0 lead and a 128-56 advantage in total yards into the break. They came up just short on the two-point run try following the touchdown, and Purchase Line never took advantage of the rest of its opportunities, twice turning the ball over on downs inside United’s 12-yard line in regulation.
“We had a couple opportunities, two or three down inside there, and couldn’t punch it in, and the big two-point conversion we didn’t get,” Purchase Line coach Matt Falisec said. “But there were other opportunities throughout the game that prevented us from winning.”
Unfortunately, it was just a few inches that will keep the Red Dragons wondering.
Following United’s go-ahead score, Purchase Line running back Cullen Goncher ran left inside United’s 5-yard line, but the ball was punched out of his hands at the final moment before rolling backward out of bounds at the 8. A pair of 3-yard runs set up the Red Dragons with fourth down at the 2, and Goncher took the handoff up the middle before being called down a football’s length from the goal line.
It was a familiar painful end to a trying season for the Red Dragons — Purchase Line still recalls a 42-36 six-overtime loss to Penns Manor on Oct. 5 all too well — but it was a later conclusion to the season that they earned by battling until the end.
And for a team set to graduate only a trio of seniors — two-way linemen Quinn Scalese and Kaleb Yarger and wide receiver/defensive back Cameron Yoder — the future appears to be on the upswing.
“They brought heart,” Falisec said. “That’s the biggest thing you saw. The first time we played them, I don’t think they were 30 points, or whatever they beat us by, better than us. And tonight you saw what we’ve become.
“A little taste of that goes a long way with the kids. … Three weeks ago, a kid asked me, ‘Do we have a shot at the playoffs?’ And I started to laugh. I said, ‘Guys, we’re 1-6,’ or whatever we were at the time. And then here we are playing United in overtime in a playoff game. I couldn’t be more proud of the kids.”
Josh Syster scored Purchase Line’s touchdown from 14 yards out. Goncher led the Red Dragons with 57 rushing yards and Yoder added 51.
Silk scored both touchdowns for United, first breaking the shutout with a 1-yard run on the opening drive of the second half before an incomplete pass on the two-point attempt left the score tied at 6-all. He also tacked on the two-point run in overtime after racing outside to the left pylon on a designed dive up the middle.
Silk finished with 86 yards on 21 carries, pushing his season rushing total to 1,343 yards. He also leads the area with 25 rushing touchdowns.
Lions cornerback Dawson Brendlinger had an interception for the game’s lone turnover.
Cameron entered the game with 1,493 rushing yards, needing just nine to break United’s single-season record of 1,501, set by Brent Mack in 2015. He broke the mark on the Lions’ opening series, picking up 10 yards on three straight runs to quickly put many minds at ease.
“It’s a great accomplishment for him,” Marabito said. “But Hunter is the type who’s not worried about records. We have some bigger fish to fry right now, but it’s a great accomplishment for him. I don’t even know if he knew the record was there. ... We knew it was going to happen, and that’s just terrific. He’s a great young man, he works hard all the time and he goes hard.”