BLAIRSVILLE — Cage Kinney can talk the talk. On Friday night, he walked the walk.
Kinney delivered three momentous plays in the fourth quarter to spark River Valley’s comeback, and the Panthers rallied from a nine-point deficit to beat Marion Center, 34-28, in a Heritage Conference game at Ernie Widmar Field.
Angelo Bartolini rushed for 162 yards and four touchdowns for the Panthers, and while he’ll garner the headlines for his workmanlike effort, it was Kinney who changed the momentum of the game in a flash.
He had two key catches on the scoring drive that started the comeback, and he intercepted a pass from Ty Ryen on Marion Center’s ensuing possession to send the crowd at Ernie Widmar Field into a frenzy.
“I tell him all the time,” River Valley coach Jess Houser said. “Cage, he always talks a good show. I told him it’s time to start playing, and that’s what he did tonight. He came to play, and he stood up and did it as a senior.”
After his team fell behind 28-19 in the first minute of the fourth quarter, Kinney gave River Valley the spark it needed.
On the first play of the Panthers’ ensuing possession, he hauled in a 29-yard pass from Braden Staats down the left sideline to put River Valley at the Marion Center 45-yard line with 10:42 to play.
“It felt good,” Kinney said. “I was surprised on the (sideline) catch. I thought I was going to drop it. It was amazing being in that predicament right there.”
Then, seven plays later, Kinney caught a 19-yard pass across the middle on a fourth-and-12, putting River Valley at the 2-yard line and keeping the Panthers’ comeback hopes alive.
Bartolini powered in from 2 yards out on the next play to pull the Panthers within 28-26 with 6:02 to play.
On Marion Center’s next possession, Kinney intercepted Ryen on a third-and-9, giving the Panthers the ball back with 4:55 to play and still trailing by two points.
“Actually, before the play, I looked at my safety and I was like, I’m gonna get an interception on this play,” the ever-confident Kinney said, “and they threw it and I went up for it. Whatever is in the air is going to be mine.”
“Cage came in clutch,” Bartolini said. “That’s all I can say. Make big plays, get rewarded.”
It was Bartolini’s turn to make the big plays on the next drive.
He turned a short screen pass from Staats into a 38-yard gain, and he scored on a 40-yard run on the next play to give River Valley the lead for good at 34-28 with 3:41 remaining.
Marion Center still had time to mount its own comeback, but the Stingers committed another turnover with 2:50 to play and River Valley ran out the clock to win a game that might go a long way in determining the conference champion.
“This is great,” Houser said. “This is the one I had circled on my calendar. They’re the defending champs, and they’re the team to beat. We came out here and stood up and beat them. I’m proud of my guys. They came together as one, and we came back and got it.”
“Just missed opportunities,” Marion Center coach Adam Rising said. “Field positioning wasn’t good. Missed opportunities defensively where we had them wrapped up, we had guys in position and over-pursued or didn’t break down or arm tackle.
“We had some key turnovers that were huge. We had some missed plays offensively that we need to be able to execute and just getting better blocking up front.”
Bartolini finished with 25 bruising carries, and he couldn’t be stopped in the fourth quarter. He had 96 of his 162 rushing yards in the fourth quarter.
“Just hungry,” he said. “Determination. Only thing going through your mind is just win. You want that win. You want it so bad, and you’re hungry, you go get it.”
Throw in the fact the Panthers hadn’t played in two weeks after last week’s game was canceled due to COVID-19 concerns, they were starving.
“We’ve been fiending to get back on this field,” Kinney said. “Fiending.”
Even before the fourth quarter, the game was a back-and-forth affair. The teams exchanged scores the first three quarters, with Marion Center taking a 21-19 lead into the fourth.
River Valley opened the scoring less than two minutes into the game on Sincere McFarlin’s 8-yard touchdown run.
Ryen and Brady Tonkin connected for their first touchdown of the game, a 5-yarder, late in the first quarter to tie the game at 7.
Bartolini scored the first of his four touchdowns, a 45-yarder, with 10:55 to play in the second quarter, but Marion Center responded on its next possession, pulling ahead 14-13 after Xavier Vaglia’s 4-yard touchdown run midway through the quarter.
River Valley regained the lead in the third quarter, 19-14, on Bartolini’s11-yard scoring run before Marion Center scored 14 straight points.
Ryen connected again with Tonkin for a 21-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-16 with 11:02 remaining in the fourth to stretch the Stingers’ lead to 28-19. And then everything fell apart for the Stingers, even though they had chances to win.
Vaglia led the Stingers with 98 rushing yards.
Ryen had an unusually quiet night, completing 6 of 16 passes for 88 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. He also had a 1-yard rushing touchdown in the third quarter.
“That was our goal the whole time is to come in and get pressure on the quarterback,” Houser said of Ryen. “We knew everything ran through him on the offense, so we just wanted to put him on the turf and I believe we did that tonight.”