PURCHASE LINE — There wasn’t any consolation in getting close for the Marion Center Stingers.
Marion Center played and lost two relatively close games to start the season, letting one get away late against Saltsburg and failing to capitalize late against West Shamokin.
With the prospect of getting their first victory in a matchup against winless Purchase Line, the Stingers figured it was time to lay it on the line.
Marion Center dominated up front, sophomore quarterback Gaven Palko hooked up with three receivers for touchdowns, and the Stingers scored late in the third quarter to take the lead and late in the fourth at the end of a long drive to seal a 20-8 victory, the first under head coach Adam Rising, in a Heritage Conference football game Friday night.
“We’ve been so close the last two weeks,” Rising said. “The boys have really learned how to battle. Up front, we challenged our offensive and defensive lines — games are won up front — and we just really took our level up. It’s a lot easier when you can pound and grind within that tackle box.
“Kudos to Levi Isenberg, Travis Parsell, Clayton Coble, Devin Lingenfelter and Aaron Brewer,” he added, rattling off the names of the Stingers’ front five. “They have lot to be proud of.”
The Stingers were a handful up front on both sides of the ball. On offense, Marion Center used its inside running game to set up what has become an effective passing game. Palko hit Brewer, his tight end, on a 19-yard strike for a 6-0 lead early in the second quarter, and then hooked up with Brant Lydic for the go-ahead score and Zach Hicks for game-sealing touchdowns on plays that covered 48 and 5 yards, respectively.
Palko finished 8-for-13 for 142 yards but threw two interceptions. Hicks hauled in five passes for 54 yards. Rinehart, the pounder up the middle, carried 18 times for 99 yards.
“We really pushed the line to block,” Palko said. “They did what they had to do, and I delivered the ball when it had to be delivered.”
Marion Center gained 249 yards, with only 105 coming on the ground. Purchase Line committed a pass interference penalty on fourth down that helped extend Marion Center’s first scoring drive but held after committing a roughing-the-passer penalty on third down in the third quarter.
“Defensively, I thought we played very well,” Purchase Line coach Matt Falisec said. “Gaven Palko made plays when he had to, so hats off to him. Palko was the difference tonight, him and Hicks. You can’t forget Hicks.”
Palko and Hicks made up for earlier mistakes. Hicks’ fumble at the Stingers’ 9-yard line in the second quarter was returned by Cullen Goncher for the Dragons’ only touchdown, and Palko had an interception in the end zone by Josh Syster that wiped out a scoring chance a minute before halftime and another in the third quarter by Jacob Barnett. Marion Center also overcame a mistake after failing to cover an onside kick after Goncher’s touchdown.
“You’ve just got to put the bad plays behind you and keep moving on,” Hicks said. “The big plays will come, you just need to keep going and get your head in the right spot.”
Defensively, Marion Center didn’t yield a touchdown and held Purchase Line to 95 total yards, including only 38 and one first down in the second half. On what turned out to Purchase Line’s last chance to take the lead, Parsell registered two tackles for loss and helped force the quarterback out of the pocket for a 3-yard gain on third-and-16.
“They were swarming to the football, getting to the football, and we didn’t have an answer for it,” Falisec said.
“They’re playing with confidence and swagger,” Rising said, “and I’m very happy with the way we’re getting to and flying at the football.”
After the defense forced that three-and-out, the offense took over with a 14-8 lead and 8:09 to play. Marion Center mounted a 13-play scoring drive, with Palko and Hicks finishing it on a 5-yard play on fourth-and-3 with 1:07 to go.
“We were just hungry from last week,” Hicks said. “Coming off that loss and being 0-2, we wanted to get our first win of the 2K18 season. We just practiced hard all week and came out and played all four quarters. We wore them down and just kept going.”
“This is a huge pivotal point in the season,” Rising said. “We were in two nail-biters, and this was a confidence builder, to get a taste of a ‘W’ and how we truly have to play for four quarters.”
A longtime assistant coach, Rising in his first season as a varsity head coach.
“Thanks for all the support from the administration to the parents to the kids ... and compliments to the kids,” he said. “It’s such a great feeling for them and they’ve worked so hard up to this point and it’s so rewarding for them. They’ve done the work — they’re on the field — and I’m just super-proud of everyone involved and for the excitement and positive energy around our program.”
“Congratulations to Coach Rising,” Falisec said. “I know those guys pretty well, coached with them for like 10 years. It’s a tough one, but congratulations to them.”
Purchase Line, which has only three seniors, faces the prospect of going on the road to play 3-0 Northern Cambria next Friday.
“We’re playing a lot of young kids right now,” Falisec said. “We just have to stay together and keep working hard, get the ship turned around and get on it and everybody’s got to row.”