ARMAGH — Sometimes, player safety is more important than a game. And when coaches have to choose between the two, they usually err on the side of safety.
That was the situation United football coach Kevin Marabito faced Friday night.
Truth be told, Marabito has faced that predicament all season, a result of having only 17 players on the opening-day roster. It’s the reason behind the Lions forfeiting two games this season.
In other words, it’s nothing Marabito hasn’t seen before. But what happened Friday was new even to the 35-year veteran of coaching.
The Lions started their Heritage Conference game against Marion Center with 14 healthy players. By halftime, they were down to 12, and Marabito along with United’s athletic administrators, made the call to end the game at halftime with the Stingers leading 25-0.
“I’ve been at it for 35 years. I’ve never seen one,” Marabito said. “It’s a battle of the numbers, you know. A couple plays hurt us, and then the injuries set in. We were down to 12 players, and for safety reasons there was just no way we could finish. … There’s nothing you can do. We had to look out for the safety of the kids, and that’s really what the decision came down to.”
Marion Center was awarded the victory, and both teams wrapped up their conference schedules one half earlier than the rest of the conference teams.
United proceeded with the senior night halftime festivities before the fans filed out of the stadium.
“They knew what we were up against and there was just no way humanly possible we could even match up,” Marabito said of his players. “Marion Center is a good team, they’re physical, and there was just nothing we could do. Naturally, they were disappointed, but they understood.”
Marion Center coach Adam Rising had never seen anything like it, either.
“No, first time,” Rising said. “But I give United a lot of credit. Those boys have stuck with them throughout the season. You know, 13, 14 (players) and you hear of other teams that have 19, 20 that have already forfeited, so I give Coach Marabito and his staff and his players — between what happened at the beginning of the season and everything that they’re enduring — I give them a lot of prayers and thoughts that they get some kids back and healthy and they can finish out the season.”
“It’s kind of crappy for those guys,” Marion Center quarterback Ty Ryen said. “They’re seniors, too. That’s their last Heritage Conference game.”
The Lions lost one player to an illness and another to an injury, and whether they will be able to field a team for next week’s season finale against Conemaugh Valley remains to be seen.
“We’ve just got to evaluate how serious the injuries are and whether Conemaugh Valley can play or not, so it’s going to be up in the air,” Marabito said. “We’ll evaluate that this weekend and see where we are. Hopefully, we can. If we can’t, that’s the way it goes.”
Despite running just 18 offensive plays in the half, Marion Center racked up 179 total yards and scored on three of its four possessions. The Stingers rushed for 166 yards on 13 running plays, an average of 12.8 yards per carry.
Garet Wells ran for 98 yards on six carries, including a 44-yard touchdown in the second quarter that stretched the lead to 25-0, and Gaven Palko added 51 rushing yards on three carries.
Keegan Whitfield opened the scoring for Marion Center with a 1-yard run less than four minutes into the game.
Tight end Jonah Vaglia hauled in a 15-yard touchdown pass from Ryen in the final minute of the first quarter to make it 19-0.
The Stingers also scored on special teams with 2:53 to play in the first quarter, when Clayton Coble recovered a blocked punt in the end zone for a touchdown and a 12-0 lead.
“We came out and we played our game like we can, so I was proud to see that,” Whitfield said. “I think our defense has been stepping up a lot lately, and our offense, we’ve been slowly coming together all season, and I think at this point of the season, our offense and our defense are pretty much at our peak.”
Marion Center held United to 54 total yards, 35 of which came on the Lions’ final drive of the half, when Rising replaced his starters with mostly junior varsity players.
It was a classy move by Marion Center’s second-year coach, Marabito said.
“I give Coach Rising a lot of credit putting his JVs in right before the half,” he said, “but there was really nothing we could do. It was just a bad night, and you’ve got to look out for the safety of the kids.”
“First quarter, with all our starters in, I felt pretty confident defensively,” Rising said. “We got after them. … The run game was there, we threw the ball well at times when we had to. We worked some different sets in tonight, too, that we wanted to experiment with. … But hey, a ‘W’ is a ‘W,’ and we’ll take it.”