ARMAGH — Marion Center took care of business in the truncated regular season, and the Stingers are now turning their focus to making an “impact” in the playoffs.
After allowing United to hang around for the first three quarters Friday night, Marion Center scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter and pulled away late for a 44-14 victory in what might have been the final Heritage Conference game of the season for both teams.
A lock for the District 6 Class 2A playoffs, Marion Center (5-0) likely solidified its hold on the No. 2 seed in the eight-team playoff field. But the Stingers refuse to be satisfied with that.
“It’s exciting. I’m really proud to be part of it,” Marion Center coach Adam Rising said, “but we’re just going to continue to move forward and continue to play better football and make an impact.
“That’s what we told our kids, we want to make an impact in playoffs this year. We’re not satisfied just by making it. We have to make an impact while we’re there. I think we have the caliber of guys to make an impact.”
Xavier Vaglia rushed for 141 yards and a touchdown, Brady Tonkin ran for 104 yards, and the Stingers racked up 367 rushing yards.
Marion Center held a decisive advantage in total yards, 552-318, and the Stingers had a plus-2 turnover margin. Yet, the Lions (1-5) stayed within striking distance of the unbeaten Stingers through three quarters, entering the fourth down 24-14.
“They definitely grinded pretty hard,” Vaglia said of United. “They worked hard. They’re not a bad team. The record doesn’t reflect how good they are.”
Although the Stingers briefly trailed in the first quarter, they largely had control of Friday’s game. It didn’t feel like it until the final quarter.
“I’m happy for our kids. We played hard. I mean, what more can you ask?” United coach Kevin Marabito said. “I’m very proud of what our kids did tonight. That was an undefeated football team, and the score doesn’t show the effort our kids put in tonight.”
United senior Hunter Cameron rushed for 193 yards and a pair of touchdowns, including a 55-yarder in the first quarter. Quarterback Eli Clevenger added 67 rushing yards, but he also threw a pair of interceptions.
United’s undoing on this night started on the first play of the fourth quarter.
With the Lions trailing 24-14 and facing a fourth-and-2 on their own 11-yard line, Marabito called for a fake punt. Cameron was stopped for a 1-yard gain, and the Lions turned the ball over on downs on their own 12. Marion Center scored two plays later to extend its lead to 31-14.
“I gambled on that fourth-down play,” Marabito said. “I mean, what did I have to lose? That’s the thing. We gambled on it, and that gave them a little momentum, but the kids did everything we asked. … and just some breaks didn’t go our way.”
Among those unfortunate breaks were a pair of second-half turnovers in the red zone. Clevenger threw his second interception late in the third quarter, and the Lions also fumbled the ball two possessions later at the Marion Center 10-yard line.
Freshman Caden McCully caught Clevenger’s second completion of the night on a short slant route, and he turned it into a 45-yard catch-and-run. But as he was getting tackled from behind, he fumbled the ball at the Marion Center 10-yard line with 8:16 to play.
Three plays later, on third-and-6 from the Stingers’ 14-yard line, Marion Center quarterback Ty Ryen connected with Gaven Palko for an 86-yard touchdown pass and a 38-14 lead with 6:47 remaining.
Palko was one of two receivers wide open behind the Lions’ secondary, making Ryen’s job easy. Palko corralled the pass about 15 yards downfield and outraced the defense to the end zone.
“Both men were wide open,” Ryen said. “No one was near them, TJ Lynn and Gavin Palko, but I just found one of them. And thanks to my line for giving me time to throw the ball.”
Although Marion Center was finally able to put the game away, United’s fighting spirit didn’t come as a surprise to Rising.
“I look at Coach Marabito’s team, and they’re a team that’s made improvements throughout the course of the year,” Rising said. “We knew it was going to be a battle within the tackle boxes, and they were able to establish the run game early in that first quarter, and our kids made some adjustments and so forth, but I have a lot of respect for United and the way they play football.”
Marion Center opened the scoring on Vaglia’s 8-yard less than four minutes into the game. Cameron’s first touchdown of the day, the 55-yarder on United’s ensuing drive, tied the game at 6, and Clevenger’s PAT gave United its only lead of the game, 7-6, with 6:52 to play in the first quarter.
Justin Peterson scored on a 15-yard run, and Braden Reichenbach added a 27-yard field goal as Marion Center took a 17-7 lead early in the second quarter.
United then pieced together a workmanlike 11-play, 65-yard scoring drive on its final possession of the first half to get within 17-14 on Cameron’s 22-yard run with 4:27 left in the second quarter.
Marion Center responded with a nine-play, 84-yard drive to take a 24-14 halftime lead on Ryen’s 2-yard run with 31 seconds remaining in the first half. The score remained the same until the fourth quarter.
“The kids changed,” Rising said. “They came out slow there initially and had to adjust to his speed, had to take better angles. We were really hard on our outside linebackers and critical of our team at halftime and we challenged them at halftime, ‘Let’s keep 14 on the board.’ And they rose to that.”
Although United has three conference games remaining on its schedule, it remains to be seen if the Lions will play any of them. They have yet to play Penns Manor, Saltsburg and Purchase Line. Those three teams qualified for the District 6 playoffs.
United’s next opponent, Penns Manor, is likely to receive a first-round bye next week, meaning the Comets could play the Lions, but Marabito couldn’t confirm the game was on.
“We don’t know,” he said. “Right now, I think we’re supposed to play Penns Manor, but I don’t know. They may want a bye week. I really don’t know. Right now, it looks like Penns Manor, we should be playing them, but that’s as of tonight. That could change tomorrow.”