By Tom Robinson, NEPASportsNation.com
PECKVILLE – Sean Bracken already had what by all indications would have been the victory-clinching play Nov. 26 in the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association Class 4A football quarterfinal.
He wanted – and got – more.
Bracken returned an interception 77 yards for a touchdown with 16.1 seconds left to wrap up Bishop Shanahan’s 35-25 victory at Valley View and land the Eagles in the state semifinals against Harrisburg Bishop McDevitt.
“I have a history of dropping passes,” Bracken said after picking the floating ball out of the air following a Jackson Ercole deflection. “Everyone was telling me to go down, but I saw the end zone and I went for it and kept going.”
Each team managed just a single offensive play of more than 21 yards, but turnovers, defensive stands and big special team plays combined to create a game in which the teams produced 60 points and a series of exciting, momentum swings. Each team scored a defensive touchdown and Valley View went in front when its defense and special teams came up with back-to-back, second-half safeties.
“We made some plays; they made some plays,” Valley View coach George Howanitz said. “It was a good high school football game.”
Valley View was at the Bishop Shanahan 1 in a tie game in the third quarter without getting points from the offense.
Then, trailing by three, the Cougars put together a drive over the final 4:48, leaving them in position to tie the game with a field goal or win it with a touchdown.
That’s when Ercole and Bracken stepped in for Bishop Shanahan on second-and-11 from the Eagles 27 to put the win away.
“I love my brothers on my team,” Bracken said. “We’re never going to go down. We just keep fighting.”
As did the Cougars on the final drive.
“I thought our kids played extremely hard,” Howanitz said. “ … I thought our kids did a nice job fighting all the way to the end.”
Connor Hilling carried 20 times for 176 yards for Valley View. He ran 80 yards for one touchdown and returned a kickoff 71 yards to set up another score.
Hilling got the final drive started by going 20 yards around left end to the Bishop Shanahan 47 on the first play.
Hilling ran four yards to convert a third-and-three, then quarterback Dominic Memo got enough to move the chains again on a fourth-and-two bootleg, but the process chewed up much of the remaining time as the Cougars needed 10 plays to cover 40 yards.
“I think we just wanted to get down as close as we could,” Howanitz said. “We knew if we got down to the 20 and in, we’d have a pretty good shot at the field goal at least to tie it.”
The Cougars, who finished 12-2, took a 21-13 halftime lead and broke a 21-21, third-quarter tie with the back-to-back safeties.
District 1 champion Bishop Shanahan (11-3) scored two touchdowns in the final 4:48 to rally for the victory.
Brandon Choi’s interception and nine-yard return set up the six-play, 33-yard drive for the go-ahead score on quarterback Cooper Jordan’s 2-yard sneak.
Jordan finished with 55 net rushing yards on 17 carries, despite 31 yards in losses. He hit 10 of 13 passes for 129 yards.
“The quarterback we thought was their best player,” Howanitz said. “We thought if we could pin him in, he ran with the ball pretty loosely, so we told the kids early in the week, if you get a chance, swipe. We got a couple swipes.”
Jordan fumbles resulted in a Valley View touchdown and one of the safeties.
The offenses produced four straight scores in the first half before the game shifted to one dominated by the defenses.
The matching scores resulted from Bishop Shanahan drives countered by big plays from Hilling.
Colin McGrory ran 4 yards for the first Bishop Shanahan touchdown with 1:26 left in the first quarter, completing an eight-play, 53-yard drive.
Hilling raced down the left sideline for an 80-yard score on the next play, completing the second half of the run when the last player with a shot at stopping him misjudged Hilling’s speed and went after him at the wrong angle.
“My offensive line, they got me to the second level quick,” Hilling said. “When they get me to the second level quick, I feel like I get on linebackers quicker than they want me to. I’m a lot stronger than people think and I get under people because I’m shorter, so I’m able to bounce outside quick and make a move.
“But, my offensive line is everything. They created every hole for me this year and that big run was a big adrenaline lift for our team.”
Bishop Shanahan regained the lead by going 63 yards in 9 plays in a drive that spanned the first and second quarters. Jordan hit Sean McGrory for 17 yards on third-and-four, then scrambled for 12 yards on fourth-and-five.
Jordan hit Nicholas Romano running across the back of the end zone for a 21-yard touchdown and 13-7 lead with 9:01 left in the half.
Valley View managed to surge in front 21-13 despite having just one first down in the first half.
Hilling again provided the immediate response to Bishop Shanahan’s score. He returned the kickoff 71 yards to the 8.
On third-and-goal, A.J. Kucharski got open on in the end zone for a quick 3-yard pass from Memo and Matt Cole added his second extra point for a 14-13 lead with 7:56 left in the half.
The Cougars added a defensive score when Shamel Salley and Robert Altieri tracked down Jordan for a sack, forcing a fumble on a play that started at the Bishop Shanahan 30.
Cougars linebacker Jordan Rebar scooped up the bouncing ball at the 14 and ran it in for a touchdown.
Bishop Shanahan opened the second half with its biggest gain of the game, a screen pass from Jordan to Colin McGrory for 49 yards.
Seven plays later, the same combination came up with a 4-yard touchdown on fourth-and-two. Jordan then passed to Choi for the tying two-pointer.
Valley View missed its first shot at regaining the lead.
Hilling had a 14-yard run, Bishop Shanahan was flagged for a 15-yard, unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and Memo hit Sean Mackinder for 13 yards to the 6 on third-and-seven.
Valley View advanced to the 1 before a third-down false start and consecutive incompletions stopped the threat.
“There were just a couple plays here and there where I think if the ball bounces a different way, it could have gone in our favor,” Howanitz said.
The Cougars did manage to get two points out of the sequence.
After a penalty cost Bishop Shanahan three yards, Kucharski made a tackle for a loss at the 2.
Back at the 6 for third-and-10, Jordan fumbled the ball in the backfield. In the ensuing scramble, Jordan had no choice but to yield the safety by pouncing on the ball in the end zone, just ahead of Louis Marion, who landed on top of him.
Hilling’s 13-yard run on the first play after the free kick put Valley View at the Bishop Shanahan 32.
Romano’s interception at the 2 ended the threat, but Zack Rudalavage made sure the Eagles never escaped.
Rudalavage had the first hit on stops at the 3 and 4 on second and third downs on the first two plays of the fourth quarter. He then burst through the middle on fourth down to block the punt out of the end zone for a safety.
The resulting free kick did not produce the typical field position, with Bishop Shanahan stopping Valley View at the 30, the equivalent of a tackle on the 10 on a traditional kickoff.
Choi’s interception flipped the field-position advantage and led to the game-winning score.
“You live for this,” Hilling said. “This is why you play sports, the up and downs of it; the battling; the constant fight for it. It was never easy.
“It was an awesome game to play in.”
Several players stood out with their defensive efforts.
Rudalavage finished with five tackles, including a sack for a nine-yard loss, to go along with the blocked punt for a safety on the special teams.
Rebar added to his defensive touchdown with three tackles, an assist and a pass rush.
Marion finished with four tackles and three assists along with the play that resulted in the safety.
Dylan Walsh had six tackles, seven assists and a pass rush. Taheed Jewell had seven tackles and three assists. Salley had three tackles, including the sack that led to a defensive touchdown, and three assists.
“They’re all big, tough players,” Bracken said of Valley View. “They’re tough up here and they played hard.”
Bracken, Choi and Gus Ross led the Bishop Shanahan defense.
Bracken had four tackles, including one for a loss, and two assists to go with the game-clinching play.
One of Choi’s four tackles went for a 10-yard loss. He also had six assists, a broken-up pass and the interception that led to the go-ahead score.
Ross made seven tackles, including three open-field stops in the secondary to prevent bigger gains, and to assists.
Valley View-Bishop Shanahan Photo Gallery by Tim Drewes: https://nepasportsnation.com/valley-view-bishop-shanahan-football-photo-gallery/.
Scoring summary, Valley View game statistics: https://www.nepafootball.com/event/2021-bishop-shanahan-at-valley-view/.