By Tom Robinson, NEPASportsNation.com
DANVILLE – Old Forge’s pursuit of the school’s first state football championship came to another painful conclusion Saturday.
For the second straight season, the final play of the year for the Blue Devils was the touchdown their highly regarded opponent used to end Old Forge’s season in the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association Class A state quarterfinal.
Hayden Ward ran up the middle for an 8-yard touchdown on Canton’s second play of the 10-Yard Overtime Tiebreaker to lift the Warriors to a 20-14 victory in a game that Old Forge led by 14 points until the last 7:03 of regulation.
“Ultimately, you can’t put your finger on it,” said Old Forge coach Mike Schuback, whose team had a lead on eventual state champion Steelton-Highspire last year until the Rollers took advantage of a penalty to score the game-winning touchdown in a 39-36 victory on an untimed down at the end of the game.
Old Forge, which entered Saturday’s game as the top-ranked Class A team in the state according to PennLive.com, seemed to have control of the quarterfinal meeting of unbeatens with No. 2 Canton.
The Blue Devils could not put the game away, however, when its seven second-half and overtime possessions ended in five turnovers and two blocked punts. That combination both cost Old Forge chances to add another score and set up Canton for repeated opportunities.
“The last couple have been just unique situations,” said Schuback, whose program also suffered a one-point, overtime loss in its only trip to a state final in 2013. “I’m very proud of my group of kids. There’s 28 guys we came here with today.
“At the end of the day, they’re young kids, they’re going to make mistakes, uncontrollable things are going to happen and you just try to do the best you can with it.”
Schuback could sense his team on the verge of putting the game away when it opened the fourth quarter at the Canton 9, still leading by 14 points, or two minutes later when it came up with a turnover at the Warriors 27.
“We made mistakes last week and didn’t lose,” Schuback said. “Today, we made the mistakes and we lost.
“You can’t overcome the mistakes.”
The Blue Devils also escaped the potential damage of a turnover and a short punt in the first half.
Old Forge stopped the game’s first threat when Casey Holzman made tackles on the last three plays of Canton’s second drive, including stopping a fourth-down pass for no gain.
The Blue Devils then embarked on an eight-play, 69-yard drive for the game’s first score.
James Sobol completed passes on three of the last four plays of the drive. He found Josh Spindler for 19 yards and Mario Samony for 21 on consecutive plays, then hit Holzman just across the goal line for a 16-yard touchdown and 6-0 lead with 1:34 left in the first quarter.
Gage Pepper returned Canton’s first interception, on the third play of the second quarter, to the Old Forge 9.
The Warriors got as close as third-and-goal at the 3, but after a no gain, a penalty and an incompletion, Old Forge took over at the 8.
Spindler, who had the third-down stop for no gain, made a tackle for a loss after Canton got as close as the 22 on the next drive.
Old Forge eventually took over at its 33 with 2:19 left in the half and raced the clock for a score with Sobol going 5-for-7 through the air and running for a fourth-down conversion.
Sobol rolled slightly to his right and threw deep down the left side to an open Samony, who sidestepped the last defender at the 17 on his way in for a 45-yard score with 13.7 seconds left.
Canton’s face mask penalty on the first conversion attempt gave Old Forge another try from 1½ yards away. Spindler took advantage by running for the two-pointer and a 14-0 lead.
Three plays into the second half – Old Forge opened the half with plays of 30, 13 and 21 yards, only to fumble at the 14 – the Blue Devils led 11-3 in first downs, 246-97 in total offense.
Canton had only slight statistical advantages in other areas the rest of the way, but the turnovers made the biggest difference.
“It’s no different than last year,” Schuback said. “You feel everything is going your way, then all of a sudden you have an uncharacteristic situation happen.”
In the second half and overtime:
- Old Forge was inside the Red Zone just 34 seconds into the half but had its only lost fumble. The Blue Devils defense gave up two first downs, but never let Canton reach midfield with Spindler’s sack forcing a punt.
- The Blue Devils had a 16-play drive that took 9:20 off the clock and moved the ball inside the 10 before a fourth-and-11 pass from the 14 was intercepted at the 4. Old Forge got the ball back at the Canton 27 on Angelo Fumanti’s fumble recovery.
- Old Forge turned the ball back over on the next play on Ward’s interception. On the second play after the interception, Ward took a Cooper Kitchen pass 71 yards to set up a 12-yard Kitchen-to-Riley Parker touchdown on fourth-and-10 with 7:03 left.
- The Blue Devils had to punt after three plays and the kick was blocked and advanced to the 3. Parker scored from there on the next play, making it two touchdowns in 90 seconds and tying the game with 5:33 left.
- Another three-and-out led to another blocked punt and Canton taking over at the 11 with a chance to take the lead with 3:18 left. On third down from the 7, with a likely field-goal attempt coming on fourth down, John Greenfield forced a fumble and Fumanti recovered with 1:53 left.
- Tallo went 5-for-6 to move Old Forge from its 6 to the Canton 41, but the Devils stalled there with three straight incompletions, then a fourth-down interception. The Warriors took over at their 16 with 44.9 seconds left and were content to move to overtime after two runs up the middle.
- Old Forge lost six yards on the first play of overtime, leading to a forced third-and-16 pass and a Weston Bellows end-zone interception. Canton took over needing any score to end the game, which is what happened when Ward scored from the 8.
Sobol finished 17-for-37 for 217 yards and 2 touchdowns while carrying 22 times for 96 yards, but was intercepted 5 times. Samony had 8 catches for 104 yards and a touchdown while Holzman caught 4 for 44 yards and the other score.
“You live and die with those kids, so you understand it,” Schuback said. “They’re your top players. If it wasn’t for those players, you wouldn’t have gotten here.
“Those players are continually doing whatever they have to do. They’re doing it to the best of their ability. You’re not questioning their heart or anything. It’s just unfortunate.”
Fumanti, Greenfield, Holzman, Spindler and Santino Krappa led the Old Forge defense.
In addition to his two fumble recoveries, Fumanti had four tackles, five assists and two broken-up passes. Greenfield had nine tackles, three assists and the forced fumble. Holzman had eight tackles and three assists. Spindler had six tackles, including a sack and another tackle for a loss, along with four assists. Krappa had four tackles and four assists.
Kitchen finished 5-for-10 for 108 yards passing for Canton, which managed just 124 yards rushing on 40 carries.
Ward and Bailey Ferguson each had seven tackles and two assists for Canton. Ward had two tackles for a loss and the interception. Ferguson broke up two passes.
Canton used the win to advance to the semifinals against Bishop Guilfoyle, where it fell Dec. 3, 20-7.