Wyomissing head coach Bob Wolfrum sent out his field goal unit for a chip shot 24-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter Saturday afternoon. With a seven point deficit in a game with a single touchdown, Wyomissing needed points. But when a Central Valley offsides turned a fourth-and-goal from the 7 into a fourth-and-goal from the 4, Wolfrum reconsidered.
Wolfrum sent the offense back out onto the field, and among them was 6-foot-4, 310-pound Jven Williams, the No. 1 ranked in-state recruit from the class of 2023. Central Valley’s Sean FitzSimmons lined up along the Warriors’ defense line, and he could see that the Spartans’ guard was going to pull.
“(The guard) was back deep in the backfield, and since I knew he was pulling, I knew big 74 (Williams) was gonna come down on me because I knew they were passing or doing a toss — the quarterback was gonna roll out,” FitzSimmons said.
When the ball was snapped on the fourth-and-goal play, FitzSimmons was in the backfield almost before the ball hit Wyomissing’s Benjamin Zechman’s hands. FitzSimmons knew he had to beat Williams off the line, shoot through the gap and disrupt the play. And he did.
FitzSimmons knocked the ball out of Zechman’s hands, killing any chance of reaching the end zone, and Central Valley recovered the ball just off the 5-yard line. With a 7-0 lead, late in the fourth quarter, Central Valley needed a few first downs to clinch a win. The first chance at a first down conversion came on a fourth-and-one from the 18-yard line. Their own 18-yard line.
Matt Merritt lined up under center, directly off his center’s back and upon receiving the snap, he surged forward. The big guys up front, FitzSimmons included, pushed the Wyomissing defensive line back just enough for Merritt to fall forward across the line to gain. It was a risky call, a disastrous call if not converted, but it all came down to trust.
“It’s all trust,” Merritt said. “Coach Mark trusts us, we trust him. We’re all one family, so we know if somebody needs to make a play, if we gotta get a wedge or something, we can do it.”
Central Valley ran the clock all the way down under a minute, helped by another Merritt conversion in which he performed a Houdini-like scuttle to pick up a third-and-six right at midfield. Wyomissing received the ball with half a minute and no timeout left, needing to move 75 yards to extend the game to overtime. The Spartans couldn’t reach midfield.
Three large, orange zeros lit up the scoreboard at Hersheypark Stadium and Central Valley officially clinched the PIAA Class-3A title — for the second straight season. The back-to-back titles came at the expense of Wyomissing both times.
“It was a dog fight, I mean 7-0,” Merritt said. “That’s a dog fight score. They were driving, they had a fourth and goal on the 4-yard line, we never hung our heads. You know, this whole game we never hung our heads. Our game plan going into the week was just shut this team out and beat them again.”
The pain of losing to Wyoming Area in the 2019 PIAA Class-3A title game was a driving factor in not only reeling off 27 straight wins, three WPIAL titles and two PIAA titles since but cementing the family that Central Valley has continued to become.
“Everybody in this community, Monaca, Center, all of Beaver County,” Merritt said. “You know, we were rooting for the Quips come Thursday. We were sitting at one of our buddy’s houses and we were rooting on the Quips. Those are our boys, and we know they’re rooting on for us here, so we had to bring back the gold to Beaver County as well.”
The emotion on display at Hersheypark Stadium Saturday, with a full contingent of Central Valley faithful making the trip out to Hershey, Pa., and there wasn’t enough blinking in the world that could contain the tears that fell. FitzSimmons’ words didn’t tell the whole picture, but his emotions did.
“It means a lot, you know… It’s my family, I’m a little emotional about it because this is my last game,” FitzSimmons said through the tears. “It’s great we won the state championship, and it means a lot.”
The bonds between Central Valley and the community run deep, but the bonds have fueled three WPIAL and two PIAA titles — they can’t be beaten. And one of the strongest has been fostered through Landon Alexander and his offensive line.
“First and foremost, I wanna thank the line,” Alexander said. “It’s impossible to do such stats and things like that when don’t have those guys that’s trying to — just playing their butt off every play, every snap. They come and tell me, ‘come on, Bando,’ they call me Bando, they’re like, ‘come on, let’s get this.’ … That type of reassurance and stuff like that goes a long way.”
Alexander ran for 200 yards yet again against Wyomissing, completing a season in which he rushed for nearly 2,500 yards. Alexander was the engine that allowed Central Valley to charge toward the state title, but his offensive line was the coal that powered the engine. The love between not just Alexander and the linemen but the entire team is what drives the Warriors.
The senior core of Central Valley — the Merritts, the FitzSimmons, the Alexanders — is moving on, but the Warriors remain strong. And those bonds don’t ever go away either. And neither do three WPIAL titles and two PIAA titles.
“Oh my goodness, I couldn’t tell you,” Merritt said. “I grew up with these guys, we’ve been playing since we were 7 and 8 years old. To be this final game and this special stage, to be state champions, it’s just… I’m speechless.”
“I’ve been playing in this organization and playing in this jersey since I was five, so for me to finally end it and winning the state championship … It’s beautiful, I couldn’t ask for it better,” Alexander said.