CENTER TWP., Pa. — One thing that draws people to football more than any sport is the one-play, one-game nature. It is not best of three, five, or seven, and with an oddly shaped ball, one bounce can send a superior team into a spiral of disaster. Beyond that, as we get later into the year, the weather starts to have an impact.
While you can look at the scoreboard of No. 2 Central Valley beating No. 7 Laurel Highlands 36-7 and think that the Warriors won a playoff game with ease, the players and coaches at Central Valley will tell you that one play swung the entire game.
Central Valley led 7-0 and controlled most of the game, but it was still tight with seconds to go in the first half. Laurel Highlands star athlete Rodney Gallagher rattled off a couple of big runs, and LH was in field goal range as the seconds closed in the second quarter. LH was not expected to win, but they were staring at a 7-3 halftime deficit, something they gladly would have taken pre-game.
Then, came the snap. It was high, the holder had trouble catching it, and it caused him to be very late. The hold was late, the kicker was not time, and boom, it was blocked. Ryan Jeter lept into the air and deflected the football about five yards with his body. The ball bounced around between two Central Valley players, and then found its way into the hands of Deniro Simpson. Simpson was so fast that once he had possession of the football, he was gone. All of the sudden a 7-3 halftime deficit, and the feeling that Laurel Highlands was one bounce away from an upset turned into the bounce going against Highlands, and Central Valley leading 14-0 at the break.
“It felt like that blocked kick, that changed the whole game completely,” admitted Bret FitzSimmons, who wound up with three rushing touchdowns in the blowout win. Still, he was crediting one of the few he did not score as the game-changer.
“I tell them there are plays out here to be made,” said Central Valley head coach Mark Lyons. “I don’t know if it’s going to come from the offense, defense, or special teams, and we found a way to make one from special teams.”
The play was not just a 10-point swing, Central Valley also got the football at halftime. They ran into the half feeling as though they just flipped the game, while Laurel Highlands had to regroup and play defense.
“That obviously got our swagger going, and we never looked back,” said Lyons on the ability to double-dip after halftime.
Laurel Highlands tried a squib kick, but it ended up giving CV an excellent field position. FitzSimmons had two rushes for 13 yards, and quarterback Antwon Johnson threw an incomplete pass, and had a short run. Then, FitzSimmons juked, found a hole, and ripped off a 58-yard run.
“We had all of the momentum coming out into the second half, and everything just seemed to click,” said FitzSimmons on being able to break the game open just five plays into the second half.
With seven seconds to go in the first half, Central Valley led 7-0, and Laurel Highlands was threatening. With 9:30 to go in the third quarter, the score was 21-0, and the air deflated out of LH.
“Once we got it going, it just seemed like it was over,” confirmed FitzSimmons.
Laurel Highlands scratched and clawed to keep the game close in the first half. Once they saw two scores come so quickly, things started to unravel. It became hard to stick to the same game plan, and all of a sudden, the defense is taking more unnecessary risks.
Central Valley is looking to win its fourth-straight WPIAL championship, and they are now two wins away from making that happen. It is always the teams that are known for taking advantage of any crack their opponent gives them that can sustain that level of dominance. Central Valley did not play a perfect game, but once Laurel Highlands cracked the door open, they pounced and ended the game with furious haymakers. When you play like that, you can find ways to establish an outrageously impressive playoff record, despite the one game, one play nature of the game.