WHEELING - Barely avoiding what would have been another bitter taste of deja vu against Bridgeport, Wheeling Park held on for a 14-13 victory on a steamy Friday night at Wheeling Island Stadium.
''This can't be happening again," Patriots' coach Chris Daugherty thought while standing on the sidelines as the Indians lined up for what would have been a game-winning 32-yard field-goal attempt with just 22.2 seconds on the clock.
In each of the last two seasons, Bridgeport had edged Park with late field goals, the first coming with 20 seconds to play, while last year's heartbreaker occurred with 2.2 ticks left.
Bridgeport's Anthony Caldera runs down the sideline as Wheeling Park’s Max Steinman gives chase Friday at Wheeling Island Stadium.
Photo by Alex Kozlowski
The only consolation Daugherty felt at that moment Friday night was that the Indians' kicker who had beaten the Patriots the past two seasons, is now the punter at the University of Iowa.
''I kind of peeked to make sure I didn't see him sneak on the field," Daugherty joked before being able to let out a huge sigh of relief when a low snap bounced back to the holder and the hurried attempt by Brandon Hanlan never came close as the kick was short and well wide to the left.
''This was an ugly win but we'll take it," continued Daugherty after the Patriots led 14-0 at halftime but did very little offensively in the second half.
In a game that saw both teams limited to five possessions the entire night before Park junior quarterback Zach Phillips took a snap and touched the turf with his knee on the last play.
''I was really upset with the second half," Daugherty said.
The Patriots had three possessions after halftime, including two drives that consisted of three plays and a punt. The other opportunity saw Park pick up two first downs before having to punt after being assessed their 10th penalty for a total of 75 yards on the night.
''The first half we played very well,'' he said. ''When we are clicking, we are very impressive but our line is still growing. There are four seniors on that line but three of them did not play much football last year. (This game) was a big step for us. Sometimes I think you learn more in a win like this than you do blowing somebody out."
Except for some near-crippling penalties, Park looked sharp on both sides of the ball while building its early two-touchdown lead. Taking the opening kickoff, the Patriots rolled 82 yards on nine plays, all but one on the ground as juniors dazzler Bryce Ingram carried six times for 63 yards.
Faced with a third-and-3 at the Bridgeport 19, Park's Phillips faked a handoff to Geremy Paige, who was stacked up in the the center of line but the ball wound up in the fleet Ingram's hands as he circled left end for the touchdown. Liam Casey. whose kicking toe would ultimately decide the game, tacked on the conversion for a 7-0 Park lead just 3:50 into the contest.
The Indians, who did not attempt a pass throughout the evening which isn't surprising considering their long-standing reputation of rushing the football down their opponents' throats, then peeled all but 57 seconds off the first quarter clock. The visitors unleashed a 12-play drive that ended when Paige nailed Brett Hathaway for no gain on a fourth-and-4 sweep at the Park 25.
Wheeling Park then put together one of its most bizarre scoring series ever as it needed 125 yards and 19 plays before finally pushing the football in the end zone.
The Patriots were penalized five times for 50 yards in the official 75-yard drive that saw two TDs called back by yellow flags being dropped on the field before Paige got the touchdown on a blast up the middle on fourth-and-goal from the 2.
The biggest hurdle came when the Patriots recovered from a second and 27 at their own 43. Phillips, turning in a solid night throwing the ball with seven completions in eight attempts for 105 yards, had completions of 12 yards to Ingram and 13 along the sideline to Julian Figaretti before Paige picked up six yards to move the sticks on fourth down.
The Park TD and Casey's conversion came with 6:05 on the clock and Bridgeport proceeded again to run off the remaining time before being stopped when quarterback Troy Anderson sank back into the pocket only to be dropped by Paige for a 12-yard loss.
Bridgeport coach Josh Nicewarner had a message for the Indians at halftime.
''I told them they had one or two options which was to fight back or give up,'' he said. ''As long as we continue to play like we did in the second half, this game is going to be nothing but a positive for us.''
Nicewarner also decided it was time to give one of his speedier backs an opportunity to provide some spark for the offense. Anthony Caldera, after not having been given a carry in the first half, rushed 11 times in the second half for 107 yards and a touchdown.
Caldera capped a 57-yard, six-play drive by cutting back against the grain and going 34 yards to paydirt. Sam Hadjis' placement cut the deficit to 14-7 at the 3:03 mark in the third quarter.
Taking advantage of a shanked Park punt that never even made the line of scrimmage, Bridgeport went 53 yards on 11 plays with Hathaway getting the TD from a yard out. But Hadjis' try for the game-tying PAT was blocked by a trio of rushing Patriots linemen, leaving Park ahead by a point with 8:16 remaining.
The Indians would not get the ball back until just 2:43 remained and they were 78 yards from the end zone. Again, without throwing a pass, Bridgeport got runs of 16 and 19 yards from Caldera and a 23-yard keeper carry by Anderson in advancing to the Wheeling Park 11.
On fourth-and-1with less than 40 seconds left, Bridgeport lined up to go for a first down but jumped offside, pushing the ball back to the 16, setting up the ill-fated field goal attempt.
''Absolutely we were going for the first down," Nicewarner said. ''We were going to run '30' ISO (isolation), and I not only believed we would pick up the first down, I was confident we could score on the play.''
But the offensive penalty changed his mind but still left Nicewarner with another decision about who would kick the field goal.
''I have two kickers who have never kicked before,'' he said. ''Brendon Hanlan got hurt in soccer practice and missed our special teams practice, so I went with Hadjis at the start of the game. But Hanlan was hitting the ball really well kickoff off, so we switched to him for the field goal try.''
Park, squaring its record at 1-1 after an opening loss to St. Clairsville, also had its key defender Paige again have to come out of the game several times with cramping problems that proved to be a issue in trying to stop the Indians in the second half.
Ingram led the Patriots in rushing with 84 yards on 18 carries, although he also was bothered somewhat by a sore calf.
Phillips impressed Daugherty with his accuracy throwing the football.
''Zach is going to be really good," Daugherty said. ''He missed one coverage but seven out of eight is excellent and he is only going to get better.''