INDIANA - John Barton did not sound like the coach of a playoff team Friday night.
"It's so doggone frustrating," he said. "I can't explain it words. Wow. I'm just sick. I'm sick to my stomach."
That was moments after his Hollidaysburg Golden Tigers came up short in their regular-season finale against Indiana, losing a hard-fought 17-13 battle between two WPIAL Class AAA teams.
The Golden Tigers (3-6) needed simply to beat Indiana (3-6) to clinch the fifth playoff spot out of Section 3-AAA. Indiana needed to win the game by at least 10 points, and to have Highlands lose to Knoch by at least 10 in order to get to the playoffs.
So when the Hollidaysburg defense stuffed Indiana's Jordan Casses at the 2-yard line on the game's final play, the Golden Tigers didn't celebrate much.
A loss is a loss, after all.
But a few minutes after the dust settled at Andy Kuzneski Field, Barton learned that Highlands had lost by 34 points to Knoch, meaning Hollidaysburg and Highlands were in a virtual tie for the playoff spot. The first criterion to break a tie is head-to-head result, and because the Golden Tigers beat the Rams 33-26 on Aug. 31, Barton's squad gets the playoff spot.
"You know what this feels like?" Barton asked. "This just feels weird. It's just a weird feeling. I don't know."
So in the end, the Golden Tigers won by losing.
"I don't know what to say," Indiana coach Mark Zilinskas said. "It's just a situation where you walk away and you're totally floored."
The post-game craziness had nothing on the game's closing minutes.
Indiana led 17-7 with about two minutes to play when the Golden Tigers scored their first points since the opening quarter when Brian Urban connected with Blake Davis for a 6-yard touchdown pass that made it 17-13.
The extra point was blocked, and Indiana recovered the ensuing onside kick. Because they had the lead, the Indians could have tried to run out the clock, but needing a late touchdown to get ahead by at least 10, the Indians drove down the field quickly and had a first-and-goal at the Hollidaysburg 7.
A run by Casses gained 4 yards, and then a mix-up in the backfield led to a 3-yard loss on second down. Casses nearly fumbled the ball away on third down, but recovered to set up fourth-and-goal at the 8, with the season on the line and 58 seconds on the clock.
But Sean Thompson's pass to the back of the end zone slipped between Riley Stapleton's hands, and Hollidaysburg had a glimmer of hope.
Consecutive fumbles and an incomplete pass put the Tigers in a fourth-and-17 hole at their own 1. Needing a miracle touchdown to win the game and earn a playoff spot, Urban unleashed a pass to the near sideline that fell incomplete, with two seconds on the clock.
Suddenly Indiana had another chance.
"That was like a gift from God," Zilinskas said.
Two seconds were on the clock and the ball was at the 2. The Indians ran their bread-and-butter trap play, and Casses pushed his way forward, but was stopped by a mob of Golden Tigers at the 1.
"I thought for sure the ball was going in," Zilinskas said. "That was the side we wanted to run to. Everything set up perfectly, but for some reason we just didn't get the ball in. Some crazy things just happened at the end of the game. I don't have any explanation for it than it just didn't happen for us."
Indiana took the early lead when Thompson hit Darrious Carter for a 46-yard touchdown barely two minutes into the game. Hollidaysburg answered with Reid Miller's 1-yard scoring run, but Indiana countered with a 2-yard run from Casses that made it 14-7 late in the first quarter.
Indiana made it a critical 10-point spread on Ryan Stewart's 20-yard field goal in the third quarter, but neither team mounted much offense until the closing minutes.
That's when it got really weird.
"It was just a weird game," Barton said. "It was crazy."
But it ended up being good enough to get the Golden Tigers into the playoffs.
Hollidaysburg7 0 0 6 - 13
Indiana14 0 3 0 - 17
I-Carter 46 pass from Sean Thompson (Ryan Stewart kick)
H-Urban 1 run (Eric Miller kick)
I-Casses 2 run (Stewart kick)
I-Stewart 20 FG
H-Davis 6 pass from Urban (kick blocked)
Rushing: Hollidaysburg-Urban 22-70, Ruggery 12-50, R. Miller 17-43, T. Miller 1-38, Weaver 1-11, Hargis 2-11. Indiana-Casses 19-86, Cornell 2-12, Thompson 4-6, Kanyarusoke 4-5.
Passing: Hollidaysburg-Urban 9-16-1-48, Waltz 1-1-0-0. Indiana-Thompson 11-18-1-221.
Receiving: Hollidaysburg-Davis 3-16, Baker 2-9, Brunner 1-12, Ruggery 1-8, Hargis 1-5, Sell 1-0, T. Miller 1-(minus-2). Indiana-Stapleton 5-105, Carter 4-104, Clemons 2-12.