HUNTINGDON - Huntingdon's defense stole the show in the Bearcats' 35-27 victory over county rival Juniata Valley Friday night.
Senior linebacker Mitchell Lauer did his part by simply stealing the football.
With Huntingdon clinging to a 28-27 lead late in the fourth quarter, Valley's bullish senior fullback, Jesse Claar, barreled through the line of scrimmage for a 4-yard run and an apparent first down at the Huntingdon 45.
But the 5-foot-9, 193-pound Lauer pulled a sleight-of-hand in midstream, grabbing the ball from the grasp of Claar - the game's leading rusher with 120 yards on 26 carries - and speeding off the opposite way downfield for what would prove to be a pivotal 55-yard touchdown run that gave Huntingdon its final margin of victory.
"I just ripped it right out, took it, and ran,'' Lauer said.
Both Huntingdon coach Mike Hudy and Valley coach Mike Smith felt that Lauer's steal was a turning point.
"The defensive turnover for the score was huge,'' said Hudy, whose Bearcats wrapped up a 5-5 season and narrowly missed the District 6-AA playoff cut. "[Claar] is just a bull out there. He's the strongest kid on the team.''
Smith, whose Green Hornets will qualify for the District 6-A playoffs as either a sixth or seventh seed next weekend, also pointed to Lauer's big defensive play as a game-changer.
"It was [a turning point],'' Smith said. "We were moving the ball there, and it was most definitely a very big play.''
Lauer, who also rushed for a touchdown and caught another scoring pass from his fullback position on offense, spearheaded Huntingdon's last-ditch defensive stop that left Valley short of the end zone on a fourth-and-goal run at the Bearcats' 2 with 2:14 left.
Lauer and senior defensive lineman Josh Neyman stood up Valley junior backup fullback Bryce Mills a yard short of the goal line to preserve the win for Huntingdon.
"[Number] 71 and I just stood him up and drove him back,'' Lauer said, referring to the help he got from his teammate Nyman against Mills on the play.
Valley had actually moved from its own 34 to the Huntingdon 1 in a spirited effort to tie the game before Huntingdon senior cornerback Rhett Stechock keyed a third-down stop on Valley junior running back Aaron Maysonet prior to the Lauer-Neyman effort on fourth down.
"We're a young team, but our players on defense came up big when they had to tonight,'' Hudy said.
The game went back-and-forth all night, befitting a rivalry matchup. Sophomore Jon Wagner's 85-yard second-quarter kickoff return for a score helped Huntingdon to a 21-15 lead at intermission.
Maysonet's 4-yard touchdown run pulled Valley even, 21-21, before Huntingdon blocked its first of two PAT conversion kicks on the evening.
Bearcats' sophomore quarterback Hudson Speck raced 54 yards down the left side to put Huntingdon back ahead, 28-21, but Claar - who left the game late in the fourth quarter with a leg injury that Smith said afterward that he expected Claar would make a full recovery from - scored on a 6-yard run with 9:17 left to make it 28-27.
Another blocked conversion kick left the score that way before Lauer's big strip and touchdown return.
"We weren't even thinking about the playoffs,'' Hudy said. "All we were thinking about tonight was coming in here and taking care of business.''
SCORE BY QUARTERS
Juniata Valley0 15 6 6 - 27
Huntingdon7 14 7 7 - 35
H-Lauer 16 pass from Speck (Green kick), 1:47.
JV-Taylor 1 run (Gildea pass from Taylor), 10:03.
H-Wagner 85 kickoff return (Green kick), 9:49.
JV-J. Claar 1 run (Taylor kick), 6:38.
H-Lauer 7 run (Green kick), 2:24.
JV-Maysonet 4 run (kick failed), 5:21.
H-Speck 54 run (Green kick), 3:42.
JV-J. Claar 6 run (kick failed), 9:17.
H-Lauer 55 fumble recovery (Green kick), 6:29.
RUSHING: Juniata Valley-J. Claar 26-120, Maysonet 13-64, C. Wagner 3-15, B. Mills 1-1. Huntingdon-Lauer 8-57, Speck 4-42, Stetchock 6-34, D. Claar 8-14, J. Wagner 3-10.
PASSING: Juniata Valley-Taylor 9-13-0-160. Huntingdon-Speck 8-10-0-97, D. Claar 0-1-0-0, Stetchock 0-1-0-0.
RECEIVING: Juniata Valley-Maysonet 6-97, Gildea 1-50, Singer 1-8, Claar 1-5. Huntingdon-Wagner 2-40, Stetchock 2-30, Lauer 2-19, Kidd 1-5, D. Claar 1-3.