JOHNSTOWN - The future looks bright for the Cambria Heights High School football team.
But the future isn't now, and, on Saturday, the Highlanders endured the most excruciating of growing pains.
On the cusp of gaining the upper hand over host Westmont Hilltop several times, Heights lost two crucial third-quarter fumbles, couldn't get its defense off the field on third down in the second half and eventually dropped its season-opener, 17-14, on Mitch Causer's 25-yard field goal with 2:04 to play at a sweltering Price Field.
Photo for the Mirror by Tami Ogline Knopsnyder
Cambria Heights’ Dennis Link dives over Westmont Hilltop’s Chase Davis on Saturday.
"Westmont came out and made some plays down the stretch," Highlanders coach Jarrod Lewis said, "and we didn't."
Lewis was visibly disappointed. After speaking to the media, he could be found sitting alone with his thoughts on the stairway inside the Westmont Hilltop Middle School.
"We just didn't do enough to win today. We moved the ball. We just didn't do enough to win," Lewis said.
Starting underclassmen at 18 positions, Heights outgained Westmont, 238-220, and had five more first downs. Junior Dennis Link rambled for 89 yards on the ground, including an easy-looking 18-yard touchdown run with 8:33 left that knotted the score at 14, while sophomore James Baum ran for 58 yards. Junior quarterback Eddie Link connected on four of his first five passes for 67 yards before cooling off; junior Angelo Snyder was on the receiving end of two of those throws, one of which was a 20-yard touchdown strike.
It was Westmont's first win since its last game of 2012 and only the team's second victory in its last 17 starts. Westmont coach Pat Barron seemed close to tears after the Hilltoppers stopped Heights on downs near midfield in the final minute and then ran out the clock.
"I don't really know what to say. I never doubted once (we would win because of) ... our coaches and how hard we worked at practice. It was just different this year," said Hilltopper junior running back Kyler Pyshnik, who rushed for a game-high 95 yards. "We all were struggling in that heat, and we dug down deep toward the end. We didn't give up like we would have done last year."
Westmont converted 4-of-7 third downs in the second half and moved the sticks on a key fourth-and-6 at the Heights 21 with about three minutes left to set up Causer's winning kick.
"I'm just so happy for the kids. They just kept fighting," Barron said. "I thought the staff did a phenomenal job all season, all week. We made some pretty good in-game adjustments, and the kids came out and played defense, and that's something we haven't seen here in a lot of games. There were times we would have folded in the past, and these kids didn't."
Twice in the third quarter, Westmont came up with big defensive plays to turn the tables on promising-looking Highlander drives. First, Pyshnik jarred the ball loose from Eddie Link on a sack, and John Williams recovered. That resulted in a Causer field goal attempt that Snyder blocked after a high snap.
Heights wasn't as fortunate the next time around. This time, Evan Dluhos came clean on Baum, playing wildcat quarterback, and caused a fumble that Marty Dean recovered for Westmont at the Highlander 35. Twelve plays later, Jacob Buck scored the go-ahead touchdown from the 1.
"They got some pressure which forced some turnovers which put things in their favor," Lewis said. "It seemed like any time we dropped the football, they recovered it. They were in position to make the plays."
The Highlanders will try to bounce back on Friday when they return home to host Bishop McCort at Patton Stadium. Westmont travels to Bishop Guilfoyle next Saturday night.
"It's a tough one," Lewis said of Saturday's loss and his postgame message to his players. "We just told them there's a long season left. We've got to regroup and get ready for week two."
SCORE BY QUARTERS
Cambria Heights7 0 0 7 - 14
Westmont Hilltop7 0 0 10 - 17
WH-Dluhos 14 run (Causer kick), 9:06.
CH-Snyder 20 pass from E. Link (Galinis kick), 4:57.
WH-Buck 1 run (Causer kick), 10:24.
CH-D. Link 18 run (Galinis kick), 8:33.
WH-Causer 25 FG, 2:04.
RUSHING: Cambria Heights-D. Link 15-89, Baum 9-58, Coy 5-31, E. Link 3-(-6), TEAM 1-(-1). Westmont Hilltop-Pyshnik 19-95, Dluhos 9-51, Buck 6-43, Valente 3-25, Davis 8-6, Boyle 4-2, TEAM 2-(-7).
PASSING: Cambria Heights-E. Link 4-11-0-67. Westmont Hilltop-Davis 1-1-0-5.
RECEIVING: Cambria Heights-Snyder 2-35, Brawley 1-18, Baum 1-14. Westmont Hilltop-Dluhos 1-5.
INTERCEPTIONS: Cambria Heights-none. Westmont Hilltop-none.