Missed opportunities in third sink Hornets
By Michael Boytim
DANVILLE — Neither team scored in the third quarter Friday night at Ironmen Stadium in a PIAA Class 1A semifinal game between Juniata Valley and Lackawanna Trail.
But it sure seemed like that was the Green Hornets’ window to Hershey and chance to play for a state championship.
Lackawanna Trail turned Juniata Valley away twice inside its own territory with just a three-point lead, and when the fourth quarter began, figurative midnight struck for the Cinderella-story Hornets when Ray Melnikoff found the end zone for the second time in the Lions’ 24-14 victory.
“We weren’t able to get over the hump and get that last little push,” Juniata Valley coach Bill Musser said. “That’s a testament to Lackawanna Trail. They weren’t going to give us anything. We had to earn every single yard we got.”
Just moments before, Juniata Valley had a third-and-6 from the Lackawanna Trail 18-yard line as the final seconds ticked off the third quarter clock.
Hornets quarterback Quinn Zinobile, who had been frustrated the Lions players and coaches throughout the entire game, finally got caught in the backfield and was sacked for a 12-yard loss.
His fourth-down pass fell incomplete and Lackawanna Trail took over and drove 70 yards for the game-clinching score.
Melnikoff finished with 156 yards as the Lions ran for 358 yards on 60 carries. They will play District 10 champion Farrell for the PIAA 1A title Thursday at Hersheypark Stadium at 1 p.m.
“We have a veteran group up front,” Lackawanna Trail coach Steve Jervis said. “They do a great job picking up different fronts, and we were very disciplined. Our backs run hard, and we score in the red zone.”
As much as the game was decided by Lackawanna Trail’s running game, Jervis’ gambling also played a role.
The veteran coach went for it five times on fourth down, including a fake punt, and converted each time.
“I’m sure I’m going to replay those fourth downs over and over again tonight,” Musser said. “That fake punt, that’s on me right there. I knew they had that in their repertoire, and I knew that’s the time and place on the field where they run that. I just didn’t put our kids in the proper position in that situation.”
Lackawanna Trail quarterback Nathan Rolka, a player similar in size to the 6-foot-3 inch Zinobile, was the one handling the ball on each conversion.
“Nathan Rolka is a tough, big strong kid,” Jervis said. “When you get this far, you have to take chances once in a while. We practice it all year, and it doesn’t do any good to take it to the grave. You have to run it and keep the ball away from them.”
Rolka’s 4-yard run and extra point put Lackawanna Trail up 7-0 in the second quarter, but Zinobile responded almost immediately by passing and running his way down the field and scoring from 1 yard out.
Melnikoff responded one play later with a 57-yard touchdown run and broke several tackles on his way to the end zone.
“No one went down easy,” Juniata Valley senior safety Kyle Derugen said. “They are one heck of a team.”
Undaunted, Zinobile tied the game on the Hornets’ next drive with an 11-yard run and nearly gave Juniata Valley the lead with what looked like it could have been an interception returned for a touchdown on the Lions’ final drive of the half.
Though he was able to break up the pass, he didn’t come away with the ball, and Rolka kicked a 34-yard field goal to put Lackawanna Trail ahead 17-14 at halftime.
“Hopefully this is a building block and just the start of things for Juniata Valley,” Musser said. “We have a team we can be proud of, and I think this is something we can do in the future. I don’t view this as a one-time shot.”
As the final seconds ticked off the clock, Juniata Valley opted to head toward the stands and their cheering fans rather than have the conventual mid-field postgame talk.
“The run was amazing, and we couldn’t have done it without the community,” Juniata Valley running back Jaxson Rand said. “It was an unforgettable season.”
Tears were flowing as the team reflected on a District 6 Class 1A championship and a 10-game winning streak.
“It was amazing, I love this team to death,” Derugen said. “I would play this season over again so many times. It’s sad that it ended like this. It’s not what we planned. We saw ourselves going to Hershey, but we’re still one hell of a team and I’m proud.”
SCORE BY QUARTERS
Juniata Valley 0 14 0 0 — 14
Lackawanna Trail 0 17 0 7 — 24
LT–Rolka 4 run (Rolka kick), 9:23.
JV–Zinobile 1 run (Hill kick), 7:42.
LT–Melnikoff 57 run (Rolka kick), 7:19.
JV–Zinobile 11 run (Hill kick), 3:33.
LT–Rolka 34 FG, 0:01.
LT–Melnikoff 8 run (Rolka kick), 6:32.
TEAM STATISTICS JV LT
First downs 14 21
Total yards 286 395
Rushes-yards 27-124 60-358
Passing (com.-att.-int) 8-16-1 4-9-1
Passing yards 162 37
Punts-avg. 2-34.5 1-38
Fumbles-lost 0-0 0-0
Penalties-yards 4-30 4-32
RUSHING–Juniata Valley, Zinobile 20-100, Rand 7-24. Lackawanna Trail, Melnikoff 16-156, Resto 15-80, Rolka 16-55, Edwards 1-5, TEAM 1-(-1).
PASSING–Juniata Valley, Zinobile 8-16-1-162. Lackawanna Trail, Rolka 4-9-1-37, TEAM 0-1-0-0.
RECEIVING–Juniata Valley, Betres 3-37, Musser 2-33, Brower 1-12, Collins 1-38, Derugen 1-42. Lackawanna Trail, Melnikoff 2-19, Berrios 1-9, Edwards 1-9.
Officials: Michael Price, Cody Wilson, Kevin Reed, Gary England, Ron Kopenhaver, Caleb Moses, Alfred Godissart.