By Rich Kelly
For the Star Beacon
VIENNA — The Pymatuning Valley Lakers and Mathews Mustangs both knew the Northeastern Athletic Conference title rested in their battle at Mathews Friday night.
The game had added meaning for the Mustangs, though, as a berth in the Division VII, Region 23 playoffs was at stake.
With all that on the line, the Mustangs played inspired football as they outplayed the Lakers in the first half and held off a rally in the second half to claim the NAC championship with a 27-14 win.
Just as PV had established control of the trenches last week in dominating Grand Valley, Mathews turned the tables on the Lakers to take a 21-0 halftime lead.
Mathews moved 54 yards in 11 running plays to start the game, with quarterback Cobie Pratt going around end from the 2 for a quick lead.
“It was really beautiful to get that early score,” Mathews running back Bryan Leipply said. “Our offensive and defensive lines fed off of that big time. We know PV can score, so keeping them off the board early was huge, too. We had some problems in the second half with our safeties a couple times, but we adjusted and got it done. Winning the NAC was important to us.”
A sign of things to come occurred on the first Laker play from scrimmage, as a snap from center went through the hands of quarterback Mitchell Skleres for a 6-yard loss. Skleres was sacked for another 5-yard loss by Zach Geer on, and following a 12-yard run by Nick Such, PV booted the ball away.
The Mustangs (7-3, 6-0 in NAC) covered 63 yards needed, with Cameron Bagaglia taking it the final 3 yards, and a 13-0 lead had PV on its heels.
If the Mustangs wanted to control the ball, they needed to stop Such, and they did just that, allowing the Laker senior, fresh off a record-setting effort last week against Grand Valley, to gain just 21 yards on eight carries in the first half. PV gained just 32 yards total in the first half, digging a huge hole.
Mathews held a 21-point halftime lead thanks in large part to junior Leipply, who gained 187 yards on 29 carries in the game. Pratt added 67 on 10 tries, most of that on a 49 yard dash around left end in the second quarter for the third Mustang score.
“I don’t know what happened in the first half,” Laker coach Neal Croston said. “We just came out flat to start off. They played with more intensity. We made some changes defensively at the half and did much better. I am proud of how the kids gave us a chance to come back and win, but we just didn’t take advantage of opportunities like we should have.”
On the possession after the Orahood scoring dash, PV (5-5, 5-1 in NAC) took over on downs on its own 26. The Lakers drove all the way to the Mustang 6, but Mathews’ Justin Marshall picked it off 2 yards deep in the end zone on a fourth-down play and brought it returned it the Mustangs’ 10.
A short punt set up PV at its own 27 with 10:21 left in the game, the Lakers went on a 14-play drive, ending when Skleres hit Nick Blascak from 21 yards out on a fourth down to cut the lead to 21-14, providing a spark that was desparately needed by PV.
With 1:04 left to play, PV got the ball back by stopping the Mustangs on downs at the Laker 14 after Robbie Helmick recovered an onside kick at midfield.
Helmick then picked off a Skleres pass in the middle of the field at the 31 and went untouched to seal the win.
Mathews coach Mike Palumbo was wary of a Laker comeback in the second half.
“I don’t know what happened on that second half kickoff,” he said. “That’s the third special teams touchdown we’ve given up the last 3 weeks. I thought after that return that we could not let them back in the game, but they battled to the end.”
PV got to where it wanted to at season’s end in playing for the NAC title, but the season ended in disappointment.
“You play to win the league,” Ryan Wilkerson said. “We’ve done well as a team, but we want more.”