NEW CASTLE —
The scoreboard may say otherwise, but really, there was no loser in this game.
Sure, Riverside claimed its second-straight Tri-County Middle School Football League title with a 20-14 win over Laurel last night at Spartan Stadium. But for both teams, the contest marked a triumph of resilience and determination.
The Panthers’ only loss in 16 games over the past two seasons was a trouncing at the hands of Laurel earlier this season. But behind Austin Dambach, who scored on a 45-yard touchdown pass and a 56-yard run, Riverside reversed its fortunes in the title match.
“Laurel took it to us the first time,” Riverside coach Jason Severn said. “They were very prepared, and they kinda caught us off guard. They really beat us in every aspect of the game, so this one feels good.
“We had to toughen up; we really had to gut check, and we were able to do that and gel as a team.”
The 5-3 Spartans, meanwhile, also can point with pride to their title game appearance.
“This group of kids has never won more than one or two games in their careers here at Laurel,” head coach Dave Germanski said. “Our season started off with a 1-2 record, and we really took a serious look at ourselves. We were honest with ourselves with what we needed to work on, and we were able to win the next four games in a row and make this championship game.
“This is the first time that this group in any sport has had a winning season and made it to a championship game. So that’s a great accomplishment for these guys.”
The two teams started last night’s game by exchanging long scoring runs. Dambach, who had 85 yards on eight carries, put the Panthers up 6-0 on a 56-yard run, and Jesse Pacifico countered on Laurel’s ensuing possession with a 57-yard burst to knot the score.
Laurel missed a scoring chance with a red-zone fumble early in the second period, then Riverside’s ground game came alive in the third. After holding Laurel to a three-and-out to open the stanza, the Panthers kept the ball for the rest of quarter, marching 50 yards in 12 plays — all on the ground — and reclaiming the lead on Noah Harris’ 1-yard run.
But for the Spartans, the real killer came on the ensuing kickoff, when Anthony Saunders drilled a line-drive, onside kick off a Laurel up man, and the Panthers recovered at the Laurel 45. On the next play, quarterback Woodrow Hughes found Pacifico on a 45-yard bomb to give Riverside its second touchdown in under a minute.
“We saw something on film that we liked, and we have a very good kicker,” Severn said. “He’s a soccer player, and he can boom it, but we respected Laurel’s skill positions, and we didn’t want to kick it deep to them. We always like the chance to steal a possession in the game, and we saw that as an opportunity.”
Germanski noted that “The onside kick is something we work on all the time, but when that line drive is coming at you, it’s hard to get out of the way of that thing.
“They got a good bounce. That might not happen 99 times out of 100, but they got it the one time it did.”
Laurel got back within six on its next possession on Dylan Hinkle’s 1-yard run and, with 4:38 remaining, needed a stop on defense to get one final drive. The Spartans did that, but not until Riverside had picked up a pair of first downs, leaving Laurel just 1:42 on the clock when it finally got the ball back
Pacifico caught a 17-yard Lance Hill pass on first down, but Hill’s second-down pass was intercepted by Dambach, and Riverside ran out the clock.
7 First downs 8
118 Yards Rushing 192
9 Yards Lost 16
109 Net Rushing 176
5 Passes Attempted 6
3 Passes Completed 2
1 Passes Intercepted 0
64 Yards Passing 64
173 Total Yards 240
2-1 Fumbles-Lost 2-1
2-23 Punts-Average 2-35
5-35 Penalties-Yards 3-25
RIVERSIDE 6 0 6 8 — 20
LAUREL 6 0 0 8 — 14
RIVERSIDE — Austin Dambach. 56-yard run (run failed).
LAUREL — Jesse Pacifico, 57-yard run (run failed).
RIVERSIDE — Noah Harris, 1-yard run (run failed).
RIVERSIDE — Dambach, 45-yard pass from Woodrow Hughes (Harris run).
LAUREL — Dylan Hinkle, 2-yard run (Hinkle run).