Strong second half defense leads Lions to championship game
DANVILLE – Defense seemed as though it was going to be the name of the game in Friday Night’s PIAA Class A state semifinal matchup between Lackawanna Trail and Juniata Valley. The two teams played to a 0-0 draw through the first quarter of play.
An offensive explosion in the second quarter helped propel the Lions to the lead, as the team earned a 24-14 victory over Juniata Valley to advance to the PIAA Class A State Championship game next Thursday in Hershey.
The Lions will take on District 10 champion Farrell, who defeated Our Lady of Sacred Heart by a final score of 41-10.
Though Friday night’s first quarter in Danville was scoreless, it was far from uneventful.
Juniata Valley won the toss and deferred, giving Lackawanna Trail the ball to open the game. The Tigers drove right down the field without any problems on a 12-play drive.
The drive set up a 32-yard field goal attempt by quarterback/kicker Nathan Rolka. Rolka had plenty of distance on the kick, but the ball squarely hit the left upright and ricocheted away to keep the game all square at 0-0.
The Tigers drove the ball deep into Juniata Valley territory again on its second drive of the game. This time the Tigers capitalized on a 13-play drive that ended in a Rolka scramble for a 4-yard score.
Juniata Valley answered right back with a strong drive of its own. After taking over at its own 29-yard line, Juniata Valley strung together three plays in a row that gained at least 20 yards each to set up a 1st-and-goal at the Lackawanna Trail 7-yard line.
Two plays later, Juniata Valley quarterback Quinn Zinoblie struck pay dirt on a QB sneak from one yard out to knot the game back up at 7-7.
The big plays on the drive included a 21-yard scramble by Zinoblie, a 20-yard catch and run by tight end Grant Musser and a 23-yard run by fullback Ryan Betres.
The scoring drive took just 1:35 off the clock and gave the ball back to the Lions.
Lackawanna Trail wasted no time regaining its lead. The Lions handed the ball off up the middle to sophomore fullback Ray Melnikoff who rumbled 57 yards for a score to put the Lions back on top 14-7.
Melnikoff finished as the game’s leading rusher, carrying the ball 16 times for 154 yards and a pair of scores.
Just like earlier, Juniata Valley bounced right back to tie the game. This time it was Zinoblie again from 11 yards away on a 9-play drive to make it a 14-14 game.
“(Zinoblie) is one of the best kids we’ve played against all year. Defensively to contain him the way we did in the second half was impressive.” Lackawanna Trail coach Steve Jervis said.
Lackawanna Trail regained possession with 3:27 remaining in the opening half with a chance to take the lead into the halftime break.
After being held to just nine yards on the first three plays of the drive, Lackawanna Trail went for it on 4thand-1 from its own 45-yard line.
Rolka took a QB sneak up the middle, picking up a crucial conversion. After advancing the ball into scoring position, Rolka connected on a 34-yard field goal to give the Tigers a 17-14 halftime advantage.
One play before the field goal, Rolka was nearly picked off when a throw to the endzone went through a defender’s hands, erasing a potential pick-6 opportunity. Instead the Tigers kicked three and took a lead into the break.
The third quarter ended up much like the first, as neither team was able to add to its total on the scoreboard after scoring on every possession of the second quarter.
On its first possession of the fourth quarter the Lions took their first two-score lead of the game.
A long drive that was extended thanks to a personal foul on the Hornets on a 3rd-and-6 play, culminated in seven points as Melnikoff stumbled in for his second score of the game.
“This is awesome,” Melnikoff said. “We all knew we needed to come to play like it was our last game tonight. The defense, the offense, whatever the case may be, we knew we had the opportunity to make the big play that we were going to make the big play.”
The score put Lackawanna Trail up 24-14 with 6:32 remaining in the game.
Needing a quick strike, the Hornet’s offense got just that. On the first play of its ensuing drive, Kyle Derugen hauled in a 42-yard pass from Zinoblie to set up a 1st-and-10 at the Lackawanna Trail 19. Three plays later, Zinoblie rolled to his right and launched an ill-advised throw to the endzone in order to avoid the sack. The ball hung up for what seemed like an eternity before coming down in the arms of Melnikoff for a game-clinching interception.
“I’m speechless” Melnikoff said of his team’s big win. “I’ve always dreamed of going (to Hershey). I can’t even put it in words.”
The win improved Lackawanna Trail to 14-1 overall as the team seeks a state title victory next week in Hershey.
“I’m so proud of this group of kids,” said Jervis. “I think the last few weeks if you saw us get off the bus and then you saw the teams we were playing against get off the bus you wouldn’t give us much of a chance. We don’t have a bunch of kids or a bunch of big kids, but we have tough kids that believe in our style.”
Juniata Valley’s season came to an end at 11-3.
Lackawanna Trail 24, Juniata Valley 14
SCORE BY QUARTERS
Juniata Valley 0 14 0 0 — 14
Lackawanna Trail 0 17 0 7 — 24
LT—Nathan Rolka 4-yard run (Rolka PAT Good), 9:23.
JV—Quinn Zinoblie 1-yard run (Jefferson Hill PAT Good), 7:42
LT—Ray Melnikoff 57-yard run (Rolka PAT Good), 7:19
JV—Zinoblie 11-yard run (Hill PAT Good), 3:33
LT—Rolka 34-yard field goal, 0:01
LT—Melnikoff 8-yard run (Rolka PAT Good), 6:32.
TEAM STATISTICS JV-LT
First downs 12 19
Total yards 287 292
Rushes-yards 27-127 60-258
Yards passing 160 34
Passing (comp.-att.-int.) 8-16- 14-9-1
Penalties-yards 4-40 3-30
RUSHING—Juniata Valley: Zinoblie 20-104 2TD, Jaxson Rand 7-23. Lackawanna Trail: Melnikoff 16-154 2TD, Jeffrey Resto 15-79, Cody Moyle 11-62, Rolka 15-58 TD, Jordan Edwards 1-6, TEAM 2-(-1).
PASSING—Juniata Valley: Zinoblie 8-16 160 yds, INT. Lackawanna Trail: Rolka 4-9 34 yds, INT.
RECEIVING—Juniata Valley: Kyle Derugen 1-42, Ryann Betres 3-37, Cameron Collins 1-37, Grant Musser 2-33, Gabe Brower 1-11. Lackawanna Trail: Melnikoff 2-19, Edwards 1-9, Nico Berrios 1-6.
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