Lock-down defense in the second half kept Juniata Valley at bay.
However, the reason Lackawanna Trail is playing in Thursday’s PIAA Class 1A championship game against Farrell came much earlier.
Ray Melnikoff’s 57-yard touchdown run answered a game-tying score from Juniata Valley and gave the Lions game-changing momentum as they reeled off their seventh straight win, advancing to their first state title game with a 24-14 win Friday night at Danville High School.
“I think that was probably the most important play of the night,” said senior quarterback Nate Rolka, who directed a time-consuming offense that gobbled up 31 minutes of possession.
“We had a nice drive going before that and got a touchdown out of it,” Rolka said. “They came right down and drove the field on us and were able to get the touchdown.”
Rolka capped a 69-yard drive that took up more than 5½ minutes, his 4-yard run making it 7-0 with 9:23 left in the half.
Juniata Valley quarterback Quinn Zinobile answered with a five-play march that he capped with a 1-yard keeper less than two minutes later.
Then, Melnikoff burst through and around the defense, rambling 57 yards for a 14-7 lead.
“Their sideline was going crazy after that score and I’m so happy the coaches had the confidence in me to make a big play right after that,” Melnikoff said.
Juniata Valley (11-3) countered with Zinobile accounting for 51 of 63 yards in a 9-play drive to tie the game with 3:33 left in the half.
Then came another big play for the Lions (14-1), with head coach Steve Jervis opting to go for a fourth-and-1 from the Lions 45 with 2:12 left in the half.
Rolka, who converted four fourth-down plays, sneaked ahead for a yard, part of a 16-play march culminating in Rolka’s 34-yard field goal with nine-tenths of a second left in the half for a 17-14 lead.
“We feel confident in our offensive line,” Jervis said. “They’re not the biggest group, but they are a veteran group, a seasoned group. Going for it on fourth downs is a combination of confidence in our offensive line and keeping the ball away from them. That kid across the field (Zinobile) is one of the best athletes we’ve seen all year. Keeping him off the field was the goal there.”
The Lions racked up 341 rushing yards while running 65 plays to 43 for the Green Hornets, while perhaps most importantly, they kept the explosive Zinobile off the field.
That allowed defensive coordinator Jimmy Becchetti time to make some key adjustments as the Lions bent, but didn’t yield a point in the second half.
“We were out of position a little bit with our defensive ends in the first half. He kept scrambling to his right,” Becchetti said. “We kind of put in some linebacker blitzes, some stunts to their offensive right and they had a hard time picking that up.
“We tried to mirror that speed with our coaches and players at practice. Until you see it live, it takes maybe a half to adjust to the game speed. Credit to the players understanding the adjustments on the whiteboard and executing it to perfection the second half.”
Defensive end Zac Cost was relentless in his pursuit of Zinobile, and the Lions finally got a pair of sacks in the second half, finally knocking the quarterback out of the game on Cost’s hit, which resulted in Melnikoff’s interception with 5:09 left.
“Coach always talks about scramble rules,” Cost said. “Get outside. Don’t let them get the edge. I felt like I beat the tackle outside and got a good hit on him. I hope he gets better.”
By that time, it was 24-14, with Melnikoff capping a 156-yard, two-touchdown night with an 8-yard run for the final score.
“We came into half a little startled,” Cost said. “Our coaches did a great job adjusting to whatever came at us. We got great pressure on him. Quarterback is a helluva athlete. We just wore him down. Couldn’t be more proud of the team effort.”
Trail surrendered a pair of big completions to Cameron Collins good for 79 yards, but the first was quashed by Rolka’s sack to set up fourth-and-18, and the second by Cost’s hit that put Zinobile’s wobbly pass up for grabs near the goal line, where Melnikoff snagged it at the 2.
“We always talk about one play at a time,” Melnikoff said. “They get a big play, we don’t put our heads down. We pick them up and get the next play.
“We all have the same mission so when we get a chance to make a big play, we’re going to make it.”
That was true on both sides of the ball.
Trail’s first possession of the fourth saw Melnikoff catch a short pass for a first down, with a personal foul moving the Lions into Juniata Valley territory.
His 17-yard romp set up his 8-yard sweep for an insurance score.
“The best thing we could do is keep the ball out of (Zinobile’s) hands and keep getting nice chunks of yardage on the ground,” Rolka said. “Just keep the chains moving and we were able to do that for most of the night.”
Jervis again credited the offensive line.
“The last couple weeks if you look at guys who get off our bus and the team we’re playing get off the bus, I think you’d guess what the score would be at the end of the game,” Jervis said. “It just says so much about the kids, their toughness. We’ve been able to run the ball all year. It says a lot about our offensive line. We’ve seen a lot of different fronts, a lot of different blitzes, we pick them all up.
“We have four or five kids who run the ball with physicality and I think we wear on teams. Our goal is to physically wear people down. We don’t care how big they are, how fast they are, we want to wear people down. You have to be very persistent.”
They were, and the reward is a trip the Hersheypark Stadium to play Farrell, a 41-10 winner over Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, on Thursday at 1 p.m.
“Being the first team from Lackawanna Trail to make it past this point is pretty insane,” Rolka said. “I think it still hasn’t hit a lot of us yet. I don’t think we understand the magnitude of what that means right now. But I couldn’t be more proud of these guys. Everyone played their hearts out tonight and we left it all on the field.”
Trail 24, Juniata 14
Trail 0 17 0 7 24
Juniata Valley 0 14 0 0 14
LT - Rolka 1 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, 0:00.9
LT - Melnikoff 8 run (Rolka kick), 6:32
First Downs 18 13
Rush-Att-Yards 57-341 20-102
Comp-Att-Int 4-10-1 8-16-1
Passing Yards 37 161
Total Yards 378 263
Punts-Average 1-38.0 2-34.0
Fumbles-Lost 0-0 0-0
Penalties-Yards 4-40 4-40
Rushing: LT – R.Melnikoff 16-156, 2 TDs; J.Resto 14-74; N.Rolka 15-55, 1 TD; C.Moyle 10-51; J.Edwards 1-6; Team - 1-(-1). JV – Q.Zinobile 20-102, 2 TDs; Team - 0-0.
Passing: LT – N.Rolka 4-9-1, 37; Team - 1-0. JV – Q.Zinobile 8-16-1, 161.
Receiving: LT – R.Melnikoff 2-17; J.Edwards 1-11; N.Berrios 1-9. JV – R.Betres 3-37; G. Musser 2-32; C.Collins 2-79; G.Brower 1-13.