Ligonier Valley caps 1st season back in WPIAL with wild win over Shady Side Academy

Friday, October 23, 2020 | 11:39 PM

Consider Ligonier Valley’s return to WPIAL football a success, because the Rams won their season finale Friday night to post a winning record in their first year in District 7 since 1969.

Hayden Sierocky’s interception at midfield in the final minute secured Ligonier Valley’s wild 53-48 victory over visiting Shady Side Academy in a Class 2A Allegheny Conference game at Weller Field, giving the Rams a 4-3 record in a season cut short by covid-19 cancellations.

“All things considered, for us to win four games is satisfying,” Ligonier Valley coach Roger Beitel said. “There are a lot of skeptics out there, but we are competing now in a down-cycle. We graduated 16 seniors from last year and have one on the team now.”

Derek Fox, a 6-foot, 263-pound two-way lineman and Ligonier Valley’s lone senior, said the season was something he’ll never forget.

“Team over self,” Fox said. “It’s what we live and breathe. All of us just came together and hunkered down and pulled it out tonight. It’s something I’ll always remember.”

Sierocky, a sophomore quarterback who played the position for the first time, rushed for 200 yards and five touchdowns and caught a touchdown pass, and Nick Beitel added 189 yards rushing for the Rams (4-3, 2-2) to overshadow Shady Side Academy quarterback Josh Castro’s 343 yards rushing and five touchdowns and 153 yards passing and two scores.

It was Castro who threw the interception Sierocky hauled in to preserve Ligonier Valley’s victory just moments after Sierocky had given the Rams the lead for good on a 15-yard, fourth-down run into the end zone with 1 minute, 13 seconds remaining.

“They play hard-nosed ball, and they have a tradition of winning,” Shady Side Academy coach Chuck DiNardo said. “As far as I’m concerned, hats off to them.”

After winning just 39% of its games during its first go-round as a WPIAL member from 1927-69, the 2020 Ligonier Valley showed promise, Beitel said.

Ligonier Valley’s return to the WPIAL after a 50-year absence came after the Rams emerged in recent years as a powerhouse among Class 2A programs in District 6.

Beitel is counting on improvement next year with a more experienced group. He said the deeper WPIAL offers a different challenge from that of his teams’ District 6 schedules.

“In the previous five years, when we took the field, I always felt we had the better athletes until we got into the state playoffs,” Beitel said. “Here in the WPIAL, every week, we see fantastic athletes on the other side of the field.

“I really enjoy playing where we are. It’s a different world. Our parents and players have been treated well, and at the end of the night, the best team wins.”

While in District 6, the Rams played a schedule dominated by Class A schools in the Indiana County-based Heritage Conference, though they maintained a stellar 28-7 record against Class 2A opponents since the program went on an upswing in 2015.

Under Beitel, Ligonier Valley won six Heritage Conference championships with a 37-game conference winning streak, four Appalachian Conference titles and four consecutive appearances in the District 6-2A championship game with a pair of victories.

Ligonier Valley was a combined 59-7 over the past five years and 50-4 from 2016-19. The Rams were 14-1 in 2016 with a trip to the PIAA semifinals and 13-1 in 2017 with a quarterfinal-round appearance.

“I know our kids. They’re going to work really hard. I know our coaches. They’re going to work really hard,” Beitel said. “Our program isn’t accustomed to being insignificant, but this year, we were.”

The game was a shootout from start to finish.

Ligonier Valley struck first, Grant Dowden recovering a Shady Side Academy fumble before throwing a 25-yard pass to Sierocky following a double reverse.

Beitel’s 75-yard scamper after he almost was caught for a loss in the backfield upped the Ligonier Valley lead to 12-0 before Castro scored on a 1-yard keeper.

Sierocky gave Ligonier Valley some breathing room with a pair of touchdown runs of 54 and 11 yards as the Rams built a 25-7 advantage.

But Castro led Shady Side Academy back into contention, finding Joey Belinotti on a 78-yard scoring pass and rushing 65 yards for another score, pulling the visitors within 25-20.

Ligonier Valley made it 31-20 when Sierocky shovel-passed 22 yards to Miles Higgins.

SSA made it 31-27 with 1:06 left before halftime, Castro firing 26 yards to Belinotti for the duo’s second touchdown connection of the game.

The second half was more of the same. After Sierocky’s 1-yard TD run for Ligonier Valley, Shady Side Academy (1-4, 1-3) took its first lead on a pair of scoring runs by Castro of 12 and 4 yards.

Sierocky’s 8-yard run put LV back in front. Castro then raced 72 yards to give Shady Side Academy a 48-45 lead with 6:47 to go.

Ligonier Valley faced fourth down at the SSA 15 when Sierocky was flushed out of the pocket and found his way into the end zone with the winning score.

Ligonier Valley’s three losses this year were to Class 2A teams with a combined 13-1 entering Friday’s games.

“If the playoffs already started, they would be three of the eight teams to go,” Beitel said, referring to No. 3 Apollo-Ridge, No. 4 Serra Catholic and Western Beaver, to whom the Rams dropped a tough 14-3 decision after trailing just 3-0 entering the fourth quarter.

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