It would have been easy for Ligonier Valley to have a letdown Friday after enduring a tough week with the death of a classmate and former teammate Nick Neiderhiser on Tuesday morning.
But instead of letting down, the undefeated Rams (7-0, 7-0) honored their teammate by defeating previously undefeated Homer-Center, 35-6, in a PIAA District 6 Heritage Conference first-place showdown.
The Rams carried Neiderhiser's No. 73 jersey from the locker room and onto the field for the coin flip. Some players held the jersey up to Ligonier Valley fans.
After Homer-Center held a moment of silence for Neiderhiser, who died in a car accident, and the people involved in the Las Vegas shooting, the Rams defense set the tone.
Three Homer-Center fumbles in the first quarter helped Ligonier Valley built a 21-0 lead, and the fifth-ranked Class 2A team in the state cruised to a physical win.
“It's the most physical game we've been involved in all season,” Ligonier Valley coach Roger Beitel said. “I'm super proud of the players. We had a really tough week in the valley, and one of the things we wanted to do was play for Nick.
“Believe it or not, Nick's dad, Ben, actually stopped down to the field house before we left and talked to me and said how much he appreciated the effort of us supporting them, and he said, ‘I want them to win,' and I relayed it to the team and we played with heavy hearts and a lot of emotion and this one's for him.”
Ligonier Valley took advantage of three fumbles by freshman quarterback Ben Schmidt. Blake Bridge's recovery set up Jackson Daugherty's 13-yard touchdown run. Mike McVicker's recovery was followed by 21-yard touchdown pass from John Caldwell to Daugherty, and Cole Peters' recovery was followed by a 26-yard touchdown pass to Aaron Tutino.
Daugherty caught five passes for 100 yards, and he tacked on another 96 rushing yards.
Caldwell, who shared duties with Daugherty, completed 11 of 16 passes for 151 yards and three scores. He also hit Aaron Sheeder with a 15-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter.
“All week, we had one goal. We wanted to win for Nick,” Caldwell said. “The whole team rallied together, and we went out and did our thing.”
Homer-Center coach Greg Page was hoping to a better performance than last year, when the Rams won 50-0. But three first-quarter turnovers were tough to overcome.
“We usually don't turn the ball over, and Ligonier took advantage and it put us behind the 8-ball,” Page said. “We bounced back, and the kids played hard, moved the ball well at times and played some good defense. But they are outstanding, and they make it hard for you.”
Homer-Center entered the contest ranked No. 4 in the state in Class A. Ligonier Valley outgained Homer-Center, 332-190.
The Wildcats ended the Rams' string of shutouts when Schmidt tossed a 22-yard touchdown to sophomore Cobe Daugherty to cut the lead to 21-6.
But Ligonier Valley put together a 68-yard scoring drive before halftime with Tutino racing 17 yards for a 28-6 lead.
“We didn't come out and perform like we wanted to, but we still got the win and that's all that matters,” Tutino said. “Homer-Center is a good running team, but our defense stepped up and prepared and performed.”
Tutino added a fourth-quarter interception to stop Homer-Center's final drive of the game.
“At times, Homer-Center gave our defense fits,” Beitel said. “That was expected. They are a state ranked football team, and we knew it was going to be a tough test coming here. This was a physical football game, two weeks in a row, and now we have to get healthy for the end run.”