South Park overcomes early Mt. Pleasant lead for victory

Friday, October 23, 2020 | 11:33 PM

Recovering from a nightmarish first quarter, South Park ended with a dream finish.

The Eagles gave up the first 13 points of the game against Mt. Pleasant before roaring back with four takeaways to claim a playoff berth and second place in the Class 3A Interstate Conference with a 30-19 win Friday.

South Park (4-3, 4-2) junior receiver Brendan Wood hauled in five catches for 79 yards and all three touchdowns thrown by sophomore quarterback Harper Conroy, who finished 14-for-22 passing for 178 yards. But 12 minutes into the game, that outcome seemed far from likely.

“Our entire team stepped up. It was ugly at times, but the end result was what we wanted,” Eagles coach Marty Rieck said. “I think our coaches put together a great plan, and you need all three facets of the game. Our defense got it done when they needed to, as did our offense, but I’m very proud of the defense.”

The Vikings (4-3, 4-2) were in control as they powered out to a 13-0 first-quarter lead.

Robbie Labuda got the opening score on a 1-yard plunge to cap a seven-play, 70-yard, all-rushing drive. Mt. Pleasant got the ball back in South Park territory after a Jared Yester blocked punt, and on the next play, Asher O’Connor hit Donovan Bair on the play-action pass for a 39-yard touchdown.

But turnovers allowed the Eagles to find their footing. A fumble recovery by Eli Podgorsky didn’t yield points, but it swung field position to where Adam Johnson’s interception of O’Connor on the next drive gave South Park the ball on the Vikings 29.

That set up the first Conroy-to-Wood score, a 29-yarder.

On their next drive, the Eagles took the lead on a 30-yard deep ball to Wood that gave South Park a 14-13 lead despite having just one first down to that point.

“I’m going to say (turnovers) were a very big reason the outcome was that way,” Vikings coach Jason Fazekas said. “We felt like we had enough, and we felt like we moved the ball well in the first half, even a little bit in the second half. But you can’t have the turnovers, you can’t have the penalties. … We were playing behind the sticks most of the night.”

The Eagles closed the half with a 35-yard field goal by Jaison Mikelonis to add to their lead, but the Vikings went back in front after opening the second half with a red zone stop.

Vikings junior Aaron Alakson, who finished with a game-high 165 yards on 15 carries, took a reverse handoff 64 yards down the right sideline to put Mt. Pleasant ahead 19-17 after the failed conversion attempt.

South Park responded with the longest drive of the game, time-wise, a 12-play march that lasted 5:45 and ended with Wood pulling in a 6-yard pass with a second effort in the back of the end zone for a 23-19 lead.

“That one drive they had, I don’t know how many minutes it was, but that was quite a bit of time,” Fazekas said. “Field position, penalties, all of that hurt us. Give them credit. They played well.”

The Eagles then came up huge on defense again, as Luke Smith’s 56-yard interception return on the first play of the fourth quarter would pad the South Park lead and be the game’s final scoring play.

“Ultimately, this is a testament to the kids. We’ve had some downs, but I knew in my heart, when this team clicked and everybody found their way, that something special could happen. What they did tonight was pretty special,” Rieck said.

Mt. Pleasant put together one final drive beginning with less than four minutes to play. The Vikings reached the South Park 15, but the Eagles forced a turnover on downs.

South Park’s dream finish wasn’t quite done with just the comeback, though, as the Eagles slipped injured senior Nate May into the game for the final kneel down.

“That was the ultimate goal for us, to get Nate May in there one more time,” Rieck said. “I’m so proud of these guys.”

The third-place finish by Mt. Pleasant means they will have to wait until Saturday, when the WPIAL football committee meets, to find out if it will be one of two playoff wild cards in Class 3A.

Matt Grubba is a contributing writer.

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