Sto-Rox’s big-play defense steals momentum, finds end zone in win over Avonworth

Saturday, September 18, 2021 | 12:05 AM

Jaymar Pearson had already shed his Sto-Rox jersey in the minutes after Friday night’s win, but Avonworth’s coach recognized him even without a No. 7 on his back.

“That’s the guy right there,” Antelopes coach Duke Johncour said. “He changed the game.”

With less than a minute until halftime, Sto-Rox was scoreless and scuffling when Pearson intercepted a screen pass and returned it 15 yards for a touchdown. The senior’s interception sparked the defense and led Sto-Rox to a 19-16 victory over host Avonworth in a nonconference game fit for two ranked teams.

The box score won’t list Pearson’s return as the game-winning touchdown — that came later — but his interception brought his Sto-Rox teammates to life.

“Ever since that play, everything changed,” Pearson said. “The energy got way higher than what it was. If our energy was at zero, it went straight up, all the way to 100.”

Sto-Rox (4-0) was ranked first in WPIAL Class 2A, Avonworth (3-1) was second in 3A, and the game had the feeling of two title contenders.

There were five lead changes overall with the last coming on a 2-yard touchdown run by Sto-Rox quarterback Austin Jones with about 10 minutes left.

“This game is a big game,” Pearson said.

Sto-Rox is known for a high-scoring offense, but its big-play defense is gaining attention. The defensive touchdown was team’s fourth in four games, and that wasn’t the only key stop Friday.

Avonworth turned the ball over on downs three times, the last on a fourth-and-2 run in Sto-Rox territory with less than three minutes left. Vikings linemen Vernon Hayward and Damontay Smith combined to tackle Avonworth’s Ian Syam for no gain.

“The defense held solid the whole entire game,” Sto-Rox coach LaRoi Johnson said. “They kept us in the game, and then when they needed to make a play, they made a play.”

Avonworth led 3-0, 10-6 and 16-12.

The Antelopes leaned heavily on their running game and an experienced offensive line. Syam rushed for 135 yards and two touchdowns on 29 carries. He scored on third-quarter runs of 4 and 27 yards.

“We fought for four quarters and didn’t give up,” Johncour said. “We played good, hard-nosed football.”

Syam’s second touchdown run gave Avonworth a 16-12 lead with 33 seconds left in the third.

Sto-Rox answered immediately with an eight-play, 75-yard touchdown drive. Jones completed four passes for 62 yards on the winning possession, setting up his 2-yard touchdown run early in the fourth. Jones went 14 for 23 passing for 176 yards and two interceptions.

Avonworth’s first points came on a 31-yard field goal by Mike Osekowski in the second quarter. Sto-Rox’s other touchdown was a 2-yard run by Taemar Hull in the third.

“This puts us in a position to know who we can be,” Johnson said of the nonconference win. “We know we can win a dogfight. We’ve taken a punch now. We know how it is to take a punch and come back. … We always throw punches and land them, but it’s about being able to take a punch and give one back.”

Pearson’s interception return was the first punch that landed. Facing third-and-14 at its own 18-yard line, Avonworth tried to take advantage of Sto-Rox’s aggression. The Antelopes called a screen pass to running back Brandon Biagiarelli, but Pearson stepped in front of quarterback Nate Harper’s throw.

“We called that screen play late in the first half and it cost us,” Johncour said. “That kid made a beautiful read, a great play, and it made a difference in the game.”

Sto-Rox led 6-3 at half.

“It gave us life,” Johnson said. “It gave us something to hold onto, and that’s what it’s about. I told them, ‘Somebody’s got to step up and make a play. You’ve got two good teams feeling each other out. Somebody just has to step up and make a play.’”

Watch an archived broadcast of this game on Trib HSSN.

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at or via Twitter .

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