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PUNXSUTAWNEY â€” It wasn't officially Senior Night in Punxsutawney Friday night, but entering the game, the Chucks knew it was their seniors' final game, and they honored their eight seniors by grinding their way to a 35-6 victory over the West Shamokin Wolves.
"It was a good finish," Punxsy head coach Alan Nichol said. "Our seniors really wanted to win this game, but they've wanted to win for a while. We've had some low points, but in life, it's how you react when bad things go wrong. Things won't always go your way, but the way these guys handled it, you could see that they continued to play and didn't go taking a bunch of personal fouls. That's because of their character, particularly the leadership of the seniors."
Nichol wasn't done talking about his senior leaders, either.
"We hate to see them go, but we also know they're ready to move on to other challenges," he said. "Some of them are moving on to winter sports, and then later on this year, they'll prepare for their careers. But as a small group, they've held their own. They've won 22 games in three years and were part of a District IX Championship team. Our expectations were very high for them, because they had to practice against some older guys, but they all gave their heart and soul to it. And as juniors, they were part of an undefeated team, so they've got a lot to be proud of."
Things didn't start so well for the Chucks, though.
On its opening drive, Punxsy started from its 27 and marched downfield on a 11-play drive that unfortunately stalled at the other 27 on a fourth-and-13 incomplete pass by Punxsy quarterback Garrett Zimmerman.
Sophomore Cory Brooks earned his first varsity start, and he gained 14 yards on three carries to kick-start the Chucks.
Fullback Jamie Bush also had an eight-yard run and a 10-yard reception to pick up two first downs for Punxsy and keep the drive alive.
The key play for the Wolves on the drive was a third-and-long sack by Andrew Stover, putting the Chucks out of striking range for the first down.
Punxsy's defense earned its first of four turnovers on the fifth play of West Shamokin's first drive when Zimmerman stripped Brady Cornman on an option-keeper to force a fumble. Punxsy's Clayton Dale recovered it, giving the Chucks a first-and-ten.
The ensuing drive didn't last very long for the Chucks, though, as they went three-and-out and were forced to punt.
Zimmerman's punt skipped past the West Shamokin returner, and the ball was downed at the five, pinning the Wolves deep in their own territory.
West Shamokin started to gain some steam behind freshman fullback Zac Horner, who powered the Wolves to three first downs before they tried to get tricky and run a counter sweep.
Punxsy's defense sniffed it out and forced another fumble, and Dale earned his second fumble recovery of the game inside Wolves territory at the 41 to set up the Chucks' first scoring drive.
West Shamokin's run-defense came out strong, stop-ping Brooks and Bush for no gain on separate carries, but an eight-yard pass from Zimmerman to Dale and a three-yard run by Alex Fedigan on fourth-and-three gave the Chucks a new set of downs.
On the next play, Zimmerman dropped back to pass and looked for an open receiver, but when he couldn't find one, he tucked the ball and scrambled for 22 yards to the six.
Horner stopped Fedigan for a loss on first down, but Zimmerman connected with Bush to bring the Chucks within a half-yard of scoring and then pounded the ball in on a quarterback keeper for a 6-0 lead.
The Chucks lined up to kick the extra point, but the holder took the snap, stood up and passed to Bush for a two-point conversion instead.
West Shamokin's running game earned itself a first down on the next drive, but Punxsy's defense stepped up to stop the Wolves, capped by a third-down stop by Hayden Muth on a sweep, setting up a fourth-and-eight.
The Wolves attempted a fake punt, but the direct snap to the up-man bounced off his leg and skipped free. Punxsy senior Jake Shiock recovered to give the Chucks their third turnover in as many drives.
"I think those turnovers were key, because they ran the ball inside better than we wanted them to," Nichol said. "They're a Wing-T team, and we struggled on the edge some this year, so we were determined not to let them get the edge and live with what happened inside. With the exception of one, we did really well covering their counters, leaving us a little vulnerable on the inside. But we left Jamie and Hayden on an island to make sure the Wing-T didn't knock us down. We were fortunate it worked out for us."
Punxsy had three minutes to go 52 yards, and the Chucks used all but 35 seconds of it on a pass-heavy drive that was highlighted instead by two keepers by Zimmerman â€” a 14-yarder on fourth-and-two to keep the drive alive and a 12-yarder to set up first-and-goal.
The final play of the drive at first appeared to be a botched pass, and then to be a run play, as no whistles blew, and Zimmerman ran around the edge to take the ball in for a score.
But as it turned out, the play was actually ruled a pass. Zimmerman threw the ball, it bounced off a lineman's helmet and came back to him, and he ran it in, earning both a passing and receiving touchdown on the same play.
An extra point by Tyler Titus, who earned kicking duties with a good week of practice, gave the Chucks some breathing room at 15-0.
"Tyler Titus kicking stood out for us," Nichol said. "He's been working hard all year. We wanted to compete, he had the best week, and he kicked. That's the kind of young men we have. When someone else is in there, they root for them, but they shine when they get their opportunity. Tyler took it and ran with it."
West Shamokin tried to make the most of the time it had left on the clock, coming out throwing, but two incompletions and an interception by Zimmerman as the clock expired ended the threat. Zimmerman returned the interception into Wolves' territory and almost broke it for a touchdown, but was stopped by the last man he had to beat, keeping the score at 15-0 going into halftime.
Things looked a bit bleak for Punxsy on the Wolves' opening drive of the second half, as they marched 68 yards on 10 plays, capped by a 27-yard run by Cornman and a one-yard touchdown by Horner.
The point after flew just under the crossbar, leaving it a two-score game at 15-6.
Punxsy needed to answer with a big play, and it seemed the Chucks were able to do just that when Fedigan returned the ensuing kickoff 86 yards to the house for a touchdown.
But a yellow flag sat on the field as the Chucks celebrated, and the return was called back for a block-in-the-back well behind the play.
Fedigan seemed to take it personally, and the Chucks kept feeding him the ball, giving him a chance to earn his points back.
After dragging West Shamokin defenders for runs of eight, 16 and seven yards, the Wolves stopped Fedigan on two consecutive plays to set up a fourth-and-one.
Punxsy received the momentum-changing play it needed on fourth down when Fedigan bounced off a West Shamokin defender and ran into the end zone to push the lead to 21-6, where it stayed after the extra point was blocked.
"Alex Fedigan really stepped up tonight," Nichol said. "He's battled some injuries throughout the year, but he played determined and particularly stood out tonight. When he got in there, he was determined, and he wanted that football. It was great to see that."
Punxsy's defense finished strong, holding West Shamokin scoreless for the rest of the game, and the Chucks added two more touchdowns â€” a 24-yard pass from Zimmerman to Dale and a one-yard run by Maruca that was ruled a fumble and recovery â€” to set the final at 35-6.
West Shamokin's last ditch effort came from the arm of backup quarterback Alex Lasslo, who drove the Wolves down the field, but safety Andrew Bullers deflected two passes that would have otherwise been touchdowns to keep the Wolves off the board.
The win was bittersweet for the Chucks, as they knew it would be their last game, and they didn't reach their goal this season.
"We would have liked to win more games this year," Nichol said. "We want to be a championship program. That was our goal, but you don't always reach your goals. It was still a great year with a great bunch of guys. We had some really good and exciting moments this year."
Nichol also wanted to be sure he and his team concluded their season by acknowledging the support they've seen across the board this season.
"I'd like to thank the administrators and school officials for their cooperation throughout the year," he said. "Also, particularly, I'd like to thank the parents. They're special. Their sons are down there, and it gets tough. And finally, the support of the community. I can't tell you how many times I ran into people saying, 'Hey, keep your heads up and keep working.' It's nice to have a supportive fan base, and Punxsutawney is definitely like that."View more articles in: