UPPER PROVIDENCE >> In the larger realm of football, a three-yard pass doesn’t rank as particularly significant.
In the venue of Pope John Paul II’s game with Upper Merion Saturday, it ended up being HUGE.
The Golden Panthers’ tightly-contested Homecoming affair came down to a two-point conversion with no time left, and the Vikings with a tenuous 21-20 lead. The PJP players rewarded themselves, and their faithful fan base, by making the play to come away with a 22-21 victory.
C.J. McCafferty hauled in a toss from Kamal Gray close enough to the goal line to have the officiating crew discuss if it was good. It was ruled as such, and it completed the Panthers’ 47-second comeback from UM’s 21-14 lead established eight seconds earlier.
“I thought I caught it at the goal line,” McCafferty said. “It goes up there with big catches I’ve made.”
PJP’s passing game played a huge role in its last-ditch bid for the win. Gray (17-for-30, 210 yards) completed tosses to Justin Kormos three times — and one apiece to Steve Skarbek and Justin Mitala — before hooking up with Chris Salvo on a six-yard throw to the home side of the field.
Of the six Panthers who had catches on the day, five had two or more. Kormos had six for 43 yards and Skarbek four for 51, with Mitala covering 76 on his two receptions.
“I saw they (UM) were in a cover-four,” head coach Rory Graver noted. “I insisted we take shots. I wanted to get 40 or 30 yards.
“The guys believed they could do it. Having the ball at the 10 with 50 seconds left, the biggest thing you have to do is believe.”
The Golden Panthers (4-1, 8-1) came out fast in this meeting of the Pioneer Athletic Conference’s two second-place Frontier Division schools, scoring on their first possession. Gray hooked up with Kormos on a three-yard toss before collaborating with Mitala on a 58-yard TD at the 9:27 mark.
That lead held up through the remainder of the first half, though Upper Merion (3-2, 5-4) was unable to get on the scoreboard with a 20-yard field goal attempt 18 seconds before halftime. The Vikes, however, got themselves back in the fray inside the first two minutes of the third quarter, Zahir Savage (18 totes, 135 yards) roaring 47 yards up the middle at the 10:06 mark after recovering a PJP fumble on its own 24.
Seven possession changes later, the Panthers went back on top as Gray and A.J. Natale teamed up for a five-yard scoring pass at the 10:21 mark of the fourth quarter. McCafferty set up the drive with his interception of a pass from UM quarterback Dale Clayton (12-for-21, 104 yards) and return to the UM 44.
“Kamal is a competitor,” Graver said. “No one has more confidence out there than him. He made huge plays.”
The Vikings put themselves back in charge over the ensuing nine minutes, using the pass and run to hit paydirt on their next two series. Clayton steered UM 62 yards on nine plays to the PJP one, then went back eight on a penalty and two runs for losses. But his nine-yard pass to Marc Clayton (five catches, 57 yards) pulled the visitors even with 4:01 left in the game.
Holding the Panthers to a three-and-out, Merion got the ball back at its 29 inside the two-minute mark. Michael Zelli gave his team the lead with a 44-yard scamper around his right end with the clock down to 53 seconds. But on Pope John Paul’s deciding drive, the Vikes hurt their chances by getting called for a pass-interference penalty that put the home team inside the 30.
“Everybody’s hurting right now,” UM head coach Victor Brown said. “But I’m proud of the kids. They’ve done this all year, fighting adversity and finding ways to keep competing. I’m proud of what they’ve done.”
It was a particularly memorable afternoon for Natale, who was crowned PJP’s Homecoming king at halftime.
“We didn’t have our best game,” the senior running back said, “but my teammates rallied around me. They didn’t let me get down after two fumbles.”
The Panthers currently stand atop the District 1-3A rankings in advance of the upcoming playoffs. Their immediate focus, even in the ensuing post-game minutes and victory celebration, is next week’s meeting with Spring-Ford during the PAC’s divisional-crossover weekend.
“We have a lot of revenge from last year,” Natale said. “They (Rams) beat us up. We want to be competitive.”
“They’ll be a giant task for us,” Graver added. “We’ll be out to do our best.”
NOTES >> Kevin Jainlet was a particular force for UM’s defense, recording three sacks. Ahmad Stone and Carter Besz also contributed fumble recoveries. … Sophia Bonanno was crowned Pope John Paul’s Homecoming queen. The court also included Panther players John Wagner and Brandon Snyder as escorts alongside Natale.
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